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Mobile Mishaps and the Laptop of the Month

The past few laptop models I've reviewed for my laptop-of-the-month columns have been what I call thin-and-light devices—ultra-mobile notebooks, generally without any internal optical disks, that sacrifice raw computing power for mobility, battery life, and low weight. These three characteristics are important to the frequent traveler, and although I'm not always on the road, my travels over the past few months have made me reconsider what's important in such a device. This month's laptop—the IBM ThinkPad X30, which I discuss below—has many of the same benefits and problems of the previous laptops I've reviewed. Fortunately, I've uncovered a few key components you can tune to make a laptop truly roadworthy.

As I've noted previously in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, using a laptop is often an exercise in compromise. Although you can purchase true desktop replacement machines with beefy hard disks, enormous high-resolution screens, up to two optical disks, and mobile Pentium 4 processors that meet or exceed anything you'd see in a modern PC desktop, these devices are enormous and prohibitively heavy. I've carted various desktop replacements around the country over the years, and although I'm a big guy, such machines are unwieldy; I don't understand how others use them on the road.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the thin-and-light machines. These devices generally feature no internal optical disk (although the Fujitsu S6010 I tested in July bucks this trend), forcing users to use an external disk (bad) or a docking slice (good), although a docking slice generally provides more battery power at the expense of added weight. (Curiously, some slices don't add extra battery power; avoid these machines because the extra electronics will further diminish the life of your existing battery.) Thin-and-light machines usually feature mobile Pentium III processors, which top out at about 1.33GHz, smaller hard disks, and more stringent battery-saving techniques. Often, they include shared video memory, which further reduces performance, and a mono speaker (although headphone connections are in stereo).

Somewhere between these two extremes, another class of laptop devices exists that I'll call mainstream laptops. Although the size, weight, and processing power of these machines tend to fall in between the thin-and-light models and the desktop replacement models, you can find some models with high-end Pentium 4 chips.

I spent much of the past year traveling with various thin-and-light models, expecting that convenience and light weight would outweigh the performance trade-offs. So far, I've been disappointed. Looking back over my notes, some trends emerge. The machines delivered lackluster performance, slowing to a crawl when two or more top-tier applications (e.g., Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Word) are running simultaneously. I usually run more than two applications at once, but I've learned to pare back my habits on the road.

However, I've finally figured out where the thin-and-light models' performance problems lie. On most thin-and-light laptops, shared video memory saps 8MB to 16MB of RAM, which can be fatal on a Windows XP-based laptop with just 256MB. I suggest you find a machine that features a video adapter with dedicated video memory instead of a device that uses shared video memory. Laptop makers use shared video memory because it saves battery life; in my experience, this configuration is often prohibitively slow. Also, consider upgrading the RAM. Increasing the RAM on the ThinkPad X30 (reviewed below) from 256MB to 384MB of RAM paid off in immediate performance benefits, and increasing the memory to 512MB further improved performance. Finally, test the machine with CPU power management turned off. Modern mobile processors use slower clock speeds when running on battery power. This functionality saves battery life, but it also kills performance.

The IBM ThinkPad X30
This month's Laptop of the Month, the IBM ThinkPad X30, is a stunningly crafted machine with ultra-low weight (about 3.5 pounds); a tiny, easy-to-use keyboard; and the same excellent feature set one expects from the company that makes the pinnacle of laptops. ThinkPads usually rise above the mediocrity that grips other laptop lines, and the X30 is no exception.

The X30 I tested features a 12" XGA (1024 x 768 pixels) screen, a 1.2GHz Pentium III-M processor, 256MB of RAM (248MB after the video adapter takes its share), an impressive 40GB hard disk, and a staggering array of ports, including one CompactFlash port, one PC Card slot, two USB ports, one nonpowered FireWire port, and parallel, serial, Ethernet, and modem ports. The X30 offers state-of-the-art mobility with its integrated 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless capabilities.

The X30 includes some interesting add-on features. You can get a media slice, which I like, although the review unit shipped with an external USB-based CD-ROM drive. IBM offers external DVD, CD-RW, and combination drives, any of which would have been preferable to the CD-ROM drive. But IBM did send an external battery that plugs into the bottom of the unit, increasing the laptop's weight to about 5 pounds and extending battery life past an unbelievable 7.5 hours. I took this machine on two massive road trips this month, and battery life was never a concern. I can't overstate how important battery life is. If you get an X30, get the external battery.

Like other thin-and-light models I've reviewed, however, the X30 has some problems. Performance was subpar until I increased the RAM. The "n" key stuck occasionally, making typing difficult. And the machine sometimes came out of hibernation mode on its own, which was a curiosity at first, then an annoyance when the machine woke up in my hotel room with the screen open, casting the room in blue light and waking me up. I eventually learned to shut down the device, but if this problem affects all X30s, IBM needs to develop a fix.

The X30, like all ThinkPads, comes at a premium. Configured as reviewed, the X30 will set you back about $2800 (or $3000 with the maximum 768MB of RAM). You can configure a model with dedicated video RAM, which I recommend. The X30 will satisfy the frequent traveler, assuming you take steps to overcome the device's performance limitations. Combine IBM's excellent hardware with the optional external battery, and you probably won't be disappointed.

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