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A Tale of Three Notebooks

Until recently, I'd been reviewing notebook computers regularly in Windows IT Pro Magazine UPDATE. This year, however, I stopped doing so, at least temporarily: With all the other hardware and software that comes in and out of my office on a regular basis, I have little time to keep track of the latest models, and there's only so much one person can do. That said, I've had several interesting notebooks cross my desk during the past 6 months or so, and this week I'd like to discuss them.

The timing for a notebook review couldn't be better: Last month, for the first time ever, notebook computer sales outpaced those of desktop PCs. So looking forward, I'd like your feedback. Should I go back to regularly reviewing laptops in this newsletter? Another option would be to move them to the SuperSite for Windows ( ), where I could include longer reviews and photos of the devices. I could simply link to those reviews from this newsletter. Right now, I'm favoring that approach.

In the meantime, I have some catching up to do. The three notebooks I review here address different markets and are, in my mind, the best solutions available in their respective markets.

Thin and Light: HP Pavilion dv1000 Series
Although not aimed specifically at the corporate crowd, the HP Pavilion dv1000 has several unique features that make it the perfect road companion. First, it has a surprisingly comfortable 14" 1280 x 768 widescreen display that comes in both standard and BrightView versions (the latter offers a stunning view but is prone to glare). I prefer widescreens but am disappointed in the smaller widescreen models I'd previously seen, which typically feature small keyboards.

Unlike many smaller notebooks, the Pavilion dv1000 includes an integrated optical drive, and although you can configure the machine with a fixed DVD or DVD/CD-ROM combo drive, the inexpensive Pavilion DV1001US I use features a writeable DVD drive--which is astonishing. All Pavilion dv1000 series machines also feature 6-in-1 media readers--a godsend; Ethernet and wireless communications (plus Bluetooth on some models); three USB 2.0 ports; one FireWire (IEEE 1394) port; and a PC card slot. The units typically ship with 512MB of RAM (the minimum you should request these days) and are expandable to 2GB of RAM.

You can configure a Pavilion dv1000 with a range of processors, from a budget-friendly 1.3GHz Intel Celeron M to a speedy 1.86GHz Intel Pentium M. Hard disks are available in capacities of 40GB to 100GB. The keyboard is rock steady and comfortable, and the bundled QuickPlay firmware lets you boot instantly into a special Linux-based DVD player mode that bypasses Windows and saves battery life. It also has a handy switch that turns off the trackpad.

The Pavilion dv1000 series is bargain priced. Units start at just $719, which is surprisingly low given its high build quality and large feature set. Frequent travelers will want to consider a second battery, but that's true of any notebook. The Pavilion dv1000 is an amazing combination of size and performance.

Mainstream Business Notebook: Lenovo ThinkPad T43
Lenovo Group's latest T-series ThinkPad, the ThinkPad T43, continues the tradition of excellence that has always marked the high end of the ThinkPad product line. The ThinkPad T43 adds a PCI Express-based motherboard with ATI Mobility X300 graphics, Gigabit Ethernet, the IBM Embedded Security Subsystem and Integrated Fingerprint Reader for security, and the patented IBM Active Protection System, which protects the hard disk from losing data in a bad fall.

Like earlier ThinkPad T series machines I've used, the T43 provides an industry-best keyboard feel, although I hope the recent sale to Lenovo will result in the addition of a Windows key, a feature IBM refused to add. The machine includes the legendary ThinkPad eraser head pointing stick, which I prefer, and a more standard trackpad. You can configure a ThinkPad T43 with a 14" or 15" standard aspect ratio display, typically with resolutions of 1024 x 768 or 1440 x 1050. The display is wonderful, but I prefer widescreens and would like to see Lenovo move in that direction.

Available with 1.6GHz or 1.86GHz Pentium M processors, the ThinkPad T43 is a speedy notebook, but I suspect the X300 graphics chip, with its dedicated 64MB of RAM, is more than partially responsible. One small concern: The unit includes just two USB 2.0 ports, which are right on top of each other. Beyond that, the ThinkPad T43 is almost infinitely configurable with a wide range of options. The test unit featured a low-profile removable CD-RW/DVD combo drive, but numerous other optical disks are available, as are various RAM, hard disk, and battery allotments.

One buys ThinkPad products because of the quality and support, and the T43 is the nicest ThinkPad yet. Add some widescreen display options and a few more USB ports, and it would be perfect. ThinkPad T43s are expensive, however. A system like the one I tested costs just under $2000, although you can get lower-end T-series ThinkPads for as low as $1300.

Desktop Replacement: Dell Latitude D810
I lugged around a massive Dell Latitude D800 for more than a year and absolutely loved it. Although large and heavy, the Latitude D800 offered muscular performance, thanks to a 1.6GHz Pentium M processor, and surprisingly good battery life. When Dell offered to replace the unit with a newer Latitude D810 model, I wasn't sure whether I even wanted the upgrade because my experience with the previous version was so positive.

I shouldn't have waited. I'm now traveling with the Latitude D810, and in most aspects, it's as good or better than the Latitude D800. So what's different? Although the machines appear to be physically identical, there are subtle but important differences. First, the D810 model is about an inch shorter than the D800, and almost an inch less wide. That's a big difference for a notebook computer, and it pays off in both size and weight.

The port allotment is similar, although the Latitude D810 loses the D800's parallel printer port and, sadly, its FireWire port (Dell tells me that its corporate customers have no interest in such a port). It does, however, pick up a smart card port, and a few ports, such as the microphone and headphone jacks, have moved around.

Although the keyboard hasn't really changed, it's more securely attached and doesn't jump around as you type, answering one of my key complaints about the Latitude D800. The Latitude D810's trackpad is of much higher quality than the version on the D800, but it retains the awful Dell pointing stick, whose buttons--unchanged from the previous version--remain as useless as ever. The Latitude D810 features more ventilation slots and bigger shock-absorbing rubber feet, but is otherwise visually similar to the Latitude D800. And of course, all D-series Latitudes remain compatible across all accessories, including batteries, optical drives, and so on.

Like the Latitude D800, the D810 is available in a variety of configurations. The test unit features a 2GHz Pentium M processor, 1GB of RAM, 802.11g/Ethernet/Bluetooth networking, a PCI Express-based motherboard with Intel's new 915 chipset, and ATI Radeon X600 graphics with 128MB of RAM. You can configure the massive widescreen display with three resolutions; the unit I'm using has the middle resolution, a sweeping 1680 x 1050. Yes, it's a monster, but as was the case with the Latitude D800 at the time, the Latitude D810 is virtually as powerful as my desktop computer.

Dell's prices are predictably competitive. A base Latitude D810 costs about $1200, although my test unit would be more than $2000. If you're looking for a no-compromises desktop replacement that actually travels well, I can't think of a better choice.

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