Laptop of the Month: Gateway Solo 3350

The Gateway Solo 3350 is an ultra-light, ultra-portable laptop housed in a tough little case that's more solid and durable than the cases most of the bigger portables use. Designed largely for business users who care more about portability than multimedia features, the Gateway Solo is a capable and attractive solution. The test unit I received features a 600MHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard disk, a 12" XGA (1024 x 768) display, and a port replicator with an external CD-ROM (not CD-RW) drive. As tested, the Gateway Solo 3350 costs about $2700.

When you choose an ultra-mobile over a midsized laptop, you give up several features, but I was surprised to see that the trade-offs were decidedly worth it in this case. The Gateway Solo 3350 includes only a single mono speaker, so you'll need headphones or external speakers to get decent sound. You can't add a removable storage device (e.g., CD, CD-RW, DVD, ZIP) to the 3350 internally. And the laptop has only one PC card slot and one USB port on the unit, although networking and modem are built in, which is excellent. Some might take issue with the small screen, but I found it acceptable, given its bright colors and clear text. And the Gateway's saving grace, the excellent keyboard, places it at a level other machines in this market, such as the tiny Sony VAIOs, can't match. On the smaller Sonys, the keyboard is 80 to 85 percent the size of a full-sized keyboard, which is probably fine for many people. However, I'm not average: At about 6' and 220 pounds, I can barely fit in a typical airplane seat let alone touch type on a Sony Picturebook keyboard. But the Gateway's keyboard is perfect for touch typing, and I was quickly tapping away at full speed, with the one caveat mentioned below. In short, the Gateway doesn't sacrifice usability for size, as other ultra-lights do.

And ultra-light it is: The device itself weighs a paltry 3.5 pounds, which feels like a Frisbee compared to the midsized Dell and Compaq units I'd used before. The Gateway Solo 3350 is so light, in fact, that I actually checked my bag twice to make sure I had it with me. And because the device is so small, I could open it and work anywhere--even in a cramped coach seat. I'd never try that with a midsized or larger notebook, fearing that the person in front of me would suddenly ratchet the seat back and send the LCD to laptop heaven.

The Gateway Solo 3350 has some small problems, but they mostly reflect the type of machine rather than the particular make and model. Because the unit is so thin, the hard disk's sound can be conspicuous, although it isn't an issue during flights. The unit has only one USB port, which is curiously located near the front left side. I prefer two USB ports--and would gladly give up the included parallel port in trade. The plug for the power cord is decidedly small. And the keyboard layout isn't optimal: The Page Up and Page Down keys are at the lower right on the keyboard, directly above the arrow keys, and I kept hitting them while in Word, inadvertently sending the document scrolling.

Overall, performance was admirable, although battery life was relatively short; another side effect of the form factor is that you can use only one battery at a time. I recommend getting a second battery (you should get a second battery for any laptop), especially if you fly cross country. Each battery usually offered between 2 and 2.5 hours of use, far less than the 4 hours I received with the bigger and heavier Dell Inspiron 4000. And machines in the Gateway Solo 3350 segment tend to use midlevel Pentium III processors running at 500MHz to 600MHz (because of heat dissipation problems) rather than the latest and greatest chips. I didn't find performance a problem, but the unit can get hot at times, especially if it's not sitting on a hard, flat surface. Anyone who has used Windows 2000 for a while will tell you that RAM is a much more important factor than processor speed, and I'd recommend bumping down the processor speed a bit and going with more RAM. On the other hand, most business users will find 128MB acceptable.

I had asked Gateway to outfit the Solo 3350 with its most popular configuration, rather than loaning me a maxed-out uber-box. However, I was surprised to get a plain-vanilla CD-ROM drive, rather than a CD-R, CD-RW, or DVD drive. My complaint isn't about the Gateway Solo 3350 specifically, but rather an observation about business travel in general: If you can get only one removable storage device, make sure it's a CD-R/CD-RW, so you can archive data as well as be prepared for any potential system problems. If you can get two drives, get DVD as well. One of the few times a PC-based DVD drive is worth the price is when you're on the road and want to watch a movie: DVDs are highly portable and make for excellent entertainment when you're far from home. On that note, the Gateway Solo 3350's external drives will set you back a bit more than comparable internal drives for a midsized system. The cost isn't Gateway's fault; this is the case with all ultra-mobile units.

Because the Solo didn't compromise usability for portability, I quickly fell for this system and will be sad to see it go. In fact, the Gateway Solo 3350 and other machines like it (e.g., the Dell Latitude LS is almost identical) might very well be the biggest growth trend for portable computers. As inconceivable as this statement might have sounded even a year ago, we're quickly entering a new laptop era, in which performance and usability need not be sacrificed for size and weight. The Gateway Solo 3350 is such a device.

For more information, please visit the Gateway Web site.

TAGS: Windows 8
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