In Search of a Travel Notebook

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Tim Higgins


I recently decided that my 7-or-so pound Dell Inspiron 4100 notebook was getting too heavy to lug around trade shows. Fortunately, even though notebooks still command a price premium over similarly-powered desktop machines, a notebook buyer’s dollar goes much further today than it did even a year ago. And the deals that abounded during this past holiday buying season finally spurred me into action.

But how to choose? Anyone who has gone through the exercise of buying a notebook computer knows that it’s a highly personal process. One person’s “slim and light” is another’s “big and heavy” (not that you’d find the latter used in a notebook marketing pitch…) and in the end, the machine that’s right for you might not light someone else’s fire.

Since my prospective mobile partner would not be my main machine and used only when I travel (or am testing wireless adapters), my key selection criteria boiled down to weight, battery life, and touchpad mouse control. And since I expected to replace my purchase within 2 years or so (technology marches on…), I didn’t want to pay a lot to ease the strain on my back at shows. “A lot” in my case meant that I was looking to part with something in the neighborhood of around $1000, with the lower-rent part of the neighborhood being more desirable.

What follows is a mostly subjective, but partially objective look at the process I went through to decide on the machine that would be my next travel partner.

The Contenders

I’ve come to turn to the folks over at Engadget to keep up with the latest in notebooks and virtually everything else new and techy, so I scoured their Laptops section for ideas. I also consulted with my colleagues over at TomsHardware for their recommendations, taking a look at their mobile product reviews and asking for their recommendations. And, of course, I turned to our present-day oracle – Google – to see what it came up with, too.

Before I give you my short list (and to try to head off the “why didn’t you…” mail that’s sure to come), I’ll first tell you the machines I considered, but that didn’t make the list. The IBM Thinkpad X40 and Sony VAIO T-series certainly are light enough and attractively small, but waaay too expensive. The Thinkpad’s use of an external USB-cabled optical drive didn’t appeal to me either and established another criteria – a built-in optical drive, preferably swappable for an extra battery.

I used Dell’s Notebook Advisor which, based on my preferences, quickly directed me to their Inspiron 600m, Latitude D600 and new Inspiron 700m. But the Inspiron 600M was too beefy for my taste at just shy of 5 lbs with its “Dell TravelLiteTM module” (never did find out what that is…) and 5.3 pounds with CD drive. The Latitude D600 was also rejected for fuzziness around its weight when configured to do real work (it started out at 4.68 pounds with 4-cell battery and “travel module”).

The Inspiron 700m might have made the cut, but reviews about its short battery life and lack of information on weight with the extended-life battery that seemed universally recommended (and info on how / where it mounted) prompted me to move the 700m to the “maybe” pile that I never got to.

Turning to my short list, Averatec’s 3250 was one that made the cut. But although Averatec said they could supply one for review, they didn’t follow through and actually deliver. So my real short list turned out to contain just three: the Apple iBook, Fujitsu S2020, and Fujitsu P7010.

I’ll get into my likes and dislikes for each of the finalists in a bit, but first thought it would be good to let some pictures do the talkin’ for some size comparisons.

Size and Weight

Since the iBook wasn’t able to stay for the duration of my evaluation, I apologize that I couldn’t get comparison photos with all four notebooks at once. Figure 1 shows how the iBook, Fujitsu P7010 and my current “reference” Dell Inspiron 4100 literally stack up while Figure 2 does the same for the P7010 and Dell with the Fujitsu S2020.

iBook, P7010, Inspiron 4100 footprints

Figure 1: iBook, P7010, Inspiron 4100 footprints

(click image to enlarge)

The P7010 is definitely the smallest and lightest of the bunch and, of course, the most expensive and really out of my desired price range. But I couldn’t resist checking it out in hope that its size and weight advantages would win me over.

The iBook was a bit thicker than I’d like even though its ~5 pound weight was lighter than the Dell’s. But I was surprised that the less than 1 pound difference between it and the S2020 really was noticeable.

P7010, S2020, Inspiron 4100 footprints

Figure 2: P7010, S2020, Inspiron 4100 footprints

(click image to enlarge)

Figure 2 shows that the S2020’s footprint isn’t really that much smaller than the Inspiron’s. But Figure 3 shows that it’s definitely thinner, and surprisingly, about as thin as the P7010!

P7010, S2020, Inspiron 4100 stackup

Figure 3: P7010, S2020, Inspiron 4100 stackup

(click image to enlarge)

Keyboards and screens

Size and weight are nice but the keyboard and display is where we reach out and touch these little wonders. In my case, it was where the P7010 and I parted company. Here is a look at each of the keyboards.

Figure 4 shows my current Dell’s keyboard, which I came to appreciate more and more while looking at its prospective replacements. The key to its expansive layout is that it doesn’t cram everything into a strict rectangular area. The layout moves the arrow key cluster down and adds a row for some of the function keys at the top. The result is very comfortable to type on and requires virtually no adjustment from using my desktop keyboard.

Inspiron 4100 keyboard

Figure 4: Inspiron 4100 keyboard

(click image to enlarge)

I liked the iBook keyboard (sorry for not being able to get the ruler in there since this shot came from Apple’s quicktime VR iBook tour) shown in Figure 5. At least for my taste, Apple made the correct tradeoffs in stealing space from the seldom-used top row of function keys and lower-right arrow-key cluster. This leaves space for two equally-sized shift keys and same-sized other keys in that row – which includes the oft-used period, comma and slash punctuation keys.

iBook keyboard

Figure 5: iBook keyboard

The S2020’s keyboard (Figure 6) definitely required adjustment, since Fujitsu’s approach to keyboard shrinkage is to shrink keys in the shift-key row. To my taste, this is not a good approach, since you end up with a small right-hand shift key and tiny period and backslash keys. The fact that the comma key stays (relatively) full-sized doesn’t help much, since I found my fingers constantly hitting the wrong one.

S2020 keyboard

Figure 6: S2020 keyboard

(click image to enlarge)

Figure 7 shows that Fujitsu took the same approach for the P7010, but shrank everything just a bit more, to fit the available space in the even-smaller footprint.

P7010 keyboard

Figure 7: P7010 keyboard

(click image to enlarge)

I don’t have the fattest fingers in the world, but apparently, they’re too big for me to touch-type comfortably on the P7010 – at least not without a longer adjustment period. And I might have been willing to do that, except that the P7010 had one more challenge for me – its screen.

I tried to take some comparative pictures of the S2020 and P7010 screens, but I had neither the time nor patience to figure out correct exposure settings in order to get them to come out correctly. But while I knew that the P7010’s screen would be harder to read than my Dell’s, I didn’t realize how small it would be until I saw it!

While the P7010’s screen is as gorgeous, clear and bright as other reviewers have pointed out, its native resolution of 1280 by 768 pixels in only a 10.5 inch diagonal screen yields a dot pitch just too small for me. Actually, its screen could work if I mostly used it at an elevated desk height. But since a mobile notebook spends a good deal of time in my lap, this just wasn’t going to work – especially at the top price that I’d have to spend!

Apple iBook

So with the P7010 out of the competition, it was down to the iBook and S2020. I have to confess that the iBook was a long shot in this exercise because, like it or not, I must deal with primarily Windows-based products in my product review work. Still, the (just) under 5 pound weight and fond memories of my days with my Powerbook Duo 210 and Mac IIci made me take a closer look.

Apple’s update of the design last fall to boost the processor speed and make the optional Airport Extreme 11g module standard, while maintaining a $999 entry price point got me right up to the “buy” threshold. So all it took was a $150 holiday-season rebate on Amazon (bringing the price to a very reasonable $850) and I had one on its way. By the way, kudos to Amazon for being one of the few e-tailers to keep restocking charges out of its buying experience!

In my book, Apple is still the best in terms of overall product design, with lots of thoughful design touches packed into the iBook’s snow-white shell. Here are my likes:

  • One-hand open – Pressing on the single lid latch on the front caused the screen / lid to spring up slightly so that you can slip a few fingers under it. The pressure required to lift the lid was such that you could do it without having to hold down the bottom half with your other hand.

    For comparison, the P7010 has no latching mechanism and requires a two-hand pry-apart to get open. The S2020 has a single center latch, which requires an awkward head-on push to open. The lid then doesn’t really pop open clear of the latch and the still hinge requires a two-hand open.

  • Power adapter – Although squarish rather than the usual rectangular brick design, the iBook’s adapter is designed for travel. It comes with both a flip-out plug (for US outlets) that allows it to plug right into an outlet. This plug is a removable module that can be replaced with a cord (supplied) in case you need a longer reach.

    It also has flip-up “ears” that allow you to wrap the DC power cord around them for storage. This design not only takes up less space in your computer travel bag, but makes quick recharge stops at airport outlets easy. And did I mention the two-color light built into the DC plug that changes to show charge status? Figure 8 gives you an idea of the iBook’s adapter stacked up against some of the competition.

iBook, P7010, Inspiron 4100 bricks

Figure 8: iBook, P7010, Inspiron 4100 bricks

(click image to enlarge)
  • Networking – Although it took a bit of poking around and getting used to Apple’s simpler way of doing things, I found that OS X made the iBook right at home on my mainly Windows network and I had no problem finding shares in either direction. And wireless connection was ridiculously simple, though I have to confess my test network was running without encryption.

But there were also some things that I didn’t care for:

  • Screen – I was disappointed at the brightness and clarity of the iBook display. Even when I cranked it all the way up, it didn’t match the brightness of the two Fujitsu machines

  • Speakers – Every notebook I’ve ever used has crappy (and I’m being kind) speakers and the iBook is no exception. But this isn’t really a deciding factor for me

  • Battery options – Simply put, there aren’t any. You can’t upgrade the battery to one with more staying power and there is no second-battery option. Update January 23, 2005 I will note, however, that I got at least three hours of web browsing and email via a wireless connection with the battery supplied and the battery indicator said there was still over an hour of power left.

  • No PC card slot – Since one of the things I use my notebook for is testing wireless adapter cards, this is a potential show-stopper. But given that I’d have to run a Windows emulator to use any of the cards, which would extract a speed penalty and cause me to understate wireless performance, it ended up not mattering.

In the end, though, I couldn’t justify spending almost $900 on a notebook that couldn’t be used for one of its two key applications (wireless adapter testing). So sadly, the iBook dropped out of the competition.

Last Notebook Standing

So, out of my candidates, it came down to the Fujitsu S2020, which by coincidence turned out to be what my colleague Harald Thon over at TomsHardware suggested when I first started looking for a new notebook. Harald does most of the notebook reviews at Toms and had told me that he’d tried the P7010 and come to the same conclusion as I had – nice machine, but too small for comfortable work. He found that his S2020, though, was comfortable to work on and had held up well in all his travels.

The real deal-sealer came, however, when I started researching prices using Pricegrabber (my favorite shopping tool) and found a stripped configuration of the S2020 for only $700 on Zones! (Don’t bother checking, they’re long gone!) Although it was only a 256MB / 30GB configuration with CDROM and no built-in wireless (FPCM40951), heck, for that price I could spend a little more and do any upgrading myself.

I was able to get my S2020 in time for my trek to the CES2005 show and gave it a real-world initiation. I’m generally pleased with my purchase (especially for what I paid), but have the following reflections to report.

Since the S2020 has a swap-bay, I purchased the battery that fits into it direct from Fujitsu. I’m glad I spent the $125 on the battery, since it expanded my outlet-less time to somewhere between 5 and 6 hours (no wireless, screen turned low), which came in handy for writing my report at the airport and on the plane home. But I wish the S2020’s design were like my Inspiron 4100, whose dual swap-bay design can hold two of the same flavor battery.

Travel weight turned out to be fine, even with the second battery, power brick and CDROM toted along. I found I could leave the second battery in my hotel room during my days at the show, since the Press room had outlets available at all workstations. I do wish that Fujitsu included a travel sleeve with the bay battery, which could protect either it or the CDROM from harm in my computer bag.

The main annoyances are the S2020’s internal fan and those darned undersized period, backslash and right-hand shift keys. I found I had to ferret out erroneous commas and periods frequently – which I found harder than I expected to do given the relatively thin Courier font that I favor for writing.

The fan is really noisy and briefly spins up full-blast to announce each boot and wake from sleep mode. I found it also ran more than I expected it would, especially since I didn’t think that my web browsing, email reading and writing with Dreamweaver was that processor intensive!

My other annoyance is that the power brick has no power light and the only charge indicator is on an LCD screen that you must open the notebook screen to see. I found this a real pain when trying to do some quick airport power top-ups and found out the hard way that some airports are pretty stingy with power!

But I (and especially my back) are generally pleased with the purchase and look forward to many happy travel hours until it’s time to do this little exercise over again. In the meantime, if you happen to run across one of these without built-in wireless, don’t believe Fujitsu when they tell you it can’t be field upgraded (that was the official response to my query to Fujitsu Tech Support). With a little help from Google, I was able to do it myself. But I’ll save the description of that little project for another time.

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