Two Lightweight Notebooks Duke it Out

by Scott Koegler

As notebooks become lighter on the back and the wallet, they make more sense for small business owners on the move.

Designing laptop computers has always been an exercise in pushing the limits of technology to create the smallest, lightest, best performing computer, yet still offer it at an attractive price. The current crop of "thin and light" laptops includes the IBM ThinkPad X40 and Toshiba's Portege R100 — fine examples of combining great engineering and advanced technology with features and pricing that business people need. Both notebooks avoid the stratospheric prices usually associated with highly advanced technology, with street prices below $2,000.

IBM's ThinkPad X40
The ThinkPad X40 offers 512MB of memory and disaster recovery software.

Built around a Pentium M 1.0GHz processor, the Portege R100 comes with 256MB SDRAM, while the Thinkpad X40 is a bit more robust with a 1.20GHz Pentium M Processor and 512MB SDRAM. Both notebooks use tiny 2.5-inch 40GB hard drives that spin at 4200 rpm — considerably slower than the 7200 rpm drives you'll find on desktop systems.

The configurations mean that both laptops make great tools for office applications like word processing, spreadsheets, Web research and e-mail. However, if you work with programs that require heavy duty processing power and speed — such as video or sound processing applications — these aren't the notebooks for you.

Battery Power Causes Weight Gain
Both of these "barely-there" laptops are super-portable and geared for business people who need to have a capable computer with them all the time. At 2.4 pounds, the Portege R100 weighs almost one pound less than the 3.2 pound ThinkPad, even though both sport the same size displays and hard drive capacity.

Toshiba's Portege R100
The Toshiba R100 weighs nearly a pound less than IBM's ThinkPad.

Be advised, however, battery life could be an issue for people who need a computer for a full working day but might not have access to an AC outlet. If that's the case, the standard batteries on both of these notebooks will not make you happy. Toshiba and IBM both claim about 3.5 hours of operation with the standard battery, though our testing shows the ThinkPad comes closer, at just over 3 hours.

The Portege lasts just over 2 hours. Adding the optional supplementary battery gives you substantially more time (around six hours for the Portege and 10 for the ThinkPad) but also adds weight to the equation. An extra battery for the Portege costs $199 and adds just less than eight ounces, while the ThinkPad battery runs $179 and adds just under a pound of extra weight.

Get Connected
The R100 and the X40 both include built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi, but the X40 also supports 802.11g, which delivers a faster connection. By the same token, you'll find a 10/100 base-T Ethernet port on both units. However the X40's Ethernet connection also connects at Gigabit speed. Faster network connection speeds may be important in an office setting, but since people using these PCs are most likely to use the wireless connection, it may not be an issue.

Notebook PCs Compared
 Toshiba Portege R100 (Model ULV)IBM ThinkPad X40 (Model 23868EU)
Weight2.4 pounds3.2 pounds
Processor and Memory1.0GHz Pentium M processor; 256MB SDRAM1.20GHz Pentium M processor; 512MB SDRAM
Display12.1" TFT (1024 x 768)12.1" TFT (1024 x 768)
Connectivity802.11b, 10/100base T Ethernet, V.92 modem844,432
Ports2-USB2 1-SD slot, 1-PCMCIA2-USB21-PCMCIA infrared 1-SD slot
Standard Battery Life2+ hrs3+ hrs
Storage40GB HDD (4200 rpm), optional external DVD-ROM40GB HDD (4200 rpm), optional external CD-RW/DVD-ROM
Pointing DeviceTouchpadTrackPoint
Operating SystemXP ProXP Pro
Street Price$1,999$1,899

Although both units support USB2, neither has a Firewire port. Neglecting Firewire connectivity seems an important oversight since both notebooks rely on external DVD/CD devices, and because of the increasing popularity of music devices like the iPod.

Extras, Extras
In order to keep notebook size and weight to a minimum, Toshiba and IBM have stripped any feature that's not essential for daily use. You add the standard desktop PC features (keyboard, mouse, external monitor, DVD/CD drive, etc.) by using the optional docking station available for each laptop. And speaking of connectivity, both units support Bluetooth — it's built in to several of the models of ThinkPad X40. It's available on Toshiba's R100 as an optional SD card.

The ThinkPad X40 includes IBM's Rescue and Recovery with Rapid Restore software. According to IBM, this feature allows a user to recover from certain kinds of data loss disasters by restoring a previously saved copy of your system. This could be a lifesaver if you're on the road and your laptop suddenly stops working.

Bang for the Buck
While the ThinkPad X40 delivers more features at a lower price than the Portege R100, not all of the features may be important to you. If you're most concerned about the weight you will be carrying with you, the R100 saves you about a pound. And even though the ThinkPad X40's processor is rated at 1.2Ghz versus the R100's 1.0Ghz, it's not likely this difference will be noticeable while you're browsing the Internet or working with e-mail.

No matter which notebook you choose, you'll have a light load and enough computing power to get through your daily activities... as long as there's a electrical outlet nearby or you packed an extra battery.

Scott Koegler has been in the technology field for more than 25 years, and has written a book about systems integration as well as hundreds of articles about computers, software, digital photography, and networking over the last 12 years. He has been an IT executive in industries as diverse as health care, printing, and custom apparel.

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This article was originally published on Thursday May 27th 2004
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