Wireless warriors for the road

The mobile market is booming as users discover the convenience of walking around the office, computer in hand, and collaborating with colleagues.

They’re also discovering they can tune out during boring meetings and do e-mail if their laptop is equipped with a wireless network interface.

I regularly watch co-workers diligently typing away, catching up on correspondence while the presenter talks. Rude, yes, but a fact of our electronic life these days.

I’ve also watched fellow passengers on long flights watching the movie of their choice on a laptop rather than suffer through the mundane airline fare.

That means laptops have to keep up. They need integrated wireless. They need decent optical drives. And, most importantly, they need the battery life to power all of these activities.

We gathered seven laptops from both familiar and unfamiliar vendors and put them through their paces. The selection criteria: They must have integrated wireless, they must have an integrated optical drive (hauling around and connecting external drives just doesn’t cut it these days), and they must weigh five pounds or less.

We tested with a combination of normal business usage and benchmark software (FutureMark’s PCMark 2002). All timings were made with wireless active; you can count on extra battery life if you turn it off.

The results may surprise you.

Price: $3,299
CPU speed: 1.6
GHz Hard Disk: 70 GB
Weight: 5 lb
Warranty: 3 years

LG is new to laptops, and the LM50 is the top of the line. With its 15-inch screen, it just squeaked under the weight limit; its smaller but otherwise identical sibling, the LM40, has a 14.1-inch screen and weighs about four and a half pounds.

The machines come with 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11b/g wireless, a 56K modem, three USB 2.0 ports, IEEE 1394, S-video, external video, and a parallel port.

Buttons above the keyboard control speaker volume. The optical drive is a combo DVD reader and CD-RW.

Thanks to the larger screen, the keyboard can be pretty much full-sized and is quite comfortable to use.

Bundled software consists of Norton Anti-Virus 2004, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and a couple of utilities to optimize the battery and assist with switching networks if you move among locations.

One omission: the other machines all ran Java applets on Web pages with no problems, but I had to go to the Sun site and download Java onto the LM50 (Microsoft no longer provides it as part of the Web browser).

Performance was brisk – this was the second fastest machine in the benchmark. Battery life was adequate, given the larger screen, at six hours.

I suspect the LM40 would acquit itself much better, since the display is one of the biggest power-gobblers on a laptop.

Fujitsu LifeBook S7010D
Price: $3,319
CPU speed: 1.7
GHz Hard Disk: 80 GB
Weight: 4.3 lb
Warranty: 3 years

The LifeBook’s performance was in the middle of the pack in this group. It wasn’t the fastest, or the slowest, in any category.

It is, however, a very well-configured machine, with three USB 2.0 ports; 4 Mbps infrared, gigabit Ethernet; Bluetooth (short-range wireless primarily for inter-device communications); IEEE 1394 (FireWire); modem; external monitor; headphone; microphone and line-in connections (no-one else provided line-in). There are two Type II (or one Type III) PC Card slots, plus an embedded SmartCard reader. Four programmable application quick-launch buttons live above the keyboard, for speedy access to common programs.

Fujitsu was one of the first to include 802.11g (54 mbps, vs 11 mbps for 802.11b) wireless in its laptops, and it continues to do so with this model. The wireless performed flawlessly, connecting quickly and providing zippy network access at 802.11g speeds.

The 14.1 inch screen provides a resolution of 1024 x 768 and 16.7 million colours.

Fujitsu includes a generous software bundle, including Microsoft Works, Norton Anti-Virus 2004, Quicken 2003 New User Edition, and some handy utilities.

If there’s one thing I’m ambivalent about on this system, it’s the keyboard. It’s large, and flat, and ideal for users with large hands. I’m just not crazy about the feel, but since keyboard preference is an intensely personal thing, this is not a condemnation (it worked well), just an observation. Try any keyboard before you buy.

Battery life, with wireless, clocked in at a hair under three hours.

Toshiba Tecra M2
Price: $3,599
CPU speed: 1.8
GHz Hard Disk: 80 GB
Weight: 4.98 lb
Warranty: 3 years

When I think Tecra, I think premium and hefty, so I was surprised when Toshiba sent the M2. Yet this Tecra is relatively dainty at just under 5 lb.

Premium it is, though, with 802.11a/b wireless, gigabit Ethernet, infrared, Bluetooth, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, S-video, parallel port, IEE 1394, microphone and headset jacks, two PC Card slots, a Secure Digital slot, and a DVD writer.

On the front, there’s a volume control and wireless on/off switch, and above the keyboard, a button for quick access to e-mail.

Both touchpad and trackstick are installed, and the keyboard is responsive and well laid out. For audiophiles, Toshiba has equipped the M2 with an acoustic silencer that slows the optical drive down when it plays music to cut down on drive noise.

Battery life was three and a half hours – virtually identical to HP’s – but performance was number one by a long shot. Rather than the usual 4200 RPM notebook drive, the M2 has a 5400 RPM disk, and it shows.

HP Compaq nc6000
Price: $2,299
CPU speed: 1.5
GHz Hard Disk: 40 GB
Weight: 4.8 lb
Warranty: 3 years

The nc6000 offers lots of goodies. For connectivity, it has 802.11b/g wireless, gigabit Ethernet, infrared and a modem. Its optical drive handles DVDs and reads and writes CDs. It’s the only machine in our group with a serial port added to its extensive collection of I/O – it also has a parallel port, two USB 2.0 ports, external video, microphone and headphone jacks, S-video and docking ports, two PC Card slots and a Secure Digital slot.

Above the keyboard are buttons that let you lock the machine, turn wireless on and off, and put it into presentation mode. On the front are black controls with black icons to control or mute sound, assuming you can read them.

Like most of the other units, the nc6000 provides both touchpad and trackstick. I found the touchpad rather erratic — sometimes it would respond to taps, and sometimes I had to use the mouse buttons, despite driver settings that told it to accept taps as clicks. The keyboard is pleasant to type on.

Benchmark performance scores were sluggish, but battery life, at 3 hours and 33 minutes, was second best, beating Toshiba by a scant few minutes.

IBM ThinkPad T41
Price: $3,099
CPU speed: 1.6
GHz Hard Disk: 40 GB
Weight: 4.4 lb
Warranty: 3 years

 I was a bit disappointed with the T41. After being spoiled by the last IBM unit I reviewed, which ran close to forever on a charge, the battery life of just over two and a half hours (the worst in the roundup) just didn’t seem right.

The feature set is good, though, with lots of ports (two USB 2.0, parallel, S-video, microphone, headset, and external monitor), gigabit Ethernet, infrared, and a modem. Wireless on our review unit was only 802.11b, though according to spec sheets 802.11g is available.

IBM’s Active Protection System senses dangerous movement and shuts down the hard drive to protect it.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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