Specialist notebook PC roadtest



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1 April 2005 | 0

Notebooks have evolved considerably in the year since ComputerScope last carried out its notebooks roadtest and specialist notebooks development has been no exception. These are aimed at people whose requirements are just a little different and include people who need a rugged machine for harsh environments, an innovative new Tablet just to show that they are bang up to speed with the very latest developments in technology, or those who for whatever reason, want to use a completely different machine like the Macintosh instead of the Wintel combination favoured by the hoi polloi.

Toshiba: Protégé 3500 Tablet PC

Processor: 1.33GHz Pentium 3
Memory: 256Mbyte
HDD: 40Gbyte
Screen: 12.1in
Size (W x D x H): 30 x 23 x 3cm
Weight: 1.85kg
Battery Life: 3.5hr
Price: EUR2,399
Toshiba: +353 (0)1-2481248




One should resist getting emotional about technology. One should not attribute personal qualities to inanimate objects. Only people are sexy; computers are never so. Having said which — this Tablet PC is cool.

Delightfully petite, elegantly designed and light as a feather, if the time is right for Tablet technology to come of age it will be thanks to machines such as this.

Tablets are standard notebook PCs whose screens can be inverted to fit over the keyboard, reconfigured in portrait as opposed to landscape format and operated with a pen-like stylus.

The specification laid down by Microsoft leaves considerable leeway for teach computer maker to design their own aesthetics into the machine. Toshiba has gone here for an ultraportable device that, at a mere 1.85kg is almost as light as a clipboard and can perform almost identical functions, with the added benefit of electronic storage and retrieval. The Portege also has an unusually large screen for a Tablet, measuring 12.1in diagonally, whereas most others are merely 10in.

Given Toshiba’s presence in consumer electronics it is not surprising to find an array of expansion options, including both CF (Compact Flash) and SD (secure digital) slots.

The former accepts memory cards of about 1Gbyte capacity in the same format as are found in consumer devices such as digital cameras. So no more cursing your luck if you’ve left your camera’s proprietary USB cable at home when you want to download pictures to your computer; just pop the card out of one machine and into the other. The SD slot is for expansion cards that meet the specifications of the new Secure Digital standard. 

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity for short-distance and LAN connections respectively is built into the Portege: a simple flick of a switch found at the side of the Tablet and pressing a combination of a few keys will bring up the software that allows easy connection to an available peripheral or network.

Mindful of the need for backward compatibility, the Portege 3500 also has a Type II PC Card slot as well as standard connectivity built in such as Ethernet LAN, a modem, two USB slots and a Fast Infra-red (FIR) port.

Tablets are not as powerfully equipped as top of the range standard notebooks. The Pentium 4 or Centrino has yet to appear in such devices, and this machine is built around a 1.33GHz Pentium III. However, the specialist software that unique to Tablet models, to date anyway, ran without problem.

Voice recognition in particular is highly impressive, even though it seems one can never spend too much time training the system to one’s own dulcet tones. Handwriting recognition, another prerequisite for a Tablet, was less successful but then the supercomputer hasn’t yet been invented that can decipher your correspondent’s handwriting scrawl — famously illegible to all, including himself.

This was one machine that it was easy to get excited about. Toshiba had to send round a big man with a paramilitary accent to get it back. BOTTOM LINE: Excellent.

Panasonic: CF-28 Toughbook

Processor: 1GHz Pentium 3
Memory: 256Mbyte
HDD: 30Gbyte
Screen: 13.3in TFT
Size (W x D x H): 30 x 27.5 x 6.6cm
Weight: 4.1kg
Price: EUR3,999 ex-VAT
Panasonic: +353 (0)1-4135300

The CF-28 Toughbook does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a hard nut to crack and is designed specifically for harsh environments. The chassis hasn’t changed at all from last year’s model, although the internal specs have gone up and the price has gone down.

It’s still underpowered and overpriced when compared with other notebooks we have surveyed but that is not comparing like with like. You could take this notebook with you if you were invading Afghanistan. It has a rugged titanium casing, connection ports are all sealed with rubber gaskets and the keyboard is waterproof. Therefore you pay a premium for such robustness.

It has a CD-ROM drive and a PC Card slot in bays that are also sealable to prevent water and dust intrusion.

This machine is designed to withstand a 3ft drop to a concrete floor and is also dust resistant. Panasonic offers users the option to embed a GPRS SIM card inside the notebook so that this high-speed wireless option can be used, thereby allowing the Ethernet and modem ports to be sealed off for added security. Bottom Line: Very good, providing robustness is more important that performance for your particular needs.

Apple: PowerBook G4

Processor: 867Mhz PowerPC G4
Memory: 256Mbyte
HDD: 40Gbyte
Screen: 12in/15i.2in
Size (W x D x H): 34 x 24 x 2.5cm (15.2in model) 28 x 22 x 3cm (12in model)
Weight: 2.5kg (15.2in model)/ 2kg (12in model)
Battery Life: 4.5hr (15.2in model)/ 5hr (12in model)
Price: EUR2,999 (15.2in model)/EUR1,899 (12in model) ex-VAT
Apple: 1800-923898 (Ireland only)

Apple has been a great innovator in the PC world since the 1970s, being the first company to popularise such technologies as the spreadsheet, the graphical interface and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) presentations to name but three now commonplace items.

In the notebook arena too it has often been ahead of the development curve bringing out computers that seemed to ignore traditional trade offs between performance, size and battery life.

The fact that they are different too in terms of both software and underlying hardware to the Wintel standard gives Apple computers a certain rebellious chic among their devoted users. Apples tend to be beautiful machines, and their customers love them for that with a typical irrational passion.

The two Apple notebooks viewed here are similar in every way except size. They have the same processor, memory, hard drive, combination Read/Write and wireless connectivity features. Where they mainly differ is in screen size and chassis colour.

The 15.2in version is a delightfully sleek machine, less than 3cm high when closed, and comes in a grey livery. It has built in Ethernet, modem and Apple’s own Airport wireless networking technology. This is based on the 802.11g 54Mbit/s standard which is much faster than the current 802.11b which has gained most acceptance. However, there are few opportunities to use this technology in this country as yet. It also has S-video and DVI video output ports which allow digital media to be displayed on high-resolution screens.

The 12in version is in a compact white box, and has an altogether chunkier feel to it. Most of the specifications are similar to its larger brother although it does not have a DVI port. The smaller screen, however, makes the 12in version considerably cheaper.

Both Apple machines run the latest version of the company’s Macintosh operating system OS/X, which unlike its predecessors is based on a Unix kernel. This will lead to much grief and pain during the upgrade process for those who have yet to go through it.

Many features of the original user interface have changed radically including many shortcuts, so if you are used to pressing Apple-M, for example, to make a shortcut (alias in Mac speak) you quickly learn that it results in the window becoming minimised in the new system. The same is true for many other shortcuts with which the long-term Mac user may be familiar.

Apple, it is sad to say, has never been particularly good at dealing with backwards compatibility. It was the first major computer maker to make the floppy disk redundant by simply refusing to include it after a certain date and in the move from OS/9 to OS/X many users will have to learn to leave behind older applications with which they may have been perfectly happy but which will not be ported to the new operating system for whatever reason.

At the time of writing, such vital Apple Macintosh applications   as the page layout software Quark Xpress has still not been ported to OS X, leaving many dedicated Macintosh users facing the  dilemma of hanging on to old machines or upgrading to new hardware that can only run such applications in emulated mode.

This may not unduly bother many Mac diehards, for whom using the platform is a fashion statement as much as anything else but the experience of running software in emulated mode soon makes wading through treacle seem like a mild form of relaxation.

Still, even if it’s only for their looks, these two models will gladden the heart of any Mac aficionado. BOTTOM LINE: Very Good (Excellent if you’re already a Mac user).


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