LG display makes it the frontrunner

Laptop computers are hotter than ever – in more ways than one. As their power increases, so does the heat they generate, to the point where you can’t place many comfortably on a lap for any amount of time.

Nonetheless, analysts at Bear Stearns say laptop shipments will top desktops by late 2007 or early 2008 in some markets (primarily the U.S. and western Europe), propelled in large part by consumer demand.

IDC predicts a 20 per cent compound annual growth rate for consumer notebooks, versus 15 per cent in corporate units over the 2005 to 2010 period. The most popular machines are systems that weigh up to 5 lbs. Those are the ones we chose to look at. We gathered half a dozen machines, ranging in weight from a dainty 2.7 lbs to a relatively hefty 4.5 lbs. All but two were dual core systems.

Each unit was running Windows XP Professional, brought up to the current Microsoft patch level, and was performance tested using FutureMark’s PCMark05 benchmarking software.

Battery life was measured with wireless networking enabled, since in the real world that’s how these machines will be used.

EDITOR’S CHOICE: LG T1 EXPRESS DUAL

  • Price: $2069
  • Weight: 3lb
  • Speed: 1.2 GHz

The widescreen T1 is one of two heavier models in our roundup.

Its 14.1-inch display is bright and clear, and manages not only to give the best graphics performance in the group, but to do so while aggressive power management provided the second best battery life – just over four hours.

The unit itself is, well, shiny. The top is shiny black (and easily marred by fingerprints and scratches), and inside the keyboard area is shiny white, with broad flat white keys.

The touch is not entirely to my taste, though many will like it, and the keyboard size means large hands have no problems.

A dual-layer DVD-RW drive occupies one side, and the usual complement of ports are scattered around: 3 USB, audio, video, modem, Gigabit Ethernet, IEEE 1394 and Bluetooth.

A five-in-one card slot (XD/SD/MMC/MS/MS Pro) and an ExpressCard/34 slot, 1 GB of RAM and a 60 GB hard drive round out the configuration.

Though the LG was not the top performer among all of the laptops, its ubiquitous connectivity and appealing display pushed it to the top.

DELL LATITUDE D420

  • Price: $1899
  • Weight: 4lb
  • Speed: 1.5 GHz

The D420 is Dell’s newest business machine. It features a new black and silver design, which is easy on the eyes, and has a few features that were sorely needed. Our test system was upgraded substantially from the base $1,519 model you’ll see on the Web site. It had 1 GB of RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. Battery life was OK but not great; the system managed 2.75 hours on a charge. The performance score was so-so, dragged down by the worst hard drive performance of the bunch. Dell’s warranty, however, is the best, offering three years of next business day onsite service.

FUJITSU LIFEBOOK S7110

  • Price: $2157
  • Weight: 4.5lb
  • Speed: 1.8 GHz

The S7110 comes with 512 MB RAM, a 100 GB hard drive, and a gorgeous 14.1-inch display. As well, you get an integrated dual layer DVD writer, wireless 802.11 a/b/g, Bluetooth, modem and Gigabit Ethernet. There are three standard USB 2.0 ports, VGA, Infrared, IEEE 1394, microphone, headset and mini S-video connections, PC Card, ExpressCard and SD card slots.

Battery life, as one would expect from such a large screen, was not so great, clocking in at 2.5 hours, but performance blew the socks off the others.

I don’t care for the rather flat keyboard; it’s spacious enough for the largest of fingers, but the touch doesn’t suit me. Keyboards, however, are a personal thing – your mileage may vary.

HP COMPAQ NC2400

  • Price: $2299
  • Weight: 2.8lb
  • Speed: 1.2 GHz

The NC2400 may not be a performance system, but in battery life it topped the lot by a landslide, managing a whopping six hours of life from its nine-cell battery. Both of these facts may be partly a result of it being one of the two single-core systems in the roundup (and the three extra cells in its battery helped).

Our review model came with a docking station and two A/C adapters. The 12.1-inch screen wasn’t as easy to read as some of the others, with text appearing thin and wispy. The keyboard, although small, is well laid out and easy to type on. To keep the system’s footprint small, the battery bulges out of the back, acting like a handy foot to prop it up while typing.

LENOVO THINKPAD X60

  • Price: $2649
  • Weight: 2.7lb
  • Speed: 1.8 GHz

The X60 carries on the ThinkPad tradition, with its characteristic styling, good keyboard and trackstick pointing device. This unit comes with 512 MB RAM and an 80 GB SATA hard drive. Like the other smaller machines, its screen is 12.1 inches; video quality was very good. The system is loaded in the communications department, with Gigabit Ethernet, modem, 802.11a/b/g wireless and Bluetooth. However, it has no optical drive, either internal or external, unless you purchase one as an accessory. Battery life was average with the standard eight-cell battery, clocking in around the three hour mark. Performance on the benchmarks was excellent ­- second only to Fujitsu – with especially good CPU and memory scores.

TOSHIBA PORTÉGÉ R200

  • Price: $2299
  • Weight: 2.7lb
  • Speed: 1.2 GHz

The R200 gave the third best battery life, at 3.5 hours, but it came in last in the performance ratings. It’s a single core Pentium M, with 512 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. Communications capabilities include 802.11b/g wireless, Gigabit Ethernet and modem.

The port collection consists of three USB ports, the aforementioned modem and network jacks, external video, audio and there are slots for SD cards and PC cards. There is no optical drive; Toshiba offers a number of options as accessories.

The keyboard is pleasant to the touch and the 12.1-inch screen is bright and clear.

Computing: Portability

Size isn’t the only thing that matters with notebooks

There’s always a tradeoff when you look at the smaller, lighter machines. In scoring portability, we looked at not only the base weight of the machine, but what was included in that package. For example, a 2-lb machine may be, in the long run, inferior to a 4-lb machine if you have to carry a dozen other bits and pieces (optical drive, cables, adapters, etc.) to get the functionality you need.

It’s particularly disappointing to see systems with no optical drive whose only backup of the operating system and utilities is on a hard drive partition, vulnerable until (you guessed it) it’s cut to optical media. What’s wrong with this picture?

You’ll notice that most of the dual core systems pay a price in battery life, and don’t seem to have appreciably higher performance. The big wins will come when applications are multi-threaded, and most business apps are not.

All of our systems have fingerprint readers, to add that extra layer of security demanded by our paranoid times. Using them, however, can be, well, interesting. I tried for half an hour to get four consecutive acceptable swipes on one system (it won’t register your fingerprint until you do), and only did so once. I don’t think I’d forgo passwords completely just yet. That said, the incremental cost is small, so the reader is a good addition to a laptop.

Toshiba’s little guy, for all its lightness, felt like last year’s model beside the shiny new Core Duo, Bluetooth-enabled systems. It had great battery life and a nice keyboard, but its lack of optical drive and lackluster performance cost it.

Dell’s D420 has the connectivity (and that cunning Wi-Fi detector), a pretty good price and a superb warranty, but its battery life is ho-hum, it didn’t top a single category in performance, and the external optical drive is just one more thing to carry around. The Media Base alternative adds extra weight and extra cost.

Lenovo’s battery life was similar to Dell’s, although it did have a slight weight advantage. Its memory and CPU performance topped the group. Lack of an optical drive (except as a separately purchased accessory) was a big minus.

Fujitsu, despite its weight, is a loaded system with surprising performance. Its battery life was rather wimpy, however.

HP tied with Fujitsu in points. Its battery life was amazing and it has an integrated optical drive plus an included docking station, but its performance score was fifth of the six machines and its display didn’t stack up as well as the others.

LG climbed to the top of the heap with its ubiquitous connectivity, very good battery life (especially given its screen size) and gorgeous display. It was not the top performer, but it was no lower than third in each category and its price makes it one heck of a deal. I just wish it were a little less shiny.

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