Your A4-Size Business Companion: Choosing the Best Compact Notebook. Part II

Today we are offering you the second article in the series devoted to the compact notebook solutions from the leading laptop designers and manufacturers. We will discuss the models from ASUS, Dell, Sony, Terra and Toshiba falling into sub-$2500 price category.

by Vasily Melnik
12/12/2005 | 05:04 PM

This article continues the earlier published review called “Your A4-Size Business Companion: Choosing the Best Compact Notebook. Part I ” and offers you the descriptions and test results of sub-notebooks from such renowned brands as ASUS, Dell, Sony and Toshiba.

 

We are still trying to give you a thorough description of the design features and ergonomic qualities of each model as of the factors many users base their shopping choices upon. We do not focus on performance alone, because such small computers can’t yet deliver really high performance, and, moreover, it is not needed when the notebook is used as a tool for doing some office work on the run. Accessories included with each device are also described in detail since a sub-notebook requires at least a power adapter to work normally.

It’s good when the enclosed power adapter supports both the European and American electric mains standards as people who buy such computers probably travel a lot and visit countries where the AC voltage and frequency differ. A special bag or a pouch to carry the notebook in won’t be superfluous accessories, either, especially if they protect the device against mechanical damage and moisture.

We hope our describing such details in this review will help you make a right choice of your own small notebook.

ASUS M5200A

Design and Ergonomics

This sub-notebook has the appearance of an aristocrat. Its regular, yet smooth features create an exquisite image to add to, or even to become the foundation of, the owner’s personal style. The color scheme is demure – a black case and a silvery edging of the lid. Decorative details are missing altogether.

The case is made of some robust and light carbonic material; its corners are all rounded. To open the lid you press the button that holds the latch and lift the lid up – the M5200A looks pretty when open as well. The keyboard takes up the entire width of the case, without any margins on the sides. The touchpad is shifted a little to the left of the geometrical center of the case. The following LED indicators are to the left of the touchpad:

There is a small flat ledge at the bottom of the case in which an optical drive, a CPU cooling system and a SO-DIMM slot are located. The latches that hold the battery are near the sub-notebook’s back panel. One latch is spring-loaded and another is a two-position switch that prevents the battery from slipping out accidentally. The cover of the HDD compartment can be easily removed, so you can replace the hard drive without going to a service center.

Note that the rear pair of the sub-notebook’s feet with rubber caps “grows” from the battery, so if you remove it, you may scratch the case. There is one more drawback that you should be aware of: the vent inlets are all in the bottom of the case and you can block them unintentionally if you put the notebook on your laps.

The lid is smooth, with the shiny letters “ASUS” at its top. In its front part, on the left, the LED indicators are duplicated for easy control over the notebook’s status.

The front panel of the case is absolutely empty. There are no connectors, buttons or indicators on it.

On the left panel you will find the tray of the optical drive (it’s a DVD/CD-RW model), an RJ-45 LAN port, an RJ-11 port of the integrated V.92 modem, a PCMCIA expansion slot, the port of the integrated card-reader that supports MS, SD and MMC formats, and one USB 2.0 port. Special dummy cards are inserted instead of a flash card and a PC Card. The bottom panel of the optical drive is reinforced on the inside with a metal plate so that the case didn’t bend and deform when the tray is open.

The sub-notebook’s back panel is almost entirely occupied by the battery module. Besides it, there are only a power connector and a 4-pin FireWire port here. Depending on the capacity, the battery may go beyond the case’s dimensions or match them perfectly. The power connector is placed properly, but the FireWire port is not very easy to work with, especially if you are constantly connecting and disconnecting your FireWire devices, for example your digital camera.

There are headphones and microphone mini-jack connectors on the right side of the case (by the way, the sound volume can only be adjusted by software), two more USB 2.0 ports, an analog D-Sub video output, the hole of a Kensington lock, and a ventilation slit protected with a grid on the inside. The hot air from the cooling system is exhausted to the right and may cause some discomfort for a right-handed user who is working with an external mouse. From my experience with this sub-notebook I can tell you that this negative effect is only felt when the CPU load is high and the computer is powered from the mains.

The touchpad is very handy. It is not below or above, but on the same level with the notebook’s top panel. The manufacturer says this prevents dust from accumulating along the touchpad’s sides. The surface of the device is a little rough and its sensitivity can be set up to your liking. The metal bezel of the touchpad smoothly transitions into the buttons:

Besides the main keyboard buttons, there are a Power-On button (with blue LED highlighting) and a button to switch through power-saving modes. They are at the notebook’s back part, under the screen. A microphone is built into the case between the Power-On button and the screen hinge.

Two speakers built into the bottom of the case give voice to this notebook and they sound poorly. The headphones output is high quality, though. The signal is powerful enough, and there are no perceptible distortions even at the highest sound volume.

Configuration and Accessories

You get just the basic things with this notebook. First, it is a universal 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz power adapter with a LED indicator. It is manufactured by Delta Electronics.

Second, you get an external wireless mouse. I think a computer mouse, especially a cordless one, is always better than a touchpad when you’re working at a desk. This one is a simple model with just two buttons and a wheel. The radio interface is provided by the USB key:

And third, you receive a pouch and a bag. The bag is made of a synthetic waterproof material and has compartments for the notebook and the power adapter and some more pockets for other items. Its metal handles can be hidden when you use the shoulder belt. The pouch is made of some soft polymer fabric.

Performance

These are very good numbers indeed. The M5200A’s overall performance puts it among the leading group if we take all the devices reviewed in this article, although it doesn’t have a very fast processor and its memory amount is the smallest among the reviewed devices. The price seems quite appealing, too, considering that this is a world-famous brand rather than a local integrator.

I have no complaints about the time the notebook can last on its battery. It doesn’t break any records, but is sufficiently economical. The fully charged battery will last as long as a whole workday if you do not keep the notebook turned on all the time and do not run “hard” applications.

The general impression about the ASUS M5200A is highly positive, I should say. This is not a super-advanced model, yet it is not a piece of antiquity, either. It is just a handy tool for reasonable money and made by the renowned ASUS. The case design provides easy access to the hard drive and the memory slot, so when the basic configuration doesn’t suffice for comfortable work anymore, you can just increase the disk space as well as the amount of system memory.

ASUS S300

Design and Ergonomics

This is an ultra-portable model with a screen diagonal of 8.9 inches. The design of the S300 is simple and elegant, yet functional. The color scheme is somewhat conservative: a lusterless light gray color on the outside and black inside; the letters “ASUS” adorn the lid. The overall elegance of form is only disturbed by the big bulge of the battery at the back panel, but this is the price of the good battery life time.

Opening an ASUS S300 for the first time is like solving a riddle. You are habitually trying to find a knob or a lock with a sliding lever, but can’t find any! As it turns out, the lid is held by an intricate double latch that you should pick up with your finger or nail. It is not so easy at first, but you soon get used to this way of opening the notebook and don’t find it inconvenient.

The notebook’s controls become visible as you open the lid. The main keyboard occupies the entire width of the case and its alphabetic keys are full size. A few keys in the right part of the keyboard have a smaller size and you have to adjust yourself to them for touch-typing. Note also the unusual position of the right Shift.

The notebook has a pointing stick between the G and H keys. Using this pointing device requires some skill. The buttons are placed in the center below the main keyboard, and they are large enough for finding and pressing them blindly.

There are two groups of additional buttons: audio/video playback controls (play/pause, stop, forward/backward) and auxiliary controls (keyboard blocking, brightness adjustment, power-on/off). The first group of controls is located on the front panel of the case closer to the left side and can be accessed them irrespective of the position of the lid, open or closed. The second group is placed under the screen.

The bottom panel of the case has quite an ascetic appearance: you can only see the removable cover of the additional battery compartment here. There are also two sliders, one of them spring-loaded, that hold the battery in place. You can take out the optical drive after undoing two screws with a characteristic marking. I think a removable optical drive is a right solution for any notebook because a mechanical device is always less reliable than an electronic one. So, if the drive fails, you can replace it with a new one that will fit into the chassis.

The holes in the bottom of the case are intended for passive cooling, so it won’t be a big problem if they are accidentally blocked (by your legs, for example, when you are holding the notebook on your laps). The rubber feet in the corners of the panel and on the battery protect the notebook’s bottom from scratches when it stands on a solid surface and also suppress vibration from the moving parts (fan, hard and optical drives).

Typically of ASUS products, there are no connectors on the front panel. You can only find the lid latch and the playback control buttons here, and that’s fine. You don’t need any cables under your hands at work, whereas listening to music with the notebook’s lid closed is quite a useful option.

The left panel carries the most interface connectors:

The density of the I/O ports is very high, but they are easy to work with due to their vertical placement. It’s next to impossible to block a neighboring port with an attached connector.

The volume control is electronic (not electrical). You don’t wheel it around as you do an ordinary resistive control, but only deflect it from the central position towards more or less of the sound volume.

The analog video output is combined with a docking port for ASUS’ peripherals and is covered with a drop-down shutter. You need an adapter into the ordinary D-Sub connector (included with the notebook) to connect to external display devices like monitors, projectors, etc.

The back panel is the battery’s residence. There are no connectors or buttons here.

This is what you can find on the notebook’s right panel:

It’s not very convenient to have the FireWire port between the tray of the optical drive on one side and the power cable on the other. ASUS’ engineers must have thought this port wouldn’t be used too often.

Configuration and Accessories

The S300 comes with plenty of accessories that include a high-capacity battery (11.1V, 4400mAh) for a long time of autonomous work. Its dimensions are not very small, however:

The universal power adapter is, on the contrary, small and light. It supports 100-240V, 50-60Hz AC input. Curiously, it yields 19V DC on its output, which is notably higher than the battery’s output.

The notebook comes with a bag that has a special compartment for the notebook and with a pouch which is a useful thing when you are going to carry the device in an ordinary bag or backpack.

An external mouse is a traditional accessory included with many notebooks. Despite all effort on the part of the developers, integrated pointing devices (trackball, touchpad, pointing stick) cannot surpass the common mouse in terms of sheer usability.

Now, one accessory that distinguishes this notebook from the other models that take part in this comparative test session is an external MP3 player with a reader of SD and MMC cards. It has handy buttons and LED indicators on its face panel and a lever to block the buttons against accidental touches on its side.

The flash card slot is located on the rear panel, near the AAA batteries cell.

The player has a mini-USB port to connect to a computer, not only to the given sub-notebook. The necessary cable is included.

Performance

The notebook’s overall performance as measured by PCMark04 is rather low (this model is the third worst device among the reviewed ones), but this result was not only due to the configuration but also to the problems with the passing of the test. Some parts of PCMark04 could not be completed and the result of the graphics subsystem test could not be obtained, either. I am inclined to blame the benchmark rather than the notebook since I observed no such problems in other applications. Well, considering that the S300 uses a CPU with a clock rate of 1GHz, which is only half the CPU frequency of the most advanced tested notebook, we could hardly expect a very high performance from it. On the other hand, the index “ULV” and the big bulge of the battery were indicative of a long time of autonomous operation. This is confirmed by the tests: the notebook can work on its own almost three hours under max load and over five hours in the Reader’s mode.

So what do we have in total? The S300 is a really ultra-portable notebook with an excellent battery life, with performance sufficient for office applications, and with a stylish exterior into the bargain. The included MP3 player enhances the notebook’s entertainment qualities. This model can be recommended to all users who need mobility, freedom, compactness more than sheer performance.

ASUS W5G00A

Design and Ergonomics

This notebook differs from the others in having rather large dimensions for a portable device, but this allowed the manufacturer to rig this model up in the best fashion. The distinguishing feature of the ASUS W5G00A is the camera above the screen. The case is otherwise designed in ASUS’ classic style: a dark-gray case with light-gray inserts and a keyboard made of black translucent plastic.

The battery protruding at the rear panel of the case clashes with the overall elegance of the case, but this is the only way to keep the battery life for such an advanced configuration within reasonable limits. The smooth but strict lines of the case combine with various small details to create the image of a business-class machine.

The lid can be opened up by 180 degrees which may be useful in cramped working environments (in a plane or a car, for example). Inside, everything is well thought-out and functional. An easy-to-use touchpad with a metal bezel that transitions into the buttons is located below the center of the keyboard’s alphabetic part; its sensitivity and additional functionality (double click, scrolling zones) can be adjusted to suit the individual user.

The keyboard is standard enough. The alphabetic keys are the normal size; a few keys in the right part of the keyboard are smaller. The “Fn” button (used for keyboard shortcuts) occupies the usual place of a Ctrl key in the bottom left corner. The layout is otherwise typical, so you won’t have to adjust yourself for touch-typing (all touch-typing people should know how hard it is to get accustomed to any changes in the layout).

The bottom of the case is almost flat. The feet with rubber caps protect the panel from getting scratched even when the battery is not installed (unlike on the ASUS M5200A). The removable covers give you access to the hard drive, processor, memory slot, and even to the mini-PCI expansion card. Vent openings are scattered on the entire bottom panel, so you can’t accidentally block the cooling system by putting the notebook on your laps.

The front panel is, traditionally for this manufacturer, absolutely empty. There are no connectors or controls here. I think this design is the ergonomically best since there will be no attached cables in front of the keyboard.

Besides the battery, the back panel of this model carries the following connectors: power, S-Video, USB, and Kensington lock.

The following can be found on the right panel:

The PCMCIA slot is hidden under a spring-loaded shutter. Unlike with a dummy card, this solution may lead to the expansion card getting stuck in the slot, especially if it is mechanically damaged. On the other hand, you don’t risk losing the dummy.

And these are the things you can find on the left panel:

I guess the main feature of this model is the integrated camera. It is located above the screen and its fastening permits to turn the camera’s eye into almost any direction, as necessary. So, the user can make self-portraits, take part in video conferences and record what is happening opposite him/her.

The camera controls are located on the right margin of the screen, next to the integrated microphone which is turned on with a separate button. The buttons are software-based, though, meaning that they only work when the appropriate Windows-based utility is running.

Another programmable button is located above the keyboard, on the left. It browses through the PowerGear power-saving modes. Next to it is a mechanical switch of the wireless adapter.

The Power button with blue LED-based highlighting is in the left corner. The LED isn’t very bright, so it won’t be distracting even in darkness.

The indicators of the notebook’s On/Off status and of the battery charging are located on the lid, near the battery module. It means that they are not visible when the lid is open. An extended set of indicators (HDD activity, optical drive activity, wireless connection activity) can be found on the left of the top panel.

The lid is held with magnetic pads, so there is no lock at all. The camera’s fastening stands out a little against the front edge of the case and may be used as a lever to open the notebook up.

Configuration and Accessories

The package includes everything you may need to work with the notebook, but without any extras.

The small power adapter with a LED indicator is manufactured by Delta Electronics and supports 100-240V, 50-60Hz input AC.

And this is a black bag of some water-resistant material (not absolutely waterproof, I should confess) with numerous pockets and compartments.

The pouch is made of a rather thick and soft synthetic fabric. It will keep the notebook protected against damage as you are carrying it around in your bag or rucksack.

And you also get an external wireless mouse. The mouse, especially a wireless one, is always better than the touchpad if you’re working at a desk. This mouse is quite ordinary, with just two buttons and a wheel. The wireless interface is integrated into the notebook, so it only supports ASUS’ own devices (or compatible).

Performance

This is a really high speed – the second best result in this test session! The hard drive is the only subsystem of this notebook to have an average performance score. So, the ASUS W5G00A is an example of a well-equipped compact notebook for work that ensures an excellent performance and an enhanced functionality (I mean the integrated camera that you can freely turn around). One thing that raises my concerns is the battery life parameter. On one hand, the result comes naturally from the notebook’s configuration, but taken as they are, the numbers are not quite satisfactory. My recommendation would be to buy an extended-capacity or just a second standard-capacity battery along with this model.

My own experience with the W5G00A was highly positive. This computer is fast and ergonomic (if you don’t mind the smaller keys in the right part of the keyboard) and it is going to suit perfectly for businessmen who need to frequently change their whereabouts. The only thing that sets this machine apart from top-end notebooks is that it lacks a discrete graphics processor, but I think the small size of the computer is more important for business applications than its ability to run 3D shooters.

Dell Latitude D410

Design and Ergonomics

This notebook is among the leaders in this test session in terms of the number of interface ports it carries. It is partly to this fact that the Latitude D410 owes its large dimensions. The official-looking design is meant for business persons while the dull silvery color of the magnesium alloy the case is made of gives the device an air of solidity. The letters “DELL” stand out proudly in the center of the lid.

The Latitude D410 looks as official inside as it is on the outside. The screen has a thin bezel and a nice-looking matte coating. The keyboard takes up the entire width of the case, has full-size keys and is very handy at work. It is very improbable that two keys will go down at once when you’re pressing just one. The only inconvenience is created by the gathering of auxiliary keys in the vicinity of the arrow buttons:

The Latitude D410 differs from other notebooks in having both a touchpad and a pointing stick. The touchpad is sensitive, while the stick is somewhat too stiff. I should say I don’t quite grasp the point of this solution. Most users prefer to use a touchpad and putting both pointing devices on one machine takes up more space (the Latitude D410 is positioned as a compact sub-notebook after all).

The keyboard indicators (Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock) are located under the screen, next to the Power button. The indicators of activity of wireless interfaces and the buttons to control the volume and mute the integrated speakers are all located there, too.

On the bottom panel you can find memory and hard drive compartments as well as some vent holes and a docking station port. The battery compartment occupies a large portion of the panel, too. Feet with rubber caps are scattered around the entire bottom to protect it from scratches.

The input openings of the air-cooling system are located in such a way that you can accidentally block them if the notebook is on your laps. This may result in overheat.

The docking station connector isn’t covered with a shutter and may get dirty with use. I think this is a fault on the designers’ part.

The battery is large, but its capacity is not so impressive: 11.1V x 4800mAh. The battery charge indicator is a very useful feature, though.

There are no connectors on the notebook’s front panel. There is only the slider of the lid lock here.

The left panel doesn’t have many connectors or controls, either. Instead, there are many output vents of the cooling system here. You can get a look at the heatsink’s ribs through them. Still, this panel offers you an infrared port and an exclusive connector that consists of an ordinary USB 2.0 port with additional power pins. This port can be used for ordinary USB-complaint devices as well as for some exclusive equipment from Dell.

I/O ports are mostly located at the sub-notebook’s back:

The right panel in its turn carries a headphones output and a microphone input, a PCMCIA expansion slot with a plastic cover the same color as the case, and a rather exotic smart-card reader.

LED indicators (Power, HDD activity, Battery charge) are located right on the external side of the hinge of the notebook’s lid.

Configuration and Accessories

The standard shipment of the Latitude D410 includes only a docking station, besides the notebook proper. The docking station enhances the notebook’s functionality but makes it larger. By the way, it is rather strange that the engineers couldn’t find anywhere to put an optical drive into in a notebook of the D410’s dimensions.

The docking station connects to the above-mentioned connector at the bottom of the case. The connect/disconnect procedure is illustrated by the snapshot.

As you see, the case is much thicker with the docking station connected. The face panel seems downright big.

The station adds another Power button on the left panel, a button to disconnect the docking station (without powering the notebook down), and a mechanical eject lever.

The rear panel has transformed dramatically now that the docking station is connected. Some of the notebook’s own connectors are now blocked and some new connectors have appeared, particularly:

The network and modem interfaces, D-Sub and power connectors are simply copied here.

The main reason why you may want to use the docking station at all is the optical combo drive which tray is located in the right panel. The drive is removable and you can replace it with a DVD-burner if necessary.

The universal power adapter supports 100-240V, 50-60Hz AC input. It is rather small and has a rubber band to tie the cord up. By the way, the connectors are non-standard, so you will hardly be able to use some third-party power adapter here.

Performance

The performance of the sub-notebook is appropriate to its configuration, and this model never leaves the top five in any subcategory of our tests. I think the Dell Latitude D410 might be appropriate in the hands of people who give presentations or reports. The docking station with its numerous interface ports ensures compatibility with various peripherals, while the additional battery (in a special compartment of the docking station) will improve the total time of autonomous work considerably. Moreover, the main battery alone allows working for about 3 hours at normal use.

Frankly speaking, this sub-notebook is not so very compact. Its dimensions, especially its height, become rather large when the docking station is connected. The only feature typical of a sub-notebook is the screen diagonal, 12 inches. On the other hand, I can picture a situation when the Latitude D410 is used as a mobile computer, while the docking station with the attached network, power and peripheral devices’ cables remains immobile at the work place.

So, if you need many interface ports, high performance and long time of autonomous work (with the additional battery), this model may suit you fine, but you may want to consider other options if compact size and low weight are your priorities.

Dell Latitude X1

Design and Ergonomics

The Dell Latitude X1 looks stylish and elegant. The silvery color of the small, thin, smoothly outlined case creates the image of a truly ultra-portable device. The letters “DELL” in the center of the lid declare that the notebook comes from a world-famous brand. The material of the case confirms the targeting of the model at mobile use: it is all made of a robust and light metal alloy. This is actually the lightest of the devices with a 12” screen in our comparative test, weighing a mere 1.14kg.

The Dell X1 looks elegant inside, too. You have just what you need: a screen, a keyboard, and a touchpad. The color scheme conforms to the overall design of the device: the bezels are of a darker silvery color to better match the black matte surface of the screen and the black buttons of the keyboard. Unfortunately, the quality of the screen is not as good as its looks, the main drawbacks being a narrow vertical viewing angle and a darkening of the image in the corners. The screen has a big brightness range, however, and is free from obvious color distortions. The matrix is fast enough for a majority of tasks this sub-notebook is expected to perform. Rubber pads are placed along the bezel to prevent the screen from hitting against the keyboard.

Despite the small size of the case, the keyboard is very convenient. Most of its keys are full size and their placement is traditional. The only inconvenience is that the Ctrl and Page Down keys are placed immediately next to the arrow keys. Otherwise, this is the example of a good keyboard for a sub-notebook.

The touchpad is good, too. It is sensitive, but seldom reacts falsely. It occupies its usual position on the front panel – near the front panel of the case, along the center of the keyboard’s alphabetic part.

A block of LED indicators is on the left of the touchpad:

The LEDs are placed under the bevel cut of the front panel of the case, so they are visible irrespective of the position of the notebook’s lid.

The SD card reader’s slit is located on the front panel. You can also see the black translucent plastic bar that covers the block of LED indicators. There is no latch to hold the lid shut. When closed, the lid is held down by the stiffness of the hinges.

The following is located on the notebook’s left panel:

The connectors are placed at wide enough intervals, so you can use them all at once without any inconvenience.

The exclusive connector consisting of an ordinary USB 2.0 port and additional power pins is intended for an external optical drive. Since the USB standard makes provisions for powering up the attached device, I’m inclined to regard the combined connector as a way to push the user to buy Dell’s exclusive devices compatible with this connector.

The power connector is non-standard, too. It is octagonal rather than round and I doubt you can find a third-party power adapter with such a plug. Dell Computer just doesn’t seem willing that the owners of its notebooks used components from some other companies.

There are no ports on the rear panel. It is given entirely to the battery compartment. The included battery does not protrude from the case and does not distort the rounded outline of the notebook.

The right panel carries the following:

Strangely enough, there is no PCMCIA slot here.

As you may note on the side-view photographs, the bottom panel of the notebook is not flat, but rather bent strongly. There is also a curious text “STRIKE ZONE” below the network and modem connectors. As it turned out, this unevenness of the notebook’s bottom is due to the lack of an active cooling system. There are no fans and there are no openings for convective movement of the air. The metal case clings closely to the heat sources and acts as a regular heatsink. A most appropriate cooling solution for a mobile device!

Configuration and Accessories

The accessories to this notebook aren’t numerous. You receive a compact universal power adapter with a LED indicator that supports 100-240V, 50-60 AC input. The adapter’s connector isn’t so universal, however, so you’ll have to buy a new and not-very-cheap adapter if you lose or damage that one.

The default battery has a reduced capacity (11.1V x 2400mAh) and is equipped with a LED indicator of the charge level. You have to purchase a full-size battery optionally and it is going to protrude from the case, spoiling the notebook’s appearance somewhat. This model can last for a very long time on its battery, however, because it uses an Intel Pentium M ULV 733 processor whose power consumption is very low.

Performance

The performance results of this notebook are somewhere in the middle of the tournament table. They are comparable with the results of other systems based around the Pentium M ULV processor. The time of autonomous work is quite good for a battery of that size and capacity, but is hardly impressive in itself. The main advantage of this machine is not in performance or configuration, though. It gives you compactness and low weight along with an easy-to-use keyboard and a normal touchpad (rather than a pointing stick). Thanks to the robust metal case, you can take this computer with you anywhere without worrying to break it. The fully passive cooling eliminates the common problem with actively cooled devices when their fan fails because the vent openings in the case have been blocked for too long. This also affects positively the noise characteristics of the notebook. The only source of acoustic noise that remains in this computer is the hard disk drive (you just can’t do without one today). Thus, the Dell Latitude X1 is a good example of an ultra-portable notebook, quiet, light and small.

Sony VAIO VGN-T150

Design and Ergonomics

This model belongs to the famous family of computers united under the common name of VAIO and manufactured by the famous Sony. You immediately feel Sony’s special style, charm and originality of design. Every little detail is well thought-out. Every decoration is also functional: the rounded projection on the back panel is connected to the battery without distorting the roundness of the outline. The case is made of some robust composite material. It is rough to the touch, so the device is unlikely to slip off your fingers. The color scheme is restrained, even conservative: deep blue is combined with dark gray and black.

Inside, everything is compactly arranged to be in harmony with the notebook’s overall style. The widescreen LCD display of this model is one of the best among the reviewed models. Its wide viewing angles and brightness range allow to work comfortably under different external lighting. The fast matrix and the correct color reproduction let you enjoy watching movies and viewing digital photographs.

The keyboard is super, too. The keys are all their normal size and the layout is standard. The auxiliary keys like Shift, Enter, Backspace, etc., are large, so you can’t miss them with your fingers at touch-typing. The block of cursor-controlling keys is separated from rest of the keyboard with blank spots, which help to avoid typing errors, too. The touchpad with two buttons didn’t raise my concerns, but didn’t impress me, either. It has an average sensitivity, but sometimes reacts falsely.

There are two groups of LED indicators between the screen and the keyboard: the keyboard-related Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock, and the system-related Battery charge, HDD activity, Card-reader activity.

A group of playback controls are located to the left of the indicators and they are accessible when the lid is closed, too. The Power button with a LED indicator is also accessible irrespective of the position of the notebook’s lid.

Unlike with many other sub-notebook models reviewed here, the front panel of the VAIO VGN-T150 is densely populated with all manner of interface ports, buttons and indicators. In its left part you can see a volume control and a sound effects button as well as headphones and microphone connectors. A vent grid is below the center of the panel. To the left of it, a mechanical switch of the wireless adapters and LED indicators of activity of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections are located.

The tray of the DVD-burner opens on the right side. There are also RJ-45 (LAN) and RJ-11 (V.92 modem) connectors there.

The connectors are hidden under small shutters which is another sign of the notebook’s positioning as of a mobile device.

The battery and the power adapter connector are located on the rear panel. The polarity and voltage are marked near the connector meaning that you are permitted to use third-party power adapters provided they have the necessary characteristics. The battery is not firmly attached to the case, but this brings no discomfort to the user.

The notebook’s left side offers you the following:

The card-reader is covered with a spring-loaded shutter. This design is more convenient than dummy cards which can be lost or misplaced, but the flash card may stick inside, especially if it is mechanically damaged.

The USB port, the integrated card-reader and the expansion slot are placed very close to each other, and it’s not convenient to work with all of them at once. At least, when a PC card is inserted, you will hardly be able to work with the card-reader.

The VAIO VGN-T150 is not free from the common design mistake: the input vents may get blocked when the notebook is placed on the laps, with overheat as the consequence.

Configuration and Accessories

The accessories to this notebook are not numerous. You receive a small universal power adapter (100-240V, 50-60Hz AC input and 16V DC output with a maximum load of 4 amperes) and a small, yet high-capacity battery (7.4V x 7200mAh).

The VAIO VGN-T150 is equipped with an Intel Pentium M ULV 753 processor. Coupled with the high-capacity battery, it results in a long time of autonomous operation. The performance is comparable with that of other notebooks on the Pentium M ULV.

Performance

As you see, the VAIO VGN-T150 doesn’t set any performance records. Its results are among the lowest in the overall standings. Of course, it suits fine for office applications, but image-editing may be troublesome. The battery life is, on the contrary, excellent, both under full load and in the reader’s mode. The fully charged default battery should last through your entire workday.

Watching DVDs on this notebook is allowed, its widescreen display and the additional media player controls only adding more comfort.

So, the VAIO VGN-T150 is a very appealing computer. It features one of the best LCD screens among the reviewed models, a very convenient keyboard with full-size keys, and a well-designed touchpad. The notebook is very light while the rough surface of its case makes it less likely to slip out of your fingers. The price may seem somewhat too high, but this is just another confirmation of the fact that you have to pay not only for the configuration, but also for the ergonomic properties and the brand when you buy a notebook of this class.

Sony VAIO VGN-U750P

Design and Ergonomics

This device can hardly be categorized as a notebook at first. It looks more like a big PDA or some gaming gadget. However, you learn soon that it is a full-fledged and well-equipped PC with serious capabilities. It works with Windows XP Professional and can run ordinary desktop applications.

The Sony VAIO VGN-U750P interacts with the user through the touch-sensitive screen, the pointing stick and the buttons that emulate the mouse’s buttons. There are also a number of auxiliary buttons with special functions like the screen resolution adjustment, zoom, picture rotation, backlight brightness adjustment, onscreen keyboard. The quality of the screen is very high for such a small gadget: the viewing angles are wide, the brightness range is extensive, smooth color gradients and the skin color are reproduced correctly. The matrix is not very fast, but its speed is sufficient for comfortable work; the “ghosting” effect is not very strong.

The overall design represents the best of Sony: simple and elegant shapes, not quite unpretentious, but with thought-out functionality. The silver polished metal plate on the face side is not just a decoration but a reinforcing element to add the device robustness against strong presses. The symmetrical vent openings do not just look nice – one of them can be accidentally blocked with your hand if you orient the device vertically.

The placement of the controls is ergonomic, too. The navigational buttons are right under your thumbs if you hold the device with both hands. The less frequently used auxiliary buttons are placed lower.

A few LED indicators are located to the left of the screen (Power On, Battery, HDD activity).

The word “VAIO” embellishes the bottom panel of the sub-notebook which is another point where aesthetics meets functionality: the silver bottom panel is actually a battery with a high enough capacity for its size, 11.1V x 1800mAh. The reinforced battery is thicker, but it won’t spoil the design or ergonomics of the device considering the way it is fastened to the case.

On the notebook’s front there are air inlets, a power connector, and an exclusive I/O connector you can attach various peripherals and network to by means of a special adapter or a cradle.

The following can be found on the sub-notebook’s left panel:

The rear panel carries:

On the right panel you will find the sub-notebook’s single USB 2.0 port, a mechanical Wi-Fi switch, and a curious button that imitates the keyboard shortcut “Ctrl+Alt+Del”.

The onscreen keyboard is of course not as handy as a normal one. That’s why you receive an external folding USB keyboard as an accessory. Its alphabetic keys are normal size and the layout is standard. The Fn button has a copy on the left, and the left Ctrl is placed in a corner. Users who can type text blindly won’t feel any discomfort with this keyboard. There are the traditional indicators here: Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock.

The pointing stick (located between the G and H keys) with two buttons is the default pointing device on this computer.

The exclusive connector on the front panel is the main port the sub-notebook connects to the outside world with. You can attach a cradle or a special adapter for an external monitor (analog D-Sub) and a network Ethernet Base TX interface.

With a cradle, the sub-notebook can connect to more peripheral devices.

The rear and side panels of the cradle offer the following:

As the snapshot shows, there are slits at the spot where the cradle connects to the sub-notebook so that the cooling system would not get blocked.

Configuration and Accessories

The accessories to this computer are as unusual as it itself is. The small universal power adapter fits the overall miniaturization concept perfectly:

A curiously-shaped stylus is included to work with the touch-sensitive screen. It turned to be quite handy, I should confess, and you can tie it to your wrist with the strap.

The manufacturer provided an opportunity to use the VAIO VGN-U750P as an MP3 player and equipped it with a special control device.

The control unit is connected to the sub-notebook through a special connector that consists of an ordinary mini-jack and additional pins.

The unit has a clip to hang it on your clothes, a small single-string LCD screen, and some control buttons any regular MP3 player has.

A portable device calls for a bag or a pouch for safe transportation. The manufacturer includes cloth pouches for the sub-notebook and for the external keyboard.

Performance

It’s not quite correct to talk about performance in this particular case. The Sony VAIO VGN-U750P is not even a regular sub-notebook. It is a concept device, a full-fledged computer in a very, very small case. The very fact that this cutie works under control of Windows XP rather than an OS for PDA s and can run “serious” applications deserves our attention.

The VAIO VGN-U750P is easy and pleasant to work with. It is remarkable with the very approach of the manufacturer to building a truly mobile computer: they threw away everything the user can do without, and moved all the expansion options into the external devices. This machine can’t match the functionality of an ordinary notebook, but it fits easily into your pocket as a PDA, while a normal notebook requires a bag or a rucksack.

So I am very thrilled about the Sony innovation and am also glad I can make such a unique device familiar to you.

Terra Aura 1200

Design and Ergonomics

At the first glance over this notebook I was reminded of familiar features and outlines. Yes, this is the good old ASUS M5! The color scheme consists of the same stern and conservative combination of dark gray and black. The manufacturer’s logo has moved to the center. The smooth sloping sides of the case have been replaced with more abrupt cuts. The overall style of the prototype is preserved well, though.

Little has changed inside. The screen with an aspect ratio of 3:4 has a matte coating, but the logotype beneath it is missing. The quality of the screen is rather poor. The vertical viewing angle is narrow and the colors get distorted even on a slightest deflection from the normal. The low maximum brightness makes it impossible to work under strong external lighting indoors or outside. There are problems with the color reproduction, too. For example, the skin color is reproduced incorrectly. The matrix speed is sufficient for everyday work, but there is a noticeable “ghosting” effect even when you’re scrolling text.

The keyboard is made of black translucent plastic and spans the entire width of the case. Unlike with the ASUS M5, there no reduced-size buttons on the right. The Fn button has its copy on the right and this is convenient indeed. There are also two Windows buttons here. What I don’t like is that the Shift keys are small and that the left Fn is positioned in the bottom left corner where you usually expect to find a Ctrl. Curiously enough, they left the programmable button to turn the Wi-Fi interface on/off intact, although there is also a hardware switch.

The touchpad is designed as a depression in the top panel and is nice to work with. The touchpad’s sensitivity can be adjusted to your particular taste and the additional functions (the scrolling zones and the double click) are adjustable, too.

A group of LED indicators is on the left of the touchpad:

The indicators are made visible on the outside by means of light pipes.

The mechanical Wi-Fi On/Off switch is located in the left rear corner where the ASUS’ notebook had a button that switched through power-saving modes.

The Power button is in the right rear corner. It has been stripped of its stylish metal frame. The integrated microphone is located nearby.

There are absolutely no connectors and switches on the front panel. The button in the center holds the latch of the lid.

The left panel offers you the tray of the optical drive (this drive can burn DVDs, unlike the one in the ASUS notebook), an RJ-45 LAN connector, an RJ-11 V.92 modem connector, a PCMCIA slot, a card-reader (MS, SD, MMC formats), and one USB 2.0 port. Dummy cards are inserted instead of a flash card and a PC card. The bottom panel of the optical drive is reinforced with a metal plate to avoid deformation when the tray is open.

The rear panel is almost fully occupied by the battery. Besides it, there is only a power adapter connector and a 4-pin FireWire port there. Depending on the capacity, the battery may either go beyond the dimensions of the case or match them (like the included reduced-capacity battery does).

Headphones and microphone mini-jack connectors are located on the right panel of the case – the sound volume is only controlled on the software level. There are also two USB 2.0 ports, an analog D-Sub video output, a Kensington lock hole, and an exhaust vent opening here.

Using the case of the ASUS M5, this model has the same design flaws as the prototype, particularly as concerns the placement of the input and output openings of the cooling system. The hot air goes out leftwards, causing some discomfort to the left-handed user holding an external mouse. The air inlets near the centrifugal fan are located in such a way that you can accidentally block them and overheat the notebook if you hold it on your laps.

Next, the ports on the left side panel are so densely placed that if the card inserted into the PCMCIA slot will make it almost impossible to use the card-reader.

The bottom panel of the case is exactly the same as it was on the ASUS M5. The integrated speakers and the Reset button are placed exactly in the same positions. The removable panels give you access to the hard drive, to the SO-DIMM memory slot and to the processor socket. The rear feet with rubber caps are still located on the battery, so if it is taken off, the plastic case may get scratched on a hard surface, like that of your desk, for example.

Configuration and Accessories

The configuration makes this notebook an a priori leader of this review. It is based on the i915GM chipset, features a very powerful Intel Pentium M 750 processor (1.86GHz), has as much as 768MB of system memory by default, is equipped with a DVD-burner, and a 100GB hard drive! The configuration is advanced enough to appeal strongly to the potential buyer.

It is strange that the notebook comes with a reduced-capacity battery. The powerful processor depletes it in no time under full load – the battery life is very, very limited. So you may want to ask for a higher-capacity battery when you purchase this notebook.

The standard power adapter is meant for 100-240V, 50-60Hz AC input. It has a LED indicator to report that there’s voltage in the mains.

Performance

These numbers can talk for themselves, I guess. The performance is high, but the battery life is downright bad. The battery cannot even hold out through the duration of a movie, so this notebook can hardly be normally used without a reinforced battery. Again, it is strange that such an advanced configuration comes with just a “half-capacity” battery.

Taken as a whole, the Terra Aura 1200 has more pros than cons. At a price of less than $2000, it boasts the most advanced configuration – no other notebook has that much of system memory and disk space. The ergonomic qualities and the design are also hard to find fault with (the notebook is based on the ASUS M5 design after all). The only thing that may disturb the potential buyer is the obscure brand. The laws of the notebook market are such that a less advanced, less user-friendly and more expensive model is going to be more popular just because it carries the world-famous ASUS brand.

Toshiba Portege M300

Design and Ergonomics

This notebook is made up of classic shapes and colors. Its outline is smooth and rounded; its lid is silvery and the bottom is black. The lack of gaudy decorations stresses the fact that this computer is a work tool rather than a digital accessory of its owner.

The notebook’s interior is traditional, too. The display with a matte coating is set in a dark-gray plastic bezel. The maximum brightness isn’t very high, and there are noticeable irregularities in the backlighting. The matrix is not fast – the “ghosting” effect is quite evident. The colors are reproduced correctly, including the skin color.

Below the screen you can see the manufacturer’s shiny logotype. There are two integrated speakers behind the keyboard. They are quite large for notebook’s speakers.

The keyboard layout is convenient. The auxiliary buttons like Shift, Enter and Backspace have their normal size.

The block of arrow keys is separated from the mainland keyboard with blank spots to avoid accidental presses on the neighboring keys. But I don’t think that a tilde and a backslash are the symbols you’d want to have near the spacebar.

The metal Power button, a button to switch between the notebook’s own and external displays, and a tricky button that turns on the Toshiba Easy Guard are all located to the left of the mainland keyboard. The exclusive Easy Guard feature is meant to ensure “data integrity, system protection and problem-free communication”, but I say it eats a lot of system resources, pesters the user with stupid questions and warnings and must be immediately disabled and uninstalled! This is an example of how you can get so many resident programs that they become a burden for the whole system!

The touchpad is shifted a little to the left of the center. It is designed to match the overall appearance of the notebook: a light gray coating of the sensitive area and a silvery metal frame. The touchpad works well. You may find its buttons a bit too narrow, but this is a matter of habit.

The front panel is quite a populated place. Besides the lid latch, there is an infrared port, headphones and microphone connectors, a mechanical volume control, a wireless adapter switch, and a number of LED indicators here (IR port activity, AC Power, Power On-Off, Battery recharging, HDD activity, Wireless adapter activity, Card-reader activity).

The following is located on the left: a PCMCIA slot, one USB 2.0 port, a D-Sub video output, a Kensington lock, a vent opening. This position of the vent hole is appropriate for a right-handed user who won’t have hot air exhausted on his/her hand when using an external mouse.

The rear panel has a battery compartment and an RJ-45 LAN connector. The battery does not go beyond the case’s dimensions.

Two more USB 2.0 ports, a 4-pin FireWire port, an RJ-11 connector of the integrated V.92 modem, an optical drive tray, and two ports of the integrated card-reader (for SD and CF formats) are located on the right panel.

I have one complaint about the quality of the drive: the bottom panel bends heavily under the tray and may break eventually.

The removable covers on the notebook’s bottom panel provide access to the hard drive and the memory compartments. There is also a connector for the docking station (it is an optical component) near the battery – it is covered with spring-loaded shutters.

Configuration and Accessories

The accessories are not so numerous – although I would expect them to be at such a price. The Portege M300 comes almost “naked”, with just a power adapter and a battery.

The power adapter is universal (100-240V, 50/60Hz AC input and 15V DC output with an allowable load of 4 amperes). The battery is rather big (for a sub-notebook), but its capacity is high: 10.8V x 4700mAh.

The use of a Pentium M ULV processor in a 12” notebook is rather strange. This will surely positively effect the battery life time, but not the performance. Moreover, the optical drive that cannot burn DVDs and the 40GB drive are not what you’d expect to have in a notebook that costs so much money!

Performance

Quite predictably, the performance of the notebook is average, and the battery life is just excellent. You won’t even need a reinforced battery to work for a long time autonomously.

The Portege M300 gives me rather contradictive feelings. On one hand, its controls are placed most conveniently and its battery life is very long, but on the other hand, its configuration is not advanced, its accessories are not rich, its screen is average, and its price is high. I guess Toshiba’s admirers will find a lot more advantages and will think the Easy Guard utilities very useful and even indispensable, but I think this model can only be a real competitor to the others if its price is considerably reduced.

Toshiba Libretto U100-S213

Design and Ergonomics

The small width and depth of this cutie jar with its rather big height (30mm and 50mm with and without the docking station, respectively). These dimensions may create an impression of bulkiness, further emphasized by the strict and square outline. Do not forget, however, that this is a visual deception. The dimensions of the Libretto U100-S213 are really very small.

The case of this notebook is made of plastic with a metal insert in the lid which doesn’t perform any function but serves as a decorative detail only. The color scheme matches the strictness of shape – the notebook is deep blue everywhere except the top panel and the battery. The lid doesn’t have a locking device, but you can easily fix it in any position by means of the stiff joint.

A row of LED indicators can be seen on the right of the front panel:

The slanting position of the indicators makes them visible when the lid is open as well as closed. There is also the slit of the SD card reader in the front panel, a lever to eject the PCMCIA card (the slot is located on the left side of the case) and a 4-pin FireWire port.

Ports to communicate with the outside world are mostly located on the right panel:

The left panel carries the following: a PCMCIA slot, a mechanical on-off switch for the wireless interfaces (many modern notebooks can only disable their wireless interfaces through software), a vent opening, and a power connector.

The rear panel has no connectors just because there is no place left to put them in – the battery module occupies most of the available space.

The Power On button is placed under the screen, in the center, so you can’t press it accidentally.

A pointing stick is the default pointing device on this computer. If you haven’t worked with one, you’ll need some time to get used to it and to find an optimal sensitivity. Many users prefer an external mouse, and the right-handed user is going to feel no discomfort with the Libretto as the hot air from the cooling system is exhausted leftwards.

A fingerprint scanner is located next to the pointing stick. You may have already met such authentication gadgets. If not, be aware that the scanner may get your fingerprint wrong if your fingers are moist or dirty. Such mistakes occur seldom, but are quite irritating nonetheless, so you may want to disable this protection system altogether unless you do fear your sub-notebook can be stolen.

The screen has 7.2 inches in diagonal which is rather strange as the size of the lid is full 9 inches and the native resolution of the screen is a whopping 1280x768! No wonder everything looks tiny on it unless you enable the large icons/large fonts mode.

The image quality is high. Darkest or lightest colors don’t merge into one, so you can always discern the darkest or lightest details of the onscreen image. There are no blatant errors in color reproduction; the skin color looks natural. Smooth color gradients are reproduced with hardly noticeable gradations, but without color or brightness noise. The maximum and minimum brightness of white is 194cd/sq.m and 5cd/sq.m, respectively. The uniformity of the screen backlighting as measured by the ANSI/IEC methodology is no worse than 86% which is a very good result for a notebook. The screen brightness can be set to one of 8 levels you can choose with appropriate hot keys. The viewing angles are rather wide (except when you’re looking at the screen from below), so there’s more than one appropriate position for your head before the screen. The matrix is quite fast subjectively – the “ghosting” effect isn’t conspicuous and doesn’t lead to loss of detail or distortion of color in a moving object. The screen has a special mirror coating that makes the colors lush and saturated, but the reflection of your own face on the screen may be distracting at times.

The keys are smaller than on ordinary keyboards. So even if you have the touch-typing skill, you won’t be able to type in text quickly and easily on this notebook. I personally found the non-standard placement of the auxiliary keys (like Del, Home and End) inconvenient.

Configuration and Accessories

Traditionally for this class of devices, the Libretto U100-S213 does not come with too many accessories. Besides the notebook, you only receive an external universal power adapter (100-240V, 50/60Hz), a Li-Ion battery (10.8V x 3400mAh), documentation, a registration card, a docking station with a DVD-burner, and various cables and adapters. You don’t get a bag or pouch, but this sub-notebook can be easily carried in a knapsack or a handbag.

The compact power adapter is rated for a wide range of input voltages and for both frequency standards (European – 50Hz and American – 60Hz). So you’ll only have to take care about adapters with appropriate plugs on your foreign voyages.

There’s a curious thing included with the power adapter:

When put on the power cable, it increases its inductance and thus slows down the transition process that occurs as you plug the cord into the wall outlet and is often accompanied with a spark. In other words, this small detail reduces the risk of electrical damage to the power circuit. It’s strange they didn’t put it on the cable right at the factory.

The included battery is rather large, both in dimensions and in capacity. The most annoying thing is that part of the battery protrudes from the rear panel of the notebook spoiling the appearance of the product somewhat and making it less portable. On the other hand, this battery can ensure a long time of autonomous work even at high computational loads and the maximum screen brightness (as you will see in the tests section below).

A feature that distinguishes the Libretto U100-S213 from other similar models is its docking station with a universal DVD-recorder.

The docking station is connected via Toshiba’s exclusive connector. It is very handy that you can disconnect the station “on the fly”, i.e. without powering the notebook down. To do so, you should use a special lever and look at the indicator – when it goes out, the station can be undocked.

The buttons on the front panel of the docking station control the playback of audio discs. There’s a special lever that locks these buttons to avoid accidental presses during transportation.

I consider the lack of S-Video or RCA connectors as a drawback of this notebook. One video output is available, but it is non-standard and you have to use the enclosed adapter for the ordinary D-Sub output (another accessory you may want to take with you on your trips).

The two-mode cooling system deserves my praises, however. The centrifugal blower is halted at low loads. When there’s high load on the computer (which seldom occurs at everyday office work), the noise is audible, but not very discomforting. The exhaust opening is located on the left, so as I said above, the hot air won’t be blowing at your hand if you attach a right-handed mouse to the notebook.

Performance

As you can see, the results are quite expectable. They are not very impressive as they are, but this model outperforms many other notebooks that have taken part in this test session. Don’t also forget about the size of the computer.

The Toshiba Libretto U100-S213 seems to be a reasonable compromise between size and configuration. It is not free from such common drawbacks of sub-notebooks as small keyboard keys and a small screen with a high resolution. Some people may also find it inconvenient to control the cursor with the pointing stick.

The main purpose of this cutie is to replace a full-size notebook when the latter is too big. The Libretto doesn’t even require a bag – you can easily put it into your suit pocket. Don’t also undervalue the opportunity to use this notebook as a portable system case: if you attach an external monitor and a keyboard with mouse, the Libretto U100-S213 will become a typical office computer (it has enough memory and disk space and a powerful enough processor to perform everyday office tasks). This notebook will be most useful on trips, for example, as you can copy the snapshots you’ve made with your digital camera to it and edit them right on the spot and then burn them to optical discs or send via the Internet (the Libretto U100-S213 offers good networking opportunities for that).

Performance

Some comments on the performance of the particular notebooks were given in their descriptions, so I’m just going to give you a summary table and a few diagrams. The results are all comprehensible and do not call for an in-depth discussion.

Here is a table of technical characteristics of the sub-notebooks side by side:


Click to enlarge

Conclusion

As a final word I want to say that there are no downright bad models among the tested sub-notebooks among the models tested in this part of the roundup. There are devices that didn’t leave the best possible impression, but there were just excellent samples, too. I hope you have got some useful information from this roundup.

The choice is yours!