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

Today we would like to offer you the first article in the series devoted to the compact notebook solutions from the leading laptop designers and manufacturers. The models from Acer, Dialogue Technology, Fujitsu Siemens, IBM, LG, MSI, and Samsung boast unique personality, excellent features, small size and weight. Hope this series of articles helps you make the best choice!

by Vasily Melnik
11/16/2005 | 04:24 PM

There is a rather large subcategory among notebook users who just don’t have a permanent work place due to business trips, to the necessity of always being on wheels, etc. And when you have to change your headquarters several times a day, you cannot but realize that an advanced and thoroughly rigged-out model of an office notebook with a screen diagonal of 14-15 inches is simply inconvenient. Dimensions and weight seem to be the main reasons for that inconvenience, besides some other factors. So, any user who carries his/her notebook on longer distances than from the house to the car and from the car to the office, sooner or later begins to think about purchasing a compact model.

 

Unlike typical 14-15” models, compact notebooks with a screen diagonal of up to 12 inches fit easily into the briefcase with your papers, weigh no more than 1.5-2 kilos and let you solve the same tasks as their more cumbersome mates do. By the way, no one could really think of purchasing such a sub-notebook just a little while since. In fact, the compact class was born a couple of years ago with the release of early Pentium M and Pentium M ULV processors which made it possible to build truly mobile devices that would be no worse or even better than some desktop systems as concerns comfort of use and performance.

A common argument against the compact notebook is that it has a very small screen. This is not as serious a drawback as it seems, however. You can just take a look at the specifications to see that ordinary sub-notebooks offer the same screen resolutions as classic office models, and widescreen sub-notebooks have even bigger resolutions! The smaller physical size of the screen may only be inconvenient in some particular applications like watching movies or playing games, but this can hardly matter for compact notebooks which are positioned as office tools designed for work rather than for entertainment.

Another important function of this class of devices is their distinguishing the owner and contributing to the creation of his/her personal image. A notebook costing something like $2000 just can’t be a purely utilitarian device – it is going to emphasize its owner’s status just like top-end cell phone models do. The fact that a bulk of such devices are bought for their looks alone is no secret for the sellers, by the way. A person who can easily shell out a couple of thousand bucks for a notebook will hardly bother to examine the specification and compare the parameters of the two dozens of available models. The only thing this person cares about is the brand, the exterior of the device, and its ability to perform the tasks he/she needs. And only then such parameters as battery life, price and others are taken into view.

The name of the manufacturer plays an important role, too. In some circles people just won’t understand you if you come to a business meeting with a notebook from LG or Samsung. Such prejudices have nothing to do with the real technical and ergonomic qualities of the notebook which may be actually good, as those of the LG and Samsung models tested in the context of this review.

We won’t focus on the exterior design of the portable computers included in this review since users each have his/her own opinion about what looks better. Frankly speaking, there are no ugly-looking models in this price category. Instead, we will try to cover exhaustively the objective parameters like configuration, convenient placement of the interface connectors, quality of the screen, and the design and layout of the input devices (touchpad, keyboard, etc).

The results of our comprehensive testing of compact notebooks are going to be presented to you in two installments. They are written by different authors so that you saw both parts in about the same time.

We hope to test a dozen or more notebooks and to cover all the popular brands available on this market. The first review will show you products from Acer (TravelMate 3004WTMi model), Dialogue Technology (FlyBook A33i), Fujitsu Siemens (Lifebook P7010 model), IBM (ThinkPad X40 model), LG (LW20 model), MSI (MegaBook S270), and Samsung (Q30 model). The second review will deal with such brands as Asus, Dell, Sony and Toshiba. There will probably be other brands included, but we haven’t yet settled on the full list.

Testing Participants

Acer TravelMate 3004WTMi

Our tests are opened by a product from the popular and respectable brand, the TravelMate 3004WTMi model from Acer.

The 3000 series from Acer is designed in the new Folio style that looks like a thin leather folder without a lock on the lid (which is not very convenient in practice, as you have to use both your hands to open the notebook; if you try to lift the lid up without holding the bottom in place, they will both go up without opening). The gray panels of the case feel nice to the touch and are made of “proper” plastic – this notebook doesn’t give you any unpleasant tactile sensations and your fingerprints don’t stay on the plastic. By the way, the designers of the exterior of the TravelMate 3000 series were awarded the prestigious Red Dot Award for the best design in the Media and Home Electronics category.

The engineers who developed the internals of the notebook should also be praised, though. By using an external optical drive they managed to put some advanced stuffing into the TravelMate 3004WTMi model: a Pentium M 760 processor (2.0GHz clock rate), 1 gigabyte of system memory, and a 100GB hard disk drive. Well, this may give rise to apprehensions as to how long these power-hungry components can work autonomously – they must require more juice than models on Pentium M ULV.

I think it is because of this fact that Acer equips the series with two batteries. The bigger-capacity battery doesn’t add any elegance to the device:

But it doesn’t stick out too far, so you can put up with that:

And if you don’t like any protruding elements at all, you can use the enhanced battery only when you are long away from a wall electrical outlet and change it for the standard battery in other situations:

And here is another design feature of all Acer notebooks made in the new design:

The company’s logotype is placed in the bottom left corner rather than in the center of the lid, and I think this looks better.

The interface connectors seem to be placed properly. The rear panel is almost entirely occupied by the accumulator battery:

There is only space left for a power connector and a port to attach a docking station Acer ezDock:

If you have run short of notebook’s integrated ports or if you just don’t want to spend a few minutes to plug all the necessary cables in as you begin to work, the ezDock offers you 24 various interface ports for any situation. The notebook’s right panel carries a 6-pin FireWire port for the external optical drive (or any other FireWire peripheral; I should say that you don’t often find a normal FireWire connector in a notebook, especially in a compact notebook), one USB 2.0 port, a PCMCIA slot and a card-reader:

The remaining space is occupied by a vent grid and a Kensington lock slot. On the notebook’s left panel you can find an analog (D-Sub) output for an external monitor, two USB 2.0 ports, and modem and network connectors:

The audio inputs and outputs on the front panel seem to be the only inappropriately placed connectors:

The attached headphones connector is a nuisance when you hold the notebook on your laps. And when you put it on a desk, the cable will be constantly getting under your hand. The headphones and microphone ports are not the only things you can find on the front panel:

There are also power indicators here along with two buttons to turn on the supported network interfaces (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi). They shine with mild blue light when activated.

The notebook’s bottom panel is not absolutely perfect, either:

The air inlet in the top left corner coincides with your leg when you put the notebook on your laps, and the device becomes noticeably hot as a consequence.

The primary input device, the keyboard, is free from any obvious defects:

It’s easy to work with; the buttons are large enough and are not prone to sink down in twos or threes under your fingers. The only problem is that the PgUp and PgDn buttons can be pressed accidentally when you are moving the cursor blindly with the arrow keys.

The cursor-controlling keys are also used to adjust the screen brightness and the sound volume. You can use them with the Fn button in the bottom left corner, however you will not be able to do it with one hand.

There are few additional buttons here:

Three buttons to access frequently used applications (Internet, E-mail, Acer Empowering) and one user-defined button. The Power-On button is located on the opposite side:

It is very small and is surrounded with a protruding circle, so you have to press it with the very tip of your finger. The touchpad is blameless:

The cursor positioning accuracy is high; there are no vertical and horizontal scrolling zones, but you get a 4-position joystick instead (located between the buttons).

So, it’s all good until this moment. I mean until we begin to talk about the notebook’s screen. Acer should definitely think about changing its LCD screen supplier. At least they could have selected a better screen for such a good notebook. The 12.1” widescreen matrix with a resolution of 1280x800 offers a wide range of brightness adjustment with good min and max points. It is free from the clipping effect and its backlighting is uniform, but such parameters as viewing angles, color reproduction, color saturation and response time might be better. Of course, this screen will do nicely for office work, but it is not the best choice for watching movies and reproducing photographs.

As I said above, an additional battery, two times the size of the standard one, is included with the notebook.

It won’t take much room in your bag, however:

And the characteristics of the battery are quite advanced, despite its rather small dimensions:

The power adapter matches the batteries:

It is small and has good technical parameters:

The only thing I can complain about – and it is not limited to the Acer TravelMate 30004WTMi, but concerns some other of the tested notebooks – is that a standard and thick power cord with a European plug is included. When coiled, this cable takes up two times the space occupied by the notebook’s power adapter! The “smaller is better” concept underlying all design solutions in notebooks of that class seems not to apply to power cords.

Besides the notebook, two batteries and power adapter, you receive an external DVD±RW drive with a FireWire interface:

And a cable to connect it:

The drive is designed in the same style as the notebook, and its only drawback is the stiff and short cable. You just have nowhere to put the drive if you hold the notebook on your laps: there’s no room for it left on the laps and you can’t put it somewhere nearby due to the shortness of the cable.

You also receive a large software pack which users of Acer notebooks should be familiar with. I want to single out the Acer GridVista tool you can divide the screen into zones with and switch through them as necessary. The ePowerManagement tool for setting up the power management options is handy, too. You can set up operational modes for each of the main power consumers and create power management profiles that you can later switch between quickly.

Performance

These are expectable results for a powerful CPU and high-performance memory subsystem. The notebook won’t fail even in complex desktop applications. The battery life time is not long, but this is understandable considering the configuration. You can work with the full-size battery, but the “half” one is much worse: 40 minutes under full load and 1.5 hours in the reader’s mode is not enough for normal work, but it can do as a spare battery.

The notebook leaves a highly positive overall impression. It is a well-rigged compact model with nice appearance and good ergonomic properties. The screen is in fact the only component that’s below the general level of this model – I think a top model from a renowned manufacturer must have a better-quality screen.

If you think the TravelMate 3004WTMi is too feature-rich and expensive for you, the 3000 series includes four other modifications, even the simplest of which can cope with any office task imaginable. Generally speaking, you can limit yourself to this series alone in your search for a compact notebook up to your requirements and budget, but only if you are satisfied with the employed screen.

Dialogue FlyBook A33i

This is a unique model in its class. The FlyBook A33i looks like a classic ultra-compact notebook with a 9.8” screen:

But it is not quite such. At first you notice the lack of a touchpad and then the turning hinge of the screen:

So, this is in fact a tablet notebook:

And it is a rare solution indeed. You can count up available tablets with such a small screen diagonal with the fingers of one hand. This particular device is full of surprises. Not only it is the smallest tablet I ever saw, it is also based on a 1GHz Transmeta Crusoe TM-5800 processor. Besides the exotic CPU, the manufacturer managed to squeeze 512MB of memory, an ATI Radeon Mobility graphics processor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPRS (!) modules, and a number of interface connectors into this small case and the result weighs a mere 1.2kg!

The layout of components in this notebook is not traditional. For example, the battery is located in the front part of the case:

This is not a common design solution, yet it is all even more confusing with the interface connectors. A Power-On button and, under a cover, SIM-card and antenna connectors are the only things that you can find on the left panel:

The right panel seems to be absolutely empty at first sight:

The manufacturer only put a nest for the stylus there:

The stylus is small and lies neatly in a medium-sized hand.

But when I gave this stylus to someone with a real male paw, the stylus seemed diminished to the size of a match and the "paw-man" wasn’t quite satisfied with it.

The interface connectors of the A33i are all placed on the rear panel:

The decision to put the connectors there rather than on the side panels seems questionable, but you realize the manufacturer’s motive to do so as soon as you try to use this notebook as a tablet. If the connectors were on the sides, like they are on ordinary notebooks, they would be blocked by the user’s hands in the tablet mode.

A video output is located next to the screen hinge and the rest of the connectors are grouped closer to the sides of the device. The right group includes headphones and microphone connectors, two FireWire ports and a PCMCIA slot:

A D-Sub connector, two USB 2.0 ports and a modem connector are in the left group:

Due to the very compact size of the device, there is just no place left for a touchpad – everything is occupied by the keyboard:

I won’t criticize this keyboard since it had to match the size of the whole notebook. There are no keys missing, but they are all rather small. You have to look at the keyboard all the time to make sure you don’t press several keys at once. Blind typing is prohibited even if you have small fingers (well, of course you can make a try, but you will produce so many typos that it will seem better to you to look at the keys after all). What I don’t like is that the arrow keys are combined with PgUp, PgDn, Home and End – this is very inconvenient when you are reading and moving through text. The position of the right Shift key is uncommon, too. So, this keyboard doesn’t suit for work with big amounts of text, maybe except if you are a miniature girl with small, elegant hands.

A TrackPoint is the default pointing device this notebook offers to you:

Two mouse buttons are located to the left of it, and a PAN button (for zooming into the picture) is to the right.

The mouse buttons have their copies in the left part of the device:

This gives you an opportunity to control the notebook as with a joystick, holding it with two hands. This is easy and may prove practical for some undemanding arcade games.

The stylus and the screen behave as in a PDA – through touch. You can’t move the cursor by hovering near the screen with the stylus. I found this inconvenient. Moreover, the screen has no protective coating, so it is possible to wear it out eventually with the stylus or damage by accidentally letting it fall in the tablet mode.

The screen proper is very good, having a big brightness reserve, uniform backlighting, large viewing angles, natural reproduction of body colors in photographs, and good response time. As for disadvantages, the min brightness is rather too high, and the colors might be more saturated.

The notebook is equipped with a “half-capacity” battery, one “test pen” in length:

The power adapter is typical for devices of that class:

You get some accessories to the notebook, like a neat transportation pouch:

An adapter cable for the video output:

A strap for wearing something on your neck:

I didn’t understand what was supposed to be worn on that strap. You will hardly want to hitch the 1.2kg tablet on it, while the stylus has no holes for a neck-cord.

A special strap with a sticker to tighten the power adapter’s cord with is included, too:

This is a useful thing as cables are generally prone to become entangled.

In the software bundle I’d want to single out an indispensable tool for tablet computers, a handwriting recognition system that supports English and German. The FlyBook A33i comes with ordinary Windows XP rather than with Tablet PC, so you don’t have an onscreen keyboard. The lack of a separate button for turning the display around doesn’t add points to the ergonomic properties of the device, either.

And as I worked with the FlyBook A33i, I discovered another trouble. The notebook worked correctly with a USB flash drive but refused to see some compact external optical and hard drives with a USB interface. The exotic stuffing of the device seems to have some unsolved compatibility problems as yet.

The FlyBook A33i is shown in two color schemes on the manufacturer’s website – black and white. Like for boys and girls. My impressions about that model are rather confused. It doesn’t suit for doing any normal work, except for some very specific applications, but it does have an indisputable advantage of low weight. You can carry it with you for hours without feeling its weight at all. The tablet may also be the only device that allows comfortably surfing the Web from any location. In this case, this location is the entire area of coverage of your GSM operator (if it offers you GPRS Internet services, of course).

Performance

The performance of this notebook is expectably low. The Transmeta Crusoe TM-5800 processor was not developed to break any records in benchmarks. It was just expected to provide enough performance in ordinary office applications. The OS interface seems to be somewhat slow-thinking until you disable the advanced visual effects. Otherwise, the performance of the system was sufficient for office applications and for listening to music and watching MPEG-4. I couldn’t check DVD playback due to the above-mentioned problems with connection of the external drive.

Considering the configuration of the FlyBook A33i, it seems to be an excellent communication solution for people who do not work much with text, who need to be online all the time and who do not require an optical drive. Moreover, with its weight and size and pretty appearance, the notebook should make a very good gift for the fair sex most of whom won’t even find it a problem to work with the miniature keyboard.

Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook P7010

It’s not so easy to find a masterpiece of design thought among notebooks from Fujitsu Siemens. The Amilo series doesn’t please your eyes with its exterior, for example. But the portable Lifebook P7010 is not so easy to find fault with as concerns the appearance alone:

The designers of this series have earned their wages well. The P7010 is an example of how an ideal full-fledged notebook with a 10” screen must look like: all necessary interfaces, a full-size battery, an optical drive, a normal keyboard, and a compact case with a total weight of only 1.3kg! An interesting feature of this model is that the lid can open up by more than 180 degrees:

This is really convenient when you hold the notebook on your laps: you can put one leg over the other and put the notebook on top of it and comfortably type in text, for example.

Although the device is equipped with a full rather than half-capacity battery, you don’t see any protruding things in its rear part:

The designers receive my thanks for that, because the notebook looks very neat and pretty. The Fujitsu Siemens designers should also be taken example from as concerns putting various connectors around a notebook. The hardest-to-access rear panel has nothing on itself the user might require, except a Kensington lock slot.

Note also how the output of the cooling system is designed:

This is the best place for a vent opening as it will always be open irrespective of how you put the notebook down for work – on your laps or on a desk. Air seems to be taken in through the perforated decorative grid in the top panel of the case:

A chromium-plated plastic bar is implanted into the grid. The Power-On button resides on the right of this bar and the notebook’s indicators are inside it. You can see them when the notebook is turned on. The lid is designed in such a way that the indicators are also visible when the lid is open:

The front panel doesn’t carry anything unnecessary:

A card-reader and a Wi-Fi adapter switch fit nicely into this panel:

Part of the Wi-Fi switch is painted red, so when you move it into the On position, you can immediately tell that the Wi-Fi adapter is active. My thanks go to the designers for their putting covers on all infrequently used connectors. For example, only two USB ports, a headphones output (combined with a digital SPDIF output) and a microphone input are left open on the right panel:

A power connector, FireWire, S-Video and D-Sub interfaces are all hidden under covers:

The bottom part of the left panel is mostly occupied by the optical drive, with a CF card reader and a PCMCIA slot being placed above it:

An RJ-11 (modem) connector for a phone cable is located to the left of the drive. It is also under a cover. The manufacturer’s care about various small details is highly pleasing:

There’s a suede pad on the door of the hard disk drive bay which protects the drive against shocks and the user against the heat from the notebook when it lies on your laps.

The keyboard is actually superb, considering the size of the device:

It uses the entire available width of the notebook, so the keys are no smaller than on full-size notebooks, save for a few keys near Enter. The PgUp, PgDn, Home and End keys are combined with the cursor-controlling keys, which is not very convenient, as I already said above. But taken as a whole, the keyboard of this model is much easier to work with than keyboards of many other 12” notebooks. The touchpad is beyond my criticism altogether. The cursor positioning accuracy is high; the buttons are easy to use and to find blindly. There’s also a vertical scroll button between them.

A little below the keyboard, in the bottom right corner, there is a row of keyboard indicators:

This is not the best place for them, to tell you the truth. When you are typing text, you cover them with your hand and cannot keep track of the indicators with your peripheral sight.

The notebook is equipped with a DVD+/-RW, which is hidden so well that you may not even know it’s here. You should take a look at the case from below to see it:

The screen is high quality, too. The matrix is not very fast and the vertical viewing angle is rather narrow, but these are not too serious problems. Apart from that, the screen is good at reproducing photos as well as videos – only a real cinemaddict will notice a barely visible blurring of the borders of onscreen objects in the most dynamic scenes.

The optical drive is removable:

And it is equipped with a non-standard interface connector:

According to the manufacturer, you can replace the drive with an additional “half-size” battery (2300mAh capacity, 10.8V voltage) for longer autonomous work.

The default battery isn’t very big:

But its parameters are quite satisfactory:

The same is true about the power adapter:

Small size, but good characteristics.

You don’t get any nice little trifles with the notebook, except a small suede pouch to protect the device against scratches.

The pouch is actually the best in quality among those enclosed with the tested notebooks. It even has a metallic logotype of the manufacturer:

Performance

There’s nothing to comment much upon here. The results are sufficiently high for an Intel Pentium M ULV 753 processor. It is a long way behind the Acer TravelMate 3004WLMi, for example, yet the Lifebook P7010 should suffice for any office or multimedia application. The battery life time is more than satisfactory. Few notebooks of that size and weight and configuration can boast such results.

So, I am really very positive about the small computer from Fujitsu Siemens. This is an ideal work tool with an impressively advanced configuration and weight/size parameters. If you’re looking for a full-fledged compact notebook and do not want to lose a jot in functionality, then this is a worthy candidate to vote for with your purse.

IBM ThinkPad X40

Austerely designed and priced rather heavily, products from IBM still enjoy demand among the company’s long-time devotees who consider such design as the only best possible design of a notebook and the TrackPoint as the best pointing device, and so on. Well, I don’t mean to sound contemptuous about IBM’s notebooks. They are really good work tools for the corporate sector, and the compact X40 model is not an exception:

IBM’s style is followed closely in every detail. You can easily guess the brand irrespective of the position of the lid, open or closed:

The lid is actually bare, save for the company’s logo in the bottom right corner and a small panel with look-through indicators:

There is a bare minimum of ports on the notebook, as usual for IBM. The right panel carries a power connector, one D-Sub, and one USB port combined with a power connector for the company’s external optical drive. And there’s also a vent opening there, that’s all.

The front and rear panels are virtually empty.

Some more connectors can be found on the left panel:

Here we’ve got a PCMCIA slot, headphones and microphone connectors, an SD card-reader (I don’t know why they preferred this exactly format to others), one USB port, and connectors for network and phone (modem) cables.

This is all you get and I wouldn’t even call this selection of interfaces scanty. Two USB ports, one of which is originally reserved for the optical drive, might be insufficient, while such little things as a video output, FireWire and a digital audio output are not to be mentioned – this notebook is meant for work, not for play! If you buy such notebooks for your employees, you can rest assured that they won’t be having too much fun with them.

The bottom of the notebook presents some reading matter to you:

Numerous informational stickers and a connector for a docking station are typical of IBM products. The speakers, doing double duty as air inlets, are located in the bottom of the front part of the case:

The sound will be bad if you have the notebook on your laps, but again – have you forgot already that this notebook is meant exclusively for work? So, the real problem is not that the sound is bad but that the air inlets are blocked by your laps. This is not so good for the “ideal work tool” concept.

The input devices don’t need long descriptions. You’ll understand everything in an instant if you have ever dealt with an IBM. If you have not, I’ll give you some facts. IBM still ignores the Windows and the Context Menu keys, but they do put a label “Designed for Microsoft Windows XP” on the notebook and this operating system is recommended as preferable on the IBM website, although the user loses some OS-related functions without those keys. For example, the shortcuts involving the Windows key are absolutely and irritatingly unavailable. The rest is quite common, though:

The traditional “Access IBM” button is long known to all admirers of the company, but I want to say thanks for the volume control and mute sound buttons. This is already something above the bare minimum. The separately placed Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause keys are handy, too:

I can’t say the same about the cursor-controlling devices, however.

IBM’s implementation of the pointing stick is in fact the best existing, but I think a touchpad is still much better than any TrackPoint. A TrackPoint does not give you the same positioning accuracy and you cannot avoid touching it accidentally with you fingers and moving the cursor randomly as you’re typing text. Well, as I said above, there are many people who like this device, even despite its drawbacks.

There is one feature of the ThinkPad X40 that I would like to see implemented on other notebooks as well. It is the keyboard highlighting lamp built into the lid. It does help a lot in the evening and in darkness.

The screen is generally good, with uniform backlighting, large viewing angles, lush colors, natural reproduction of body tones, and without any clipping. The maximum brightness is not very high, and the matrix is not very fast, but the latter thing is not relevant for an office machine.

The notebook’s battery is small and rather thin:

But its characteristics are not the best possible:

The power adapter with the company’s logo and a slanting angle is not too big, either:

But its characteristics are more than sufficient:

IBM usually sells you no more accessories than necessary, so you can optionally buy a docking station, drives, an additional battery and so on. I managed to obtain a docking station and a drive for the notebook, but could not find an additional battery.

Connected to the docking station, the notebook doubles in weight and thickness:

The Power-On button is copied on the dock station’s front panel and has a blocking knob:

It makes sense to block the button or the device may turn on accidentally during transportation.

Here are the not-so-numerous connectors available on the dock station:

The network, modem, D-Sub and one USB connector are copies of the notebook’s appropriate connectors – you can’t use the notebook’s ones if you have attached the docking station. A COM port is not so necessary today, so you only get two more USB connectors, one LPT and PS/2 ports. The selection seems limited, but once again, this notebook is meant exclusively for work. The side panels carry no connectors at all:

The optical drive is on the left panel. The big lever on the right panel disconnects the docking station from the notebook. It is big because you have to apply some serious force to take the notebook off. I really wonder why they put a lock there if the pressure of the lever is so high. A corporate user might need it, but I doubt a home user does. Ordinary users tend to ignore any attempts at making simple things more sophisticated. The blocking of the notebook’s connectors when it is installed on the docking station is done simply:

They are just covered by the plastic juts and you just can’t use them even if you wanted. The drive is removable, so you can replace the ordinary combo with a DVD-recorder if necessary.

You can also put a full-size battery into the docking station to increase the notebook’s battery life time. The only problem is that the X40 ceases to become a compact notebook in this case. Its dimensions and weight with the docking station connected go beyond the limits of the compact class, while without the station it is nearly the worst notebook tested in this review in terms of functionality and ease of use.

Performance

You can’t complain at the performance of that ThinkPad. Its speed comes naturally from its configuration. The battery life is long, considering the characteristics of the employed battery, but on the other hand, a notebook from a famous brand should be better in this respect. A little over one hour in the full load mode is just too little for a person who intensively uses his/her notebook. And I can’t imagine a top manager who takes a suitcase for the docking station, additional battery and other accessories, on a business trip. I think he’d just buy another notebook instead.

So, my feelings towards Lenovo’s produce are rather indifferent. The dinosaur seems to be degenerating now. The new products look much worse than IBM’s original ones. The quality of the earlier IBM products is still here, but the notebook with this configuration and characteristics will only be interesting for corporate clients and for IBM’s admirers who refuse to consider any alternatives. I think Lenovo won’t be successful by simply using the renowned brand. The old generation of IBM users will go away, while the new and fastidious user won’t get allured by the brand alone.

So, as far as this comparative review is concerned, I don’t recommend you to buy the notebook from IBM if you need something more than just the “office minimum”. The ThinkPad X40 is far inferior to the rest of the participating devices in terms of functionality and ergonomics, but comes at a rather steep price.

LG LW20

LG has just recently introduced its new sub-notebook models, the LW20 among them. I should acknowledge LG devised a very cute-looking machine:

The exterior design is excellent. There are no unnecessary things here, and every detail has the optimal shape and size. The designers only overdid it a little with the notebook’s lid:

The dark-blue pearl color looks splendid and the logo fits nicely in, but the lacquered surface remains tidy exactly until the moment you begin to use the notebook. Your fingerprints are just too visible on it – this lid is a detective’s dream! And LG was not even kind enough to include a small cloth pouch to store the notebook in. You only receive a small micro-fiber napkin which I think you will have to use often. It’s not practical to work in gloves, but the LW20 loses all its external appeal when covered with your greasy fingerprints.

This notebook doesn’t have a lock to its lid:

It’s like with the rest of the reviewed devices – the hinge of the lid is made in such a way that you can’t possibly open it with only one hand. There’s a nice card-reader here as compensation:

The LW20 and some other models from LG are the only compact notebooks to be equipped with a reader of XD cards. The other reviewed notebooks don’t support that format.

The rest of the connectors are almost all located on the sides of the device. On the left side we have D-Sub, USB, FireWire connectors, headphones, microphone and line-in audio connectors, and an Express Card/34 slot:

I am not inclined to regard the availability of an Express Card/34 slot as a big plus of this notebook. There are almost no peripherals yet for this slot and when they do come out, this model is likely to have already become obsolete. The remaining space on the panel is given to a vent opening of the cooling system and this is right – a Pentium M 770 requires normal cooling even in a compact notebook. Besides the optical drive, the right panel carries a power connector and network and modem connectors:

The rear panel is almost entirely occupied by the battery, but there are also two USB ports, an S-Video output and a Kensington lock here:

The fan of the cooling system is placed wrongly:

When you hold the notebook on your lap, the air inlet becomes blocked and the processor begins to feel rather hot.

There’s no more space for a touchpad on the LW20 than on the IBM ThinkPad X40, but it is implemented and is rather easy to use:

There is everything you might expect from a normal touchpad like vertical and horizontal scroll zones and high positioning accuracy.

The keyboard is also good, with large Enter and Shift keys and with normal-sized keys on the right. The only drawback of this keyboard is the placement of the Home and End keys:

Although the arrow keys are placed a little below the keyboard’s baseline, these two buttons are going to be a nuisance at blind-typing – it’s just too easy to accidentally press End instead of Right Arrow.

The row of buttons above the keyboard is designed in LG’s traditional way:

Besides the Power-On button, this row includes volume controls, Mute and SRS buttons, the latter turning on a surround sound effect.

The quality of the screen is above average. It offers a wide range of brightness adjustment with a rather high maximum. There are no overbright areas on a black background and the backlighting is uniform. The body color is reproduced naturally in photos; the speed of the matrix is quite high. As for drawbacks, the vertical viewing angle is small and the colors are not very saturated well. The clipping effect can be observed on light areas of an image.

The notebook’s power-saving system has one peculiarity. If you don’t touch the notebook for long, the screen brightness is steadily reduced to the minimum. It’s up to you to decide whether this feature is of any use to you, but it can be set up to your taste or even disabled altogether.

The integrated optical drive is removable:

And it is equipped with a non-standard connector:

At first I thought the manufacturer had provided the option of replacing the optical drive with an additional battery, but I could not find any confirmation to this supposition anywhere. The description of the notebook only mentions a hot-swappable optical drive, but I don’t think the hot swap feature is necessary at all for a compact computer.

The notebook has a standard battery:

LG uses this accumulator in a number of its notebooks, so it’s not a big problem to replace the battery or find a second one. Its parameters should be well known to people who use LG’s latest notebook models:

The power adapter is rather big:

But that’s normal. A powerful processor needs a stable power source which wouldn’t fit into the dimensions of a pack of cigarettes. Here are its characteristics:

Performance

The fastest processor among the tested notebooks quite expectedly achieves the best results in benchmarks. The notebook is clearly a performance leader and, considering the configuration, the battery life time looks very good. The user can expect the battery to last at least 3 hours under typical office loads (I was typing in the text of this review and was editing the tables with the specifications and the test results on this notebook in the autonomous mode for about 2 hours and a half and the battery charge indicator showed 20% of charge left after my work was over).

So, LG produced an excellent notebook. This is a well-equipped stylish machine with high performance, pretty exterior, and low weight. This notebook can be recommended to anyone. It is designed to look equally well in the hands of a man or a woman. Someone may think it heavy, but I say 1.8kg of weight is good for such an advanced configuration. The only thing missing in this model is a Bluetooth adapter. The LW20 is no worse than top-end notebooks but differs from them in size and the lack of a discrete graphics processor. So, if you want a compact computer with the maximum performance a sub-notebook can yield, take a look at the LW20 – it deserves your consideration!

MSI MegaBook S270

MSI doesn’t offer a very long model range of notebooks, but the company tries to experiment even without having established its brand on that market in the same measure as the leading brands – the MSI S270 is one of the first notebooks with AMD’s Turion64 processor.

You can but seldom see a row of stickers like that one on a modern notebook:

Users have already got more or less used to ATI’s chipsets, but mobile processors from AMD are still regarded as exotic products and are usually shunned by people who turn towards the heavily advertised Centrino and Sonoma platforms from Intel instead. A mass user may not even know about notebooks on processors other than Intel’s and, frankly speaking, AMD’s earlier mobile CPU models were far from perfect. High heat dissipation and mediocre performance were typical of the rare notebooks with AMD inside that were available on the market. Of course, they didn’t sell well.

You may have probably seen tests of AMD’s new mobile processors on the Internet. They seem to be good enough products as to justify MSI’s policy. The company can’t get a big slice of the market pie by selling Sonoma or Centrino notebooks, so it offers an unusual product with unique characteristics. The performance and the battery life of the resulting sub-notebook will be discussed later on. Right now let’s check other properties of this computer.

The battery’s parameters are typical enough and it is placed in S260/S270 series sub-notebooks (the S260 is a modification in the same case, but based around the more traditional Pentium M processor) just like it is in some other of the tested notebooks:

That is, the battery protrudes from the notebook’s rear and does double duty as a stand to lift the rear part of the case up. This solution may make sense from an engineer’s point of view, but it makes the device thicker:

A second “half-size” battery should come with the notebook, but the resellers told me that strange things had happened with the shipment package. Some notebooks of that series come with two batteries, others with a “half” battery, and others still with a normal battery, like the tested sample. MSI seems not yet settled on what battery is the most optimal. You can also buy a second battery optionally, by the way.

The MSI notebook has a lid latch:

The notebook’s bottom being quite heavy, you can open the lid up with your single hand.

The engineers made a mistake putting audio connectors and a FireWire port on the front panel:

As I said above, it’s not very convenient to use them this way. While a headphones cable is rather thin, a FireWire cord is usually stiff and thick and may become a hindrance if it sticks out from the front panel right under your hands. The snapshot of the side panel shows you how much the battery adds to the thickness of the notebook:

One USB port, a card-reader and a PCMCIA slot are located on the left panel:

Take note of the position of the card eject button. It is on the very edge of the corner of the case and sinks down readily under a slightest touch. I can tell you from my own experience that you will often press this button accidentally when working or carrying the notebook. This is rather irritating, I should confess.

Two more USB ports are located on the right panel along with a vent opening, network and modem ports, power and D-Sub connectors:

It is now clear why a FireWire port and audio connectors are on the front panel: there’s not enough place for them on the side, and the rear panel is occupied by the battery.

The air inlet of the ventilation system is placed just like in the LG LW20:

And there’s the same problem: when you hold the notebook on your laps, the air inlet is blocked and the temperature rises. But unlike with the LG notebook, there’s a small-mesh grid in front of the fan here:

Various small junk won’t get into the system’s internals. The keyboard is normal, but there are still reduced-size keys on the right part because of MSI’s innovation – a column of Home, PgUp, PgDn and End keys on the right.

The cursor-controlling keys are not placed too conveniently. They should have been separated from the rest of the keyboard and made larger. The right Shift and Control keys might have been made normal-sized then, too. It is also not handy to use the functional keys in the top row – they are smaller than others.

The touchpad is ordinary, but its buttons are designed in a curious fashion:

I have no complains about the positioning accuracy and the overall ease of use. Everything’s normal, but the white field looks strange against the black background of the case. It should have been made darker, I think.

Two groups of indicators are located under the touchpad – the keyboard’s and the notebook’s ones.

The latter group can be seen even when the lid is closed:

Above the keyboard you can find a Power-On button, quick-launch buttons for your default Internet browser and e-mail client, a wireless adapter switch, and a screen zoom button.

The Power-on button is highlighted in mild blue at work which is a characteristic trait of all notebooks from MSI.

The notebook’s screen is better than just good. It offers a wide brightness adjustment range with a good reserve of maximum brightness. It lacks overbright areas on a black background; its backlighting is uniform and the viewing angles are wide. The body color is reproduced naturally and the colors are overall saturated. There’s no clipping on light areas and the speed of the matrix is good. This is a long list of highs, don’t you agree? As for lows, I can find only drawback – a small vertical viewing angle.

As I said above, the battery is standard:

And its characteristics are typical enough:

The power adapter is small:

Both S270 and S260 models employ the same power adapter with characteristics similar to those of other notebooks based on the Pentium M.

Among the notebook’s accessories I want to single out this pretty-looking USB mouse:

Performance

AMD doesn’t play foul: the notebook doesn’t look a black sheep against the rest of the reviewed devices. The ATI chipset seems to make a nice match to AMD’s new mobile processor and features a well-made graphics core, too. The MegaBook S270 is the only model in this review that allows playing Unreal Tournament 2004 comfortably. It also scored 4025 points in the popular synthetic benchmark 3DMark03 – a high result for integrated graphics. The appetite of the mobile AMD is modest enough, so the results of the battery life tests are excellent – the MSI MegaBook S270 is a leader among 12” models based around processors other than Pentium M ULV.

So, MSI produced a good notebook, even though based on the uncommon combination of an ATI chipset and an AMD processor. Considering its reasonable price, the notebook will surely find its buyer. The more so because it can entertain its owner with quite advanced 3D games. The only disadvantage of this model is its rather high weight (about 2 kilos) and large dimensions for a compact device. If you are not into CPU/chipset alternatives, you may still want to take a look at the MSI S260 model which bears the Centrino sticker, but you have to forget about the S270’s 3D capabilities in this case.

Samsung Q30

This is one of the smallest and at the same time one of the most expensive models in the company’s product range, and the configuration and design of the Q30 are appropriate to its size and price. The notebook is thin, light, and well-equipped. There’s nothing to find fault with – the single drawback of this model will be mentioned later on. Let’s first just take a look at it:

This is how notebooks should be designed: a thin screen bezel with a black insert, a mild gray color scheme, a traditional keyboard and touchpad. The front view may give you a deceiving impression about the notebook’s thickness, though.

It is in fact wedge-shaped, being thicker at the rear due to the battery. On the left of the front part of the case you can find a card-reader that supports SD, MMC, MS and MS Pro formats, and a block of LED indicators:

The developers just threw all indicators into one heap there, the notebook’s and the keyboard’s alike, so it is not very convenient to keep track of the keyboard’s ones because you cover them with your hand when you’re typing text.

The slogan on the lid is a fitting description of this machine:

Running a little ahead, I want to tell you that the Samsung Q30 is among the leaders in this review in the battery life parameter, so it fits perfectly the “Digital Freedom” concept.

I think the notebook’s appearance should appeal to the female half of the target group.

A deep red color, lacquered surfaces, low weight and small dimensions is just what a woman’s handbag needs. The reinforced battery spoils the impression somewhat, but you can replace it with a standard one which does not make the notebook larger. I should acknowledge that the Q30’s is one of the best “half-size” batteries and can last for quite a long time. But if you are a male and you like everything about this notebook except its color, you can consider the gray, lacquer-less version of the Q30 which is also available. This version is more practical – you can’t leave your fingerprints on the matte gray coating, and it is also harder to accidentally scratch it.

Various connectors are hung up around the notebook’s case at appropriate places:

The left panel carries all frequently used connectors: power, D-Sub for an external monitor, USB, 6-pin FireWire for an external optical drive (like with the one included with the Acer TravelMate 3004WTMi, it is a full-featured drive), and headphones and microphone.

On the right panel you can find a CF card-reader, one USB port, and network and modem sockets.

Note where the Power-On button is situated:

It is big, so you can find it blindly. It sinks down easily under your finger and is highlighted at work. Its position seems correct from the design point of view, but this button is prone to be accidentally pressed when you’re carrying the notebook in a bag. Thanks to the Pentium M ULV processor, the notebook does without any ventilation altogether. There are just no vent openings in the case:

The only holes in the case I found were on the bottom panel – for the speakers of the built-in audio subsystem.

The keyboard is as close to perfect as possible:

There are no reduced-size keys on the right; the Shift and Enter keys have their normal size, too. The only inconvenience is that the PgUp and PgDn keys are combined with Home and End and are placed near the cursor keys. The top row of functional keys are somewhat smaller than their usual size.

The screen of this notebook is among the best in this review. It has some overbright areas in the corners on a black background and its vertical viewing angles are small, but these are its only drawbacks. I could find no others. The range of brightness and the max brightness point, the matrix response time, color reproduction, and backlighting are all good and even better.

As said above, there are two batteries here. One is “full-size”:

It has typical enough parameters:

The “half-size” battery is smaller:

It has a two times smaller capacity:

It’s up to the notebook’s owner which battery to use, but the device looks much better with the “half” battery in use. The Q30 is an image-making model, rather than a workhorse, after all. The half battery is also equipped with a charge level indicator, by the way:

So you can control its status without turning the notebook on.

The power adapter is rather big:

It is too big for the Q30 in size as well as in capabilities:

I don’t know why they equipped a notebook on a Pentium M ULV with a power adapter that could normally power up a notebook on a full-fledged Pentium M. This must have something to do with such a thing as product unification .

You get an external optical drive with the Q30. It is designed to match the notebook’s appearance:

This is no DVD-burner, but a simple combo:

The Q30 model had appeared on the market before DVD-burners became popular. You don’t run the risk of losing the connection cord as with the drive for the Acer notebook:

So, one end of the cable is fixed in the drive and the other lies in a special groove in the drive’s own case. This solution has only one drawback – the same as I noted about the Acer TravelMate 3004WTMi. The cable is short, so you can’t put the notebook on your laps with the optical drive connected.

To keep the device protected against scratches and dirt, you should use the enclosed cloth pouch:

Well, considering the price of this small computer from Samsung, I would have expected to find a normal bag included.

Performance

The single sore spot of the Samsung Q30 and the serious drawback I mentioned above is its abnormally low performance. It is slower even than the Dialogue FlyBook A33i in the CPU test! The Samsung engineers must have wanted to set new records in down-clocking Pentium M ULV processors. But when it comes to the battery life tests, I can’t but applaud to the same engineering team – the numbers are astonishing! The Samsung Q30 is beyond competition in this parameter among ultra-light notebooks. You can work normally on the “half” battery – some other reviewed models don’t have similar results even on their full battery. As for the artificial “slowing down” of the CPU, I don’t actually complain about it. Unlike the above-mentioned FlyBook A33i, the Q30 works without a hitch. The OS interface is not sluggish and office and multimedia programs run at an acceptable speed. So, if you need the minimum of a notebook with the maximum of battery life time, the Samsung Q30 may be the solution. And if you are satisfied with everything save for the Q30’s performance, take a look at the new Q30 Plus model. It features a new processor and a Bluetooth adapter, and its performance is the maximum possible in its class, although the manufacturer of course had to sacrifice the time of autonomous work to achieve that. According to first reviews of the Q30 Plus in the Internet, the new model of the notebook can last about 40-50 minutes less in the Classic and Reader’s modes, respectively. And while the Q30 is an obvious leader in its class in terms of autonomous work, the Q30 Plus has normal parameters and not more.

So, it is simple with this one. Take the Q30 if you need a notebook with the maximum possible battery life time, and consider the Q30 Plus if you need more performance.

Test Methods

The tests were performed in a newly installed Windows XP Professional operating system with a necessary minimum of installed programs. The wireless adapters were disabled, and the “portable/laptop” power management scheme was selected in which we prohibited to turn off hard drives and the monitor and to enable the screensaver and the standby mode.

The screen brightness was set at 120-130 candelas per sq. m by means of a luxmeter for the battery life tests. This allows for better comparison than if we tested at the maximum screen brightness alone (the battery life measurements at the max and min brightness of the screen are also listed in the tables below).

We limited ourselves to two tests only due to the time restrictions (we could not keep some notebook models in our lab for more than a couple of days). These are PCMark 2004 that helps to evaluate the overall performance of the notebook as well as that of each of its main subsystems, and Battery Eater Pro 2.50 that measures the time of autonomous work in two modes (Reader’s and Classic), the difference between which shows the efficiency of the power management system setup of each notebook.

We didn’t run PC Mark when the notebooks were powered by their batteries because with the portable/laptop power management scheme selected the notebook automatically yields its full processing power when necessary and the results of the tests do not depend on the power source. Roughly speaking, the system settings in the Classic mode correspond to the settings of the Always On scheme, and in the Reader’s mode to the Max Battery scheme.

Performance Analysis

I already published the results of each model in their appropriate sections and commented upon them, so I won’t repeat myself again. I will just show you some tables and diagrams that should speak better than words. Here’s the information in a nutshell:

And if you imbibe information better when it is packed into a visual format, here are the overall scores from PCMark04:

I want to say just a few words about the overall scores the notebooks received in PCMark04:

And here are the results of our testing the notebooks’ time of autonomous work in Battery Eater’05:

The diagrams seem to speak for themselves quite plainly. The only unusual result is the performance of the Samsung Q30. The rest of the notebooks ranked up according to the ratio of their battery capacity and the processor type.

Conclusion

I guess I have given you enough thinking matter and it’s up to you now to make your own opinion and choice. Tastes differ too much for me to attempt to propose some general advice. I think even the reviewed ten models can be subdivided into several classes: three classes according to the CPU type, two or three or even four types according to the screen type, and two types if you base on the type of the optical drive (internal or external). So, without trying uselessly to classify these notebooks, I want to stress one thing only. This motley selection of devices share the same common feature. They are portable – there can be no doubt about that.

There’s one more reason why I don’t venture to name the winners and losers of this test. In a very short time we will offer you the second part of our comprehensive review of modern compact notebooks, so we will express our final opinion there and you will be free to agree or disagree with us.

To make it easier to compare the notebooks that took part in our tests we have prepared a summary table of their technical characteristics. You can click here to see it.

I wish you luck in finding your portable digital companion and hope this review will help you make a right shopping decision. And watch for the second part of the review – it is going to be published very soon!