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    Rob Pegoraro and the Fast Forward Team
    Laptops for Starving Students and Other Folks on Budgets

    Friday, July 30, 1999 at noon.

    Rob Pegoraro

    Whether you do your computing on the couch or in coach class, laptop computers can now be had for considerably less money than before as little as $1,300 for a decently equipped entry-level machine.

    But what features do you need, and what can you leave out?

    What are the important things to focus on when you're looking at machines in the store?

    And what about the new developments in portable computing, those tiny Windows CE machines and, debuting just last week, Apple's new iBook?

    Fast Forward Editor Rob Pegoraro and his crack team of laptop reviewers were online to answer your laptop questions.

    Read the most recent Fast Forward, check out our low-cost laptop special report and past discussions with Pegoraro.

    Transcript Follows

    Silver Spring, MD: As a longtime Macintosh user, I perceive a disturbing trend in technology reporting. Despite Apple's strong comeback, technology reporters continue to present a bearish view for Apple's future. These are many of the same reporters who disdain the monopolistic businesses practices of Microsoft. You would think that they would be more encouraging about a viable alternative to Wintel.

    Your review of laptops is a case in point. The "Special Report Index" says "iBook: Coming Sorta Soon". Your preview of the G3-based iBook neglects to mention that even though this is a low-cost laptop, that processing speeds on the G3 systems are faster than any "high-end" Wintel laptop configuration.

    I can understand to a point -- people write about what they know. If 90% of computer users see their computing world through Wintel glasses then it's likely that 90% of technology reporters do too. My hope is that your staff gets the opportunity to put away those glasses for a while, and learn what a great experience that working on a Macintosh can provide. Apple's new advertising slogan is "Think Different." Try it for a while. It just might catch on.

    Rob Pegoraro: Good morning all. Rob is going to be a few minutes late to the chat, so I, Fast Forward flunky Mike Musgrove, will be playing the part for a few minutes....

    Silver Spring, I'm actually writing this to you on a Mac this morning (and I own an iMac), so don't think we're not familiar with Apple and Cupertino's latest offerings.

    The fact is, we really wanted to include Apple's consumer portable for this roundup, but since they only rolled out the iBook at MacWorld a week or two ago, we were unable to include it (what do you think of the looks, by the way?)

    Minneapolis, MN: I know that many of the major computer companies sell refurbished notebooks at a significant cost reduction. Would you recommend purchasing one of these?

    Rob Pegoraro: I'd recommend buying a refurbished notebook from one of the major computer companies over buying a used notebook elsewhere, since they usually come with a warranty. Don't worry about their used status too much-- there's an article about this in our section today, actually at

    check it out!

    Fairfax, VA: What do you think about the new ibook? Is it revolutionary, or just hype?

    Rob Pegoraro: Well, that's the question of the week, isn't it? The AirPort feature is very interesting, to say the least. The hard drive space seems a little skimpy to me. All I know is that I probably don't see myself buying the "tangerine" one...

    Arlington, VA: Hello,

    My company is purchasing a 400mz Celeron-equipped laptop for me... This will be my first experience with the Celeron processor, can you explain the performance trade-off over a Pentium or PII processor? This machine comes equipped with a DVD-Rom drive, will this processor be able to handle a DVD presentation or movie? Thanks

    Rob Pegoraro: Rob here, back from an action-packed meeting.

    Arlington, you won't notice any real difference between a Celeron 400 and a Pentium II in your day-to-day work. (You might in games, but this machine is for work only, right?)

    The computer will play back DVD movies if it has the "MPEG 2" decoder hardware, which most DVD-ROM equipped computers should include.

    Temple Hills, MD: Should I wait until after January 1, 2000 to buy a new laptop? Should I expect major problems after Jan. 1st if I buy one now?

    Rob Pegoraro: No, not at all. Any computer being sold now should be 100% Y2K compliant, along with the operating system sold with it. (No guarantees here, mind you.) But you should make sure your old Excel spreadsheets, Quicken data files and so on don't have any funky two-digit calendar-year formulas embedded in them.

    Fort Washington, Md.: I'm dying for a lightweight, smaller portable, probably a subnotebook. It has to have a fast enough processor and modem to make connecting to the Web fast, long battery life and enough storage space. The problem is the Sony Vaio and some of the other loaded ones are close to $3,000. I have great computers at home and work, so I don't want to spend that kind of money for my portable. What would you suggest for a lower cost super subnotebook?

    Rob Pegoraro: I'll answer part of your question, Fort Washington, then hand off the rest of it to one of my colleagues...

    First, any computer sold today has a fast enough processor for Web use. Ditto modem speed--everybody uses a 56-kbps modem. But the cost angle is tougher. None of the ultralight laptops sell for much under $2,000, and almost all of them don't include a CD-ROM drive (duh!).

    With that, I'll turn the question over to our own Brian Mooar, who is in the audience, has reviewed several laptops for us, and is a reasonably proud owner of one of those little Sony Vaio sub-laptops. Brian?

    Nevada: hey Rob,...

    I'm a second-year college student and I'm interested in purchasing a lap-top,....but I'm not sure what are good deals when I see them advertised. -I used to hear that the deals that sound too good to be true, normally are.- But what would be a good price?

    I would need the basics,...probably just Microsoft and the Internet,....I'm not sure what else,.....but do you know of any brands,...or stores that can offer me what I need on a limited budget?

    :- Thanks.

    Rob Pegoraro: I've yet to see a new laptop sell for much less than $1,200, although you can find discontinued models for maybe a little less. I'm not sure how limited your budget is (bad luck at the blackjack tables?), but I'd also suggest you look at our story in today's section about buying refurbished and used. It also helps if you can put up with a passive-matrix screen.

    Getting the basics you describe shouldn't be hard, tho; it's almost impossible to buy a Windows PC without the usual load of Msoft bundled programs.

    Washington, DC: This will be my first time computer purchase. My interest in a laptop-notebook is purely for space, since I have limited space to accommodate a tower, monitor and all the trimmings. I don't intend to travel with it, etc. Are there alternatives to a laptop when looking for a less bulky computer?

    Rob Pegoraro: I can think of a few friends living in Manhattan studio apartments who bought laptops for the same reason, D.C.

    There are alternatives to laptops if you're in a limited desktop-space situation, but they're all expensive as heck. Sony, Gateway and Packard Bell all now sell compact desktop computers that use a flat-panel display instead of a monitor and forgo the traditional tower case in favor of a compact little system unit. (The Gateway Profile and the Packard Bell Z1 incorporate all the guts into the screen's case, while the Sony Vaio Slimtop has a laptop-sized system unit that sits vertically on the desk).

    But: All of these computers cost $2,000 and up, thanks to relying on 15-inch active-matrix screens. These are what the industry calls "lifestyle" products, which I think is a codeword for yuppie desktop toys.

    Washington, DC: Can you beat the Gateway Solo I picked up at their outlet -in Kansas City- two years ago last Christmas for $799? It's a P-120 w-CD-ROM and a decent color screen. It doesn't play games very well -but neither do I- but it does just fine, thank you, with Corel 7 WP, Quattro and Presentations.

    Rob Pegoraro: No, can *you* beat that? I.e., does this computer do what you want? If so, then you're doing great. A P120 should be more than acceptable for most of the usual desktop applications, plus Internet use. If you want to speed up the laptop a bit, I'd throw in some more memory--step up to 64 megs of RAM if possible.

    Brian Mooar: One of the big problems with the VAIO laptops is the price. Several of the older models--that is models 6 months to a year old--are being sold at deep discount. Another big problem with the tiny VAIO 505 series is that everything comes a la carte. You want to hook something up to an SCSI or parallel port, you have to hook up a little accessory bar. CD-ROM drive comes separately. And the floppy drive is external. I've found my VAIO great for traveling, but a little inconvenient when it comes to every day use. All in all, though, it's a very nice little unit. For a price.

    Rob Pegoraro: And here we have Brian's reply. Hope this helps.

    Arlington VA: How come you stay only with 'big name' laptops? CTX and Umax make some very nice -cheap!] student machines. I bought an active-matrix CTX for under $1,000

    Rob Pegoraro: We picked the laptops we reviewed based on a couple of factors. One, what's available in a given price range? Two, what's actually sold in stores where people are likely to see it? (I really can't recommend that a first-time buyer purchase a laptop without test-driving it firsthand before, which is why Dell isn't in this review.) Three, what brands do we see readers asking the most about? Hence the focus on name-brand companies, as you put it (although Umax is a fairly well-known name in its own right).

    Arlington, VA: Okay, I just gave up my Mac desktop and passed over an iMac desktop and bought PC, but now I'm really intrigued by the new laptop. Good idea? Bad idea?

    Rob Pegoraro: Depends (no, I don't really say that to *every* question I get...)

    From what I've read and heard--bear in mind that I haven't actually used one of these things--the iMac should be a great dorm computer, and also a sound solution for general-purpose computing. The active-matrix screen, processor, CD-ROM and full complement of Internet-connection options (modem, Ethernet) mean it can basically do whatever an iMac can, and I wish we could've had one to review for today's section.

    However, it weighs a little too much (6.7 pounds, not counting the AC adapter) to tote around lots of places. I'm not sure I'd want to buy one as a companion to an iMac or a G3 desktop, for instance--well, if Apple sold an ultralight Mac laptop.

    Newington Virginia: Hi - I understand that years back Tandy made a portable which was a favorite for some travelling newspaper people because it would record keystrokes pretty much all day on a diet of disposable AA cell batteries. What do you recommend for people today who want the lightest, least hassle keyboard-based notepad?

    Rob Pegoraro: The key word here is "notepad," NoVa. If you don't need to use Win 98 or Word 2000, you should look at the Windows CE sub-laptop units. They sell for $1,000 and under, weigh as little as a pound, and should run for eight or more hours on a single charge. They also boot up *much* faster than Win 98. The only problem is, they're really limited without a PC to dock with and backup data on. And the included word processor, Pocket Word, doesn't include a word count, about which I've complained so often that my own freelancers are sick of hearing it.

    Washington, DC: Hi, and thanks for the consideration of this question.

    I'd like to know how to get a large screen laptop -15"- for the least amount of cost spread over a month to month time. Also, about how much would this cost currently be monthly?


    Rob Pegoraro: 15 inches? Bust out the checkbook now, Mark. 15-inch desktop LCDs sell for $900 and up now, and you still have to pay for the computer after that. And screens of that size are typically only sold as part of full-boat traveling-executive packages, so the odds are high that you'll be shopping in a $3,000-and-up bracket.

    You may not want to focus so much on the screen size. Bear in mind that you usually sit much closer to a laptop's screen than to a desktop PC's monitor.

    Island of Manhattan, New York: Main Question: -Please answer!----> What are the minimum memory-speed-hardware-etc. requirements for a laptop which can be used at work and at school? What's the general price quote for this model?
    In other words, I want to buy smart, get a good deal and a good price, but I don't know how to benchmark the numbers and computer requirements when I walk into CompUSA or go online. Thank you!

    Please consider the questions below.

    1. Is it wise to buy a used laptop computer?

    A friend purchased one at an online auction, e-bay, but I still doubt the real advantage of the action. It was a good price, about $1000 and no complaints so far. What is your recommendation?

    2. Will laptop computer technology be changing much in the future? So much, ie. the new PC memory setup at IBM, that it would be wise to hold off on buying one for a few years, being that new software will then be written for the new memory cache setup, making the current software useless.
    In other words, something like the new flat televisions which are phasing out the three color tube shooting older tv technology.

    Thank you to Rob and your team for answering my questions.


    Rob Pegoraro: Good questions, Manhattan:

    1) Yes, if you do your homework. If you're feeling a little uncertain, you are wiser buying from a store with a warranty, or buying from a trusted friend. Real-world example: I sold my old PowerBook to a friend of mine a few years ago, and I've been willing to help him out with fixing stuff (it helps that he has a share in a ski house...)

    2) Yes. But don't worry about it. Technology always gets fasterbettercheaper, but if you need a computer, you need a computer. Period, end of story. The good thing is that the software generally keeps working; both Macs and PCs have changed processors repeatedly in this decade, almost always without breaking software.

    aLEXANDRIA, va: I have an old 486 Compaq desktop, which I bought in 1994. Could I update my desktop by buying a new CPU or tower or box, and maybe extract the old hard drive from the old CPU and use it in addition to the new hard drives in the new box. Could I still use my old Compaq monitor and old keyboard? In this way I could save money. Could this work? Do you foresee any hardware problems I should be aware of.

    Rob Pegoraro: Uh, maybe. The keyboard should definitely work, but it's not going to have the Windows shortcut keys (one springs open the Start menu, the other invokes the contextual menu you get when you right-click on something). Then again, keyboards really don't cost much at all these days; your savings are real limited.

    The monitor ought to work, but you can't make promises with pre-Plug-and-Play equipment. It's possible that Win 98 might only recognize it as a generic monitor, in which case you would be stuck with 16 colors and 640 x 480 resolution. Yuck. I'd check with Compaq on this.

    Brian Mooar: On the Newington, VA question... I used to have one of those Tandy portables. If someone is a traveling reporter, or just wants to write from the road, the Sony 505 series is more than a worthy successor. At 3 pounds, I've found myself carrying my 505fx on planes with no computer carrying case. The magazine I carried on was actually a little bigger. If you need your CD-ROM or floppy drive--the a la carte problem we talked about earlier--you start adding cords and weight that make it decidedly less convenient.

    Rob Pegoraro: Newington, hope you're still here. Further advice from our man Mooar:

    Newington VA: Just out of curiosity, what do Post reporters carry for jotting up notes on stories as they happen?

    Rob Pegoraro: The notebook I usually use weighs in at a few ounces, with a 4x6 in. display. Monochrome only, unless I switch pens. Storage capacity is, oh, maybe a hundred sheets of paper, double-sided. Backup is only via Xerox. But battery life is infinite and it's also pretty fault-tolerant in unfriendly environments (say, the 9:30 Club).

    I also use my Palm III to take notes, but only if it's the kind of thing where I don't need to keep up with somebody talking--for instance, if I'm just jotting down an outline of some manufacturer's dem.

    Fairfax, VA: Do you see palmtop computing and wireless networks as the wave of the future? Do you know much about SUN's JINI and if so do you think this will be an integral part of the wireless networks of the future?

    Rob Pegoraro: Jini, for the uninitiated, is a way to have different devices--computers, CD players, stereos, phones, whatever--"talk" to each other using Java programming. You can't really buy any Jini-enabled gear just yet, so all I know is Sun's propaganda. It certainly sounds cool, especially if I can get my computer to reset all the other clocks in my home after a power outage.

    Wireless networking definitely will be an interesting area to follow. The connection speeds are going up faster than I would've expected (10 MBps, in the case of the "AirPort" networking Apple unveiled along with the iBook), and, speaking for myself, I already have enough wires snaking around my desk and my living room.

    Falls Church VA: Should a laptop be a 2- or 3-spindle device in your opinion? If 2-spindle, which drive would you not take with you?

    Rob Pegoraro: We're talking hard drive, CD-ROM drive and floppy, right, Falls Church? The first one I'd ditch would be the floppy. Maybe I'm drinking Steve Jobs' Kool-Aid, but I really don't have much use for the things. Too many files are too big to fit on a floppy, and the ones that do fit there can be e-mailed just as easily without fear of the disk going bad (which I've had happen disturbingly often recently).

    But the last time I schlepped along a laptop on a business trip, I also yanked the CD-ROM drive (on this particular ThinkPad, you could put either the CD-ROM or floppy drive, or a plastic filler, in the slot on the right of the machine). I figured that if I had to reinstall Windows in hotel room, no work would be done on the machine anyway, but in the meantime I'd rather lose the extra weight.

    Toledo, OH: I am trying to find a laptop to fit my needs. I will be heading back to school to get a master's in zoology, so I will be putting a lot of my research into databases and also be writing a lot of reports. I would also like internet access. What other features do I need for this type of lifestyle? And what don't I need?

    Rob Pegoraro: Heck, Toledo, any currently sold machine should handle this. We've been in a somewhat blessed time of computing for the last year, in which processing power has outstripped the needs of most productivity and Internet (not the same thing!) applications. Any currently sold machine should be able to run Access, FileMaker, what have you, fast enough; any machine sold in the past two years should be fast enough for Internet access. Repeat after me: *You don't need the fastest processors around to surf the Web.*

    My profound thanks to Intel for trying to persuade people otherwise with those annoying ads...

    McLean, VA : when will there be computers that merge regular cpu towers with laptops -ie. much smaller but inexpensive computers, that are bigger than laptops-?

    Rob Pegoraro: Not sure quite you mean, McLean. There are some of these small-footprint desktops--the Sony Vaio Slimptop, the Gateway Profile, the Packard Bell/NEC Z1. All of them pack the traditional components into a much smaller case, the latter two merging the CPU with a flat-panel display. There's also the iMac, of course, which is also a small footprint machine, just with a CRT display instead of a flat screen.

    I keep hearing about how PC manufacturers are going to come out with their own simplified, cheaper, small-footprint computers, but it hasn't happend yet. I can't say this is the most creative industry around...

    Alexandria Virginia: Which laptop would you recommend for a new college student, a probable liberal arts major, going to a college where both Macs and PCs can be used?

    Rob Pegoraro: I take it that's you, Alex? If the college really is bi-platform, then you shouldn't have to choose based on what programs everybody uses (i.e., it's not like the need to run Microsoft Access means a PC is mandatory). If that's the case, use whichever one you know and are comfortable with--and fits in your budget.

    Reston, VA: I'm already getting a super high speed desktop, but I would also like a Notebook to carry around classes. I need some really light, and it has to be fast enough so I can play Mp3s and type at the same time without the MP3 skipping...what's the minimum you recommend?

    Rob Pegoraro: You're going to play back your MP3s in class while taking notes? :)

    Since you've already got a desktop, you can look at the more stripped-down laptops out there. At this point, almost every PC laptop manufacturer has a superlight machine. Any of these ought to be able to play back MP3s while you type--a processor spends a phenomenal amount of time just sitting on its rear while you tap away at the keyboard. Mike Musgrove reports that his antique Pentium 100 Acer has no problem playing MP3s while he's typing in Microsoft Word (although opening a third application can have ugly results).

    And on that note, I must sign off for today. Thanks to all y'all for putting up with today's whacko schedule; we'll be back in two weeks.

    Take care,


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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