A few years ago, when high-powered, high-priced laptops with hard disks and gas plasma screens were making the covers of computer magazines, Toshiba came out with the T-1000, a low-priced, low-weight model with a dim screen. It was as slow as an IBM-compatible system could be and it didn't excite anybody -- except the buyers who made it a bestseller.
The T-1000 is still selling. You can get one today for about $600. It has 512K of base memory, one 720K 3 1/2-inch floppy disk drive and an adequate, if slightly clacky, keyboard. It weighs only six pounds and a convenient handle folds out from its underside.
With the MS-DOS operating system stored in the computer's permanent read-only memory, you don't need a disk to start it. And you can add a memory board that can be used as a battery-backed RAM disk that will hold data or programs even when the computer is turned off.
With this memory scheme, you can get a T-1000 up and running as fast as your hard disk-equipped desktop. The main problem is the screen. It's a full 80-column blue-on-green liquid crystal display, but in poor light it is almost impossible to see. And its compressed size makes you squint even in good light. What's more, the nickel-cadmium battery lasts only a couple of hours and has an unfortunate tendency not to recharge fully unless it is discharged fully.
Toshiba now has come out with a successor -- the 1000SE, designed to fulfill every 1000 owner's wish list. Its street price is now about $1,100, about where the 1000's was after it had been available less than a year.
It is about the same overall size and weight. But it has a slightly larger, quieter keyboard with a better feel. It has replaceable batteries, so you can carry spares and pop them in when needed. Most importantly, it has a larger backlit, blue-on-white (or white-on-blue, if you choose) screen. Its text resolution is 640 dots by 400 dots, compared with 640 by 200 on the 1000. Loyal T-1000 owners take one look at this screen and yearn for an SE.
The SE's central processor is an Intel 80C86, which belongs to the same generation as the 1000's 80C88. But the SE's "clock speed" is twice as fast, and it has a greater data-transfer capacity. When you load programs or save files to hard RAM in the 1000, it's pretty quick. But with the SE, it's virtually instantaneous.
Instead of a 720K floppy disk, the SE has a 1.44 megabyte floppy, which can read disks of either size and format them either way. It comes with a full megabyte of memory standard. Unfortunately, you cannot choose to split the memory, with 512K for working memory and 512 for "hard RAM" to store data and programs. You must use 640K of the base memory for user RAM.
However, memory expansion is possible, on boards the size of credit cards. Toshiba sells them and so do third-party firms whose products cost less. A third-party one-megabyte card is about $500, two megabytes are about $600. This memory can be configured as expanded memory, as hard RAM or a combination of both.
A newer version (3.3) of MS-DOS is built into ROM for fast startup and the SE also has a "resume" feature. This lets you turn off the computer and turn it back on and immediately find yourself right where you were. No need to "re-boot" and reload your software. The SE also has a handy pop-up window that shows you a fuel-gauge view of your remaining battery power.
The window also lets you turn on or off the battery alarm, "resume" feature and the computer's speaker. If you have the Toshiba modem, you can turn it on or off from the pop-up window. This is important because the modem itself does not have an on-off switch, and a modem uses power when turned on even when not in actual use. Third-party modems now available have no on-off switch either and do not respond to the window switch.
This makes a good argument for the Toshiba modem, though at about $350 to $400, it's about $100 more than the competition. There's another argument for it: the software that comes with it, called MTEZ. It works much like the classic PC-Talk and current favorites Procomm and Procomm Plus.
It has the familiar dialing directory, where numbers are chosen and dialed with a single keystroke. But MTEZ permits the user to choose also from a set of previously configured locations -- home, office, hotel. Once you pick the location, the program will automatically, for example, dial nine for an outside line or enter long-distance codes. In short, it's a communications program designed for a laptop.
Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. He is chief ABC News White House correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.