$1,299, http://www.compaq.com, 800/345-1518
Specifications: 12.1-inch "high performance addressing" passive-matrix display, 333 MHz AMD K6-2 processor, 512 kb L2 cache, 32 mb memory, 2 mb video memory with 128-bit 3-D accelerated graphics, 2.98 gb hard drive, 24x CD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, one Type II PC Card slot.
Support: One-year warranty; 24-hour, toll-free hardware and bundled-software support ($20 per-problem charge applies afterward).
At 8.2 pounds, the Compaq Presario 1245 isn't going to win a home in the road warrior's briefcase, but for occasional library research or outdoor study sessions, this is a decent, utilitarian laptop -- especially given its price, the lowest of the five laptops we reviewed.
The design includes some useful, well-thought-out features: The power switch is recessed beneath the screen hinge, shielding it from unintended hits, and ports for accessories, phone wires, power and so on are lined up at the back, out of the way of accidental disconnects. But when the laptop is shut, the screen lid doesn't fully cover the speakers, leaving them half exposed to dust and grit.
Inside, the full-size keyboard is marred by a kiddie-sized delete key. Below the keyboard you'll find its mouse substitute, a credit card-sized touchpad with right and left "mouse" buttons sized for a right-hand thumb and index finger. A set of easy-access buttons launch Internet Explorer, take you to Compaq's Alta Vista search engine, access a retail center and check e-mail; you can reprogram them if shopping online isn't your overriding priority.
Customer service responded after three minutes on hold at 1 p.m. on a weekday -- this seems light-years faster that many other support lines. The rep said he wasn't too familiar with this Presario model, "since new ones are coming out all the time," but explained how to calibrate the battery so it would hold a charge longer than the hour I got at first. His instructions to deep-charge the battery had the ring of platitudes designed to make you feel better, but actually worked, yielding an impressive 2 hours and 45 minutes of Web fishing and CD playing.
Installed software includes Microsoft Word, a trial offer of Intuit's Quicken personal finance software, Rand McNally's Tripmaker road-trip planning software and Netscape Communicator. A CD of Microsoft's Encarta 99 encyclopedia was supposed to be in the box but was not in this reviewer's package.
This machine handles the basic functions -- word processing, sending and receiving e-mails, faxes and searching the Web -- with aplomb and doesn't choke with several programs open at once, but it dawdled through its boot-up sequence. The screen is remarkably clear, you can disturb your neighbors in the library with the vigorous sound system, and, in a pinch, you can use Presario as a heating pad since the underside warms up fast and the AC converter unit fairly sizzles after five hours of continuous operation.