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Pentium II-300 MHz notebooks: You pay for what you get

September 12, 1998
Web posted at: 9:59 a.m. EDT (1359 GMT)

by Gordon Meyer

(IDG) -- As a notebook veteran, I'm used to settling for an "also-ran" in the performance race. While desktop CPUs jumped from 333 MHz to 400 and 450 MHz, my top choice remained stuck on 266 MHz. So my ears perked up when I heard of Intel's pending mobile Pentium II-300. And I was positively gleeful when my favorite editor at PC World called and asked for my initial take on a half-dozen of these new powerhouses, a freshman crop including PII-300s from Compaq, Dell (two models), Gateway, Micron, and Transmonde.

Take it with a grain of salt

I showed up at the PC World Test Center resolved to keep my perspective: I wasn't ready to take a hefty hit on battery life in trade for a modest speed boost. I needn't have worried. The average battery life on these new machines was comparable to that of 266-MHz Pentium IIs. And the speed jump was noticeable. Varying from a low of 154 to a high of 162, the average PC WorldBench 98 score is a good 10 percent faster than that of comparably equipped Pentium II-266s.

We tested the Compaq Armada 7400, Dell Inspiron 7000 D300GT, Dell Latitude Cpi D300XT, Gateway Solo 2500LS, Micron Millennia TransPort Trek II, and Transmonde Vivante SE 2300. All were configured with 512KB of secondary cache and 64MB of SDRAM -- except the Latitude, which came with 64MB of EDO RAM instead. Each unit featured a bright and vivid active-matrix color screen. The Dell Inspiron and Micron Millennia TransPort Trek II had 14.1-inch screens; the others all measured 13.3 inches. The PC WorldBench 98 scores were tightly packed between 154 and 162, with an average score of 158. In contrast, the most recent batch of PII-266's we tested ranged from a low of 124 to a high of 154, with a 144 average.

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Check your wallet

None of these notebooks is cheap. They range in price from $2999 for the Micron to an imposing $4199 for the Compaq Armada 7400. If you include Dell's Inspiron 7000 D300GT and Latitude Cpi D300XT at $3599 and $3499, respectively, add Gateway's Solo 2500LS at $3199, and cap off with Transmonde's Vivante SE -- you wind up with an average over $3,400. That's more than $300 above the average for a Pentium II-266 notebook.

Taking features, performance, and battery life into account, Dell's Inspiron stood out despite its high price. It was the fastest, with a PC WorldBench score of 162 -- although the Compaq Armada nearly matched it with a 160. The Inspiron's 8GB hard drive had at least twice the storage of the Gateway (4GB), Micron (3.2GB), and Transmonde (4GB). Only the Dell Latitude and the Compaq also had hard drives that were 6GB or larger. And only the Micron matched the Inspiron's big display. Like the Transmonde, the Inspiron came configured with a DVD-ROM drive. Dell's configuration uses a stacked floppy disk and DVD drive on a single, removable module.

Not-so-portable portables

Even though all of these notebooks are classified as Desktop Replacement units, portability still matters. We found all six notebooks to be fairly sturdy, but none will be confused with a subnotebook. The Latitude was the lightest of the lot, weighing about 7.4 pounds -- near the 7.5 pound weight of the average notebook. The Gateway, Micron, and Transmonde were all over 8 pounds and the Inspiron was an arm-stretching 9.7 pounds.

Battery life was a mixed bag. The PC World Test Center is rejiggering its methodology for battery life tests: You'll see the first results of the toughened new tests in the November 1998 issue of PC World, so we can't give specific numbers on each model. The Gateway had a very good battery life, and the numbers for both Dells and the Transmonde were good. On the other hand, the Compaq fell noticeably short of the others, and the Micron had the shortest battery life of all.

Sound choices

Of course, it's a given that all of the notebooks would have multimedia basics built in: CD-ROM, sound, speakers, and microphone. The Armada, Vivante, and Inspiron all offer a DVD-ROM drive as an upgrade. As for sound, the speakers on most notebooks have such tinny sound that they make a cheap car radio sound good. With one exception, these notebooks live down to our expectations: The Compaq Armada actually sounds pretty good. While far from audiophile caliber, the Compaq's speakers are among the best-sounding we've heard. Unfortunately, Compaq also places them right in the middle of the wrist rest area below the keyboard, making it easy for your hands to cover them up, muffling the sound.

All of these notebooks offer docking stations and/or port replicators as an option. The keyboards on the Inspiron, Micron, and Vivante are a full half-inch wider than normal. That may not seem like a lot, but it allows the designers to enlarge things like the Enter key to make it easier to use. Meanwhile, Compaq continues to be one of the few notebook manufacturers to routinely offer customizable shortcut keys so that you can launch up to four of your favorite applications with the touch of a single button.

Every notebook here has at least a one-year parts-and-labor warranty. Compaq takes the top honors with a three-year parts-and-labor warranty. Technical support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via the Internet for all of the notebooks, and by phone for all except the Vivante. Transmonde only offers phone support 11 hours a day, Monday through Friday, which can be a big problem if a glitch comes up at night or on the weekend.

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