What Kind of Laptop Do You Use?

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This week, I thought I would take a break from writing about the software techniques and tools we use every day and focus instead on the hardware. With the advent of the new WebSphere Development Studio client (WDSc) and its huge resource requirements, many iSeries developers are considering their next PC's configuration. For WDSc to perform today, you really need to consider a 2.0Ghz Pentium 4 or better CPU and at least 512 MB of memory, although some Toronto developers recommend 1 GB of memory.

Many of us have PCs or notebook computers with 500 to 800 Mhz Pentium III CPUs in them with 128 MB of memory, and those are good machines, but it may be time to consider our next machine.

As developers, choosing the right PC is always an issue. How much money you have to spend may be the biggest factor, but compared to 10 years ago, machines are very inexpensive--so inexpensive, in fact, that it may become unprofitable for vendors to stay in the PC manufacturing business.

But what do we care? We get great prices, right? Maybe. Recently, I looked at several of IBM's new ThinkPad models. They range from the reasonable, around $1,500, to the extreme, topping out at about $4,000. All are good machines (some are great), but none of them hits the nail on the head as far as features and form factor.

In this article, I'll look at the new IBM A31p and the brand new T30 (yes, the T30 is newer than the A31p). I'll also highlight the X30, which was announced just a few days ago, too late for this review.

A Brief History

I purchased my first laptop computer in 1987. I believe it was called the IBM LX40 or something like that. If I remember correctly, the LX40 weighed in at around 11 pounds. It had an eight-hour battery and a half-height screen. The 16-line-by-80-character monochrome LCD panel was good enough for word processing but not much else. It ran PC-DOS, on which I loaded MS Word for DOS (not sure which version). I used it for a number of tasks, but probably the most notable was to write the first edition of my book The Modern RPG Language with Structure Programming.

Then, I purchased an Everex laptop, my first with a full-sized screen. It lasted for years and eventually ended up in one of my daughter's rooms. I found it behind a shelf in a closet recently, and it still worked. The Everex was followed by a Compaq notebook, my first with a color screen. A few years later, it too ended up in one of my daughter's rooms. And then something happened--I slipped into "ThinkPad addiction."

My first ThinkPad was the 720, a 33Mhz 486 system with a nice color display. When it arrived, my hands met the keyboard with a pleasant calm. All those other manufacturers felt it was important to "enhance" the keyboard. Didn't they know the old IBM Selectric-style PC keyboard was the right design?

A few years later, I moved up to a 760XD. That 133Mhz workhorse cost nearly $9,000 fully equipped! The 760XD lasted the longest--from around July 1997 until the end of 1999, when it mysteriously vanished. Luckily, I had recently upgraded to my first Pentium class ThinkPad. It was a 600e model with a 400Mhz Pentium II chip. Of course, six weeks after I got it, IBM announced the 600X, which had a much faster Pentium III chip. About a year ago, the 760XD was found--you guessed it--behind a shelf in my daughter's bedroom. However, unlike the others, this one wasn't working. My daughter had accidentally stepped on it and cracked the LCD panel, rendering it useless. (Note that I'm not clear on when it was stepped on and broken, and the mystery of its disappearance leads me to suspect that it may have been stepped on just moments before it "disappeared" behind a shelf.)

About a year ago, I moved up to an 800 Mhz Pentium III ThinkPad Model T21. I loved that machine. It was just like the 600e--light, thin, and fast. And it worked. In addition, it had a 14.1-inch screen as opposed to the 13.3-inch screen on the 600e. The only problem with the T21 was the placement of the ports on the back of the unit. They were not laid out very logically. The 600e beat the T21 in that arena hands down.

Earlier this year, I had a problem with my T21 and returned it to IBM. The issue was power-related (the machine kept shutting off). IBM repaired it three times and was exceptionally great about ensuring that the machine was working and that the customer (i.e., me) was happy. In the end, however, since I use the ThinkPad exclusively, IBM allowed me to return the T21 to them for credit toward a new machine because the T21 was no longer being manufactured and IBM could not easily replace my machine with a new T21.

What's Out There Now?

Recently, I got my hands on a new ThinkPad T30. This is the successor to the T23, which followed the T21. The T30 has two new features that make it a world-class laptop champion.

First, it has both the traditional TrackPoint "eraser head" mouse between the G and H keys and the new UltraNav touchplate. You may have seen this touchplate on other non-ThinkPad systems. You can activate both the UltraNav and the TrackPoint or turn one of them off.

Second, the 14.1-inch screen on the T30 has a higher resolution than the old T21. And the T30 includes the following ports: one S-Video, two USB, one serial, one parallel, and one adapter for an external monitor. In addition, the ports are laid out much more logically than they were in the old T21, but they're still not quite as perfect as they were in the 600 line.

IBM is also shipping the X30 model, a very light and powerful machine. The only issue I have with the X line of ThinkPads is that they offer only a 12-inch display. Even my old 600e (on which I am writing this article at 35,000 feet) has a 13.3 inch display. If they offered at least a 13.3-inch display, I'd strongly consider the X30. A 14.1-inch display would have been a no-brainer.

Then there's the A line of ThinkPads. The A31p is the current industry "work horse" according to PC Magazine. The latest A31p models provide 2 Ghz Pentium 4-M processors along with a 60 GB hard drive. The A31p line has everything offered by the T30 line, plus the following enhancements:

A 15.1-inch display with greater resolution and better viewing angle

  • One FireWire port
  • Two S-Video ports--one for input, one for output
  • A second UltraBay for an additional hard drive or second battery
  • An ATI graphics accelerator card with 64 MB of video RAM

If you get a chance to work with the 15.1-inch display of the A31p, it becomes difficult (although not impossible) to move back to the 14.1-inch TFT on the T30. The FireWire port makes editing video or digital photos easy. I'm not sure why there are two S-Video ports. The second battery is a must-have. You get three to four hours with two batteries as opposed to about two with the just the main battery. ATI graphics cards don't really offer much improvement until you get to 64 MB of video memory; a 32 MB video card will show only marginal performance over an 8 MB or 16 MB card. So 64 MB is the bare minimum.

So what's wrong with these units? Not much, but a few glaring holes do surface.

The A31p and the T30 do not have a PS/2 mouse port. It's difficult for me to understand why a portable PC, especially the T30, which is used for on-the-road presentations, would not have a built-in mouse port. Sure the new mice being manufactured today are USB-based with a PS/2 adapter, but what about the existing hardware you already own?

For presentations, I use the Logitech SurfMan wireless mouse. It connects to the PC or laptop via a receiver through the PS/2 point. The mouse itself, which is shaped something like a TV remote control, is wireless. Without a PS/2 port, I can no longer use this standard presenter's tool. I have to actually walk over to the T30 and press the Enter key to switch PowerPoint slides. This is totally unacceptable and may cause me to abandon the ThinkPad line.

A strange option when you order a ThinkPad is the "T and A Model ThinkPad Mouse Connector," which to me says, "Hey, we screwed up, so just buy this $40 part and you'll have your mouse port." Unfortunately, this part is nothing more than a Y splitter, allowing a keyboard and mouse to be connected to a single, existing PS/2 mouse port. So it's very useful on older ThinkPads that included the PS/2 port, but it's not very useful for the T30 or A31p. Tell me again, IBM. Why do I need a serial or parallel port and not a mouse port?

What Did I End Up With?

For my purposes, I like the FireWire port and the 64 MB video accelerator that the A31p offers. The main differences between the T30 and A31p models are the screen size, video memory maximums, and FireWire ports. Another big difference is the weight. With a second battery, the A31p is about four pounds heavier than the T30. That puts it at a hefty eight pounds, just three pounds shy of my 14-year-old LX40. So the A31p is more for in-office presentations and the "take me home at night" worker, whereas the T30 is for the on-the-road presenter. The X30 is for the road warrior, someone who travels for a living and wants the minimum weight possible.

After using both the T30 and A31p for a few days, my thought process went like this.

The T30 is certainly the holy grail of laptops: a 2.0 Ghz P4 with built-in wireless LAN, built-in Bluetooth (a wireless standard for cameras, printers, and other devices), a modem that actually connects at a high speed (ThinkPads were known for the "interesting" modem behavior), a 60 GB hard drive, a 16 MB video RAM, and a new CD+RW/DVD combo drive. Together, these make the T30 one of the best-designed ThinkPads ever.

But the A31p certainly has everything: a 2.0 Ghz P4 with both 802.11b and BlueTooth built-in, two USB ports (although they are only USB 1.1), one four-pin FireWire port, a modem that actually connects at high speed, a 60 GB hard drive, a CD+RW/DVD combo drive, a second UltraBay slot, and 64 MB on the ATI Radean graphics accelerator card. Together, these make the A31p tough to beat even when placed against most desktop machines.

So I decided on the A31p, and I'm keeping my old 600e for PowerPoint presentations. I'll use the A31p for presentation preparation, and then I'll copy the presentations over to the 600e when I'm on the road. The nice thing about the A31p over the T30 is that IBM put the Infrared port on the right side of the unit. My 600E has its infrared port on the left side of the unit. So copying PowerPoint presentations via the infrared ports is not only easy, it's downright convenient. I also have the Port Replicator, which is a mini version of a docking station. It, remarkably, has two PS/2 ports on it, so if I connect the A31p to the Port Replicator, I get my PS/2 ports (add another 2.2 pounds for the Port Replicator and I'm back at nearly the 11 pounds of the 14-year-old LX40).

My Advice

If you need a powerful, very portable ThinkPad with lots of memory and disk space, but you don't have a pressing need for a PS/2 mouse port, then I would strongly recommend going with the T30.

If you do presentations primarily at your office or only bring your PC home with you on occasion, then consider the all-in-one A31p. It's a bit pricey, considering that a 2.5 Ghz mini-tower PC with a 64 MB ATI graphics card and an 80 GB drive with 512 MB of RAM is about $1,500 (less than half the price of the A31p). If you add in a nice 17-inch TFT flat-panel screen for the desktop (currently pricing out at bout $600 to $700 at Sam's Club), you end up with a $2,400 machine with better performance and storage space. In addition, the A31p is probably the least rugged of the ThinkPad line.

If you do presentations on the road, you might consider the new X30. Although I haven't reviewed it, its specifications look very promising. The X30 has a 12.1-inch display and includes a mouse port. An optional feature allows you to add a CD-ROM and/or DVD drive along with a second battery and a couple of extra ports. If a large display isn't critical, the X30 may be the portable solution you need.

What I'd Like to See

The next time IBM refreshes the ThinkPad line, I'd like to see the following improvements to the T and A models.

For the T models:

A 15-inch display option

  • 64 and 128 MB of video memory options
  • One or more FireWire ports

Three or four USB 2.0 ports (turn them sideways; they'll fit)

A PS/2 mouse port on the far right side of the back of the unit

  • Zero parallel ports
  • Memory chips that are not soldered in (like the current A31p line)
  • Speakers that point up (instead of down) so they can be heard better
  • An UltraNav that doesn't cause the mouse pointer to jump around the screen while you're typing

For the A models:

A 16.1 or better TFT display option like the Sonys have

  • More rugged housing
  • A built-in bay for a second hard drive (beyond the UltraBay)
  • Better form factor on the palm rest
  • Larger buttons on the TrackPoint mouse buttons
  • 128 MB or better video memory
  • Three FireWire ports
  • Four USB 2.0 ports
  • The UltraNav touchplate

A PS/2 mouse port on the far right side of the back of the unit

  • (Optional) Eliminate the parallel port if necessary to fit the new ports
  • A Port Replicator with all the ports of the ThinkPad itself
  • Reduced weight

What Are Your Other Options?

If you want a fast machine for running the slow WDSc tool, video editing, PowerPoint slide creation, and Client Access, you might consider getting a desktop (i.e., a min-tower) with the latest Pentium 4 CPU, 1 GB of memory, and at least an 80 GB hard drive.

That'll run you about $1,500 to $2,000 today. Then, go out and buy a flat screen TFT LCD monitory (at least 17 inches), and you'll be somewhere around $2,500. If you need a presentation machine or an on-the-road machine also, add an X30 or even a low-end T30 for about $1,500 and you're off to the races.

If you don't care about WDSc or Client Access, consider the new Apple PowerMac with dual 1.33 Ghz PowerPC G4 chips (similar to the chips running your good old iSeries). There's nothing faster at the moment. That'll run you about $2,500 to $3,000, depending on features If you want to settle for dual 833 Mhz chips, you're looking at about $2,000. Remember, an 800 Mhz PowerPC G4 is nearly twice as fast as a 2 Ghz Pentium 4. If you have the extra cash, you might consider Apple's Cinema Display. This 23-inch TFT high-resolution flat screen with 16:9 aspect ratio is the best display I've ever seen. But at just over $2300, it's a bit pricey.