Ultralight Notebooks Buyer's Guide - InformationWeek

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Ultralight Notebooks Buyer's Guide

Superbly portable laptops from Dell, Toshiba, Panasonic, and Fujitsu promise mobile productivity in a slender package, but can this crop of lightweights get the job done?

This story originally appeared March 24, 2008.

After nearly a decade of breath-holding and foot-stomping, portable computer makers are finally starting to take the term "lightweight" seriously -- and not just in contrast to a luggable 16-pound laptop. Although there are still 8- to 12-pound arm-stretchers out there, you no longer need the assistance of CSI to find relatively ultralight portables -- those in the 5 pound and lower range.

Panasonic's Toughbook W7 weighs 2.9 pounds.
(click for image gallery)

And no, we're not talking about ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs). Those little gadgets are great for the kids, er, young adults, with double-jointed thumbs capable of moving at the speed of text messaging. They typically weigh in at 2 pounds or less and that's great for toting them around. But balancing the unit on your fingers while typing on chicklet keys and staring at a screen slightly larger than two postcards is not the way to get work done on a regular basis. UMPCs have their place, but not for that.

Do you need an ultralight portable? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is that most people don't. Originally hyped by members of the media who raced from kiosk to kiosk at trade shows while carrying the extra poundage and never finding long enough extension cords, ultralights became their hue and cry. The clues to your need are easy:

  • Is it your desktop replacement?
  • Will you be taking it from home to work and back?
  • Do you use it while sitting on the veranda sipping mint juleps?
  • Are you taking it on the road with you?

If you've answered yes to any of those -- with the possible exception of the last question -- it's doubtful that you need an ultralight. Those situations represent static applications: the portable sits at a location while you're using it longer than it travels with you -- or at least you're not carrying it around strapped to your shoulder all day. The idea of getting an ultralight portable might be intriguing, but it's not really a necessity.

On the other hand, if you are constantly carrying your laptop around, you've probably entered the rationale zone for an ultralight. Here too, the compelling reasons are fairly simple:

  • Do you use your portable on the job, moving between workstations?
  • Is your laptop following you from class to class in school?
  • Are you a frequent traveler or road warrior?

There are other specific examples, but the underlying principle should be obvious: your laptop has become a virtual appendage that is by your side -- or on your back -- almost all of the time it's with you. You need an ease of portability that you can't comfortably achieve with 10 pounds (or even 8 pounds) of gear.

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