All we want for Christmas is: Well, for starters, we'd like a totally state-of-the-art laptop computer, with speed, sound quality and video display that matches the latest desktop models, equipped with all the standard features, plus a few extras thrown in for good measure. Oh yeah, by the way: the thing has to fit in a briefcase.
If 1997 has been a very good year for you, you might want to think about putting one of the new generation of super-laptops under the tree this month for a computer user who is near and dear to you. There are new top-of-the-line laptops from several makers that are dazzling in their speed and capability.
These new models are by far the best portable computers we've seen. They are not the smallest, however. We recently wrote in this space about the newest generation of mini-laptops, weighing from 2.5 to 4 pounds. The full-featured models weigh twice as much. Still, once you get the thing in a shoulder bag, those extra pounds don't make much difference.
We've recently been testing a lovely example of the luxury class the new Toshiba Tecra 750CDT laptop. It is a beautifully designed package with a huge screen 13.3 inches, almost as large as a 14-inch desktop monitor and such a sharp 3-D color display that it is actually easier to look at than most desktop systems.
This portable PC has a 233-MHz microprocessor with Intel's "MMX" acceleration features, 32 megabytes of RAM, a 5 billion-byte hard disk, a 56K voice, data and fax modem, a 20x-speed CD-ROM drive and a genuinely impressive built-in Yamaha sound system. It has a microphone, just below the screen, which you can use to record sounds or to make the laptop serve as a speakerphone and in fact, the sound reproduction is better than you get on most telephones.
Unlike those mini-laptops we wrote about, the keyboard on the Tecra is easily big enough to fit an adult pair of hands. The machine is designed with a three-inch wrist rest in front of the keyboard. We were used to this because the same design is used in our Apple PowerBook laptop; if you're not accustomed to that long space in front of the keys, you might find this PC easier to use on your lap than resting on a desk.
The Tecra comes with an eraserhead pointing device in the middle of the keyboard, with two mouse buttons down below the keyboard. Because the keyboard is so large, we never had the common laptop problem of hitting the mouse button when trying to hit the space bar. The problem is, those little pointers are hard to use if you're doing something that requires a lot of cursor use (like a shoot'em-up game). Still, when we hooked up an external mouse, the computer accepted it instantly, with no additional setup required.
The battery in this laptop actually lasted a little over three hours (almost as long as the manufacturer claimed) even though we were playing an audio CD the whole time.
The Tecra comes with a small external floppy disk drive, which worked fine. One neat design feature is that the CD-ROM drive is removable, and you can replace it in the same slot with a built-in floppy drive, a 4 billion-byte second hard disk, a second battery, or a DVD-ROM drive that will read those new CDs that put a feature-length movie on one disk.
Toshiba deserves credit for producing a clear and highly detailed user's manual, which includes such useful info as the "initialization string" for the built-in modem and a long chapter on what to do if various features don't work. (A manual like that may seem basic, but many computer makers no longer provide any decent guide.) Toshiba gives you the manual both on CD-ROM and in a 500-page paperback book; most makers nowadays are too cheap to include the book.
The neatest gadget on this computer, though, is the digital color camera that hooks to the edge of the screen. You can use it with the speakerphone for video conferencing, or just to take photos. Or you can unhook the device and use it as a hand scanner to read text or pictures into the PC. That's the added feature we don't have on our desktop computer.
All these goodies don't come cheap. The Tecra we used costs (ouch!) about $6,700, with that digital camera. Other super-laptops are in the same range. In future columns, we'll look at some cheaper ones.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com, or Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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