Network: The key issue of different strokes

My Toshiba uses more space than a small car and expires after an hour
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The Independent Culture
COME THE summer holidays, I always get in a panic over delivering this column from various exotic parts of the world. That means having to conquer foreign phone sockets, temperamental electricity systems and dubious roaming agreements from my ISP.

Laptops and mobile computing have been growing furiously over the last two years. I have been a laptop user for over five years now, and still warmly remember the clunky Toshibas and lovely but back-breaking IBM Thinkpads. However, with the new wave of ultralight notebooks, portable computers are moving into a completely new era.

This was sharply brought to my attention during a recent flight from LA, when a kid next to me played games for over six hours on his tiny Sony Vaio, and then nonchalantly slipped it into a mini-knapsack. My old Toshiba, which takes up more space than a small car, expired after just an hour: the time had come to bite the bullet and update my kit.

Feeding frequency is important, as the most powerful box in the world is pretty much useless without a significant battery charge. Since you will be stroking it a lot, keyboard quality, the depth of tactile feedback and the size of the keys are critical to your speed of work and ease of use. If you are a multimedia or DVD freak, issues such as the position of the speakers matter, as often the speakers are hidden in the keyboard, limiting the power of the sound.

All in all then, lots of variables and not an easy buying process. But I kept looking at reviews of the latest portables, and settled on four candidates. First, the Toshiba Portege 3020CT, which would be the natural upgrade path from my current notebook. I waltzed into one of my favourite shops, knowing my prices inside out having diligently researched the issue on the Internet. So all I needed to test was the tactile experience of the keyboards, multimedia quality, weights and quality of the design.

The Portege failed the keyboard tests, as the keyboard was slippery and would cause a significant decrease of my typing speed. Accuracy goes out the window on bad keyboards, and you end up spending a lot of time correcting mistakes.

Having dealt with my legacy loyalties to Toshiba, I turned to one of the lightest toys on the market, the lovely Acer TravelMate. Neat machine, great performance, but the keys give flat, almost impossible-to-feel tactile feedback, and mistakes roll down even with serious effort and concentration.

One of my favourite hangouts in London is the Covent Garden shop run by our friends with a cow fetish, the Gateway boys. Their shop is a cross between a cybercafe and the reception of an advertising agency, and it is great fun to test everything newwith a Gateway Man on hand to explain the new gizmos.

The cows theme for the interior design is somewhat disconcerting; one wonders how lonely life must be in the Sioux City, where the Gateway crowd comes from. But with the new Gateway Solo 3100 on display, even cows lose their metaphysical significance. I liked it a lot, particularly because it has an internal DVD drive - a rarity among the ultralights.

Gateway is always strong on power, and didn't take prisoners with its 366Mhz, but with the weight just over 5.9lb one can question the "ultralight" category. It is easier to carry around with all the necessary drives inbuilt, but the frequency of use of DVD didn't seem to merit the trade-off with significant increase of weight. And so I resumed my search for the Holy Laptop Grail.

I must confess, after my terribly scientific evaluation process and multivariate comparative analysis using intelligent online search engines, I finally succumbed to reasons a lot less logical. It was love at first sight when I spotted this slim and hip Sharp A250. Light like a wafer, only 3.1lb, and powerful at 300Mhz, the Sharp is not the latest in the ultralight wave, but the first in the new category of truly original, futuristic designs. Its silky metallic surface feels great and its keyboard has strong feedback, delivering smooth and error-free typing.

The floppy and CD drives are external, and the battery life is only two hours (without extensions). But these were minor details after I discovered that it fits snugly into my tiny Billabong knapsack.

The only drawback is that the speakers are hidden beneath the keyboard and have a slightly muted performance. Otherwise, it is a perfect little machine and has already paid for itself as I enjoy taking it with me on trips and have done a lot more work. Now I'm looking forward to summers free of the Great Holiday Portable Trauma.