Tried and Tested: Have screen, will travel - Which portable computers offer ease of use with performance? our panel decides

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The Independent Culture
A few years ago the term 'portable computer' seemed like a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. Today, whether you're backpacking to Bombay or going on business to Bristol, you should be able to to carry one without getting a hernia. We've selected computers with monochrome or colour screens, ranging in price from under pounds 200 to over pounds 2,000. Four frequent travellers tried them out to see which would find a place in their luggage.


Simon Calder, travel writer; Gurnek Bains, director, management consultancy Young Samuel Chambers; Susie Moore, forensic accountant, accountants Levy Gee; Andrew Brown, computer page editor, the Independent.


The panellists marked each computer out of 10 for the quality of screen; how easy the keyboard was to use and the instructions were to follow; value for money; and the computer's looks. We also asked them to give the computers an overall rating, which could take into account other important factors such as the weight, size and how long the batteries lasted. We used Claris Works as software for the test for all the computers, except the Amstrad. Scores were converted into a best-buy star rating. Prices, which include VAT, are based on manufacturers' list prices - you can normally get discounts from dealers.


Price: pounds 199

Weight: 1kg. Size: 30x20x3cm

Processor: Z80. Battery life:

40 hours. Screen: monochrome

Amstrad describes this as 'the computer for everyone' because it is cheap and supposed to be simple to use. Most testers did find the instructions easy to follow, but they were unhappy with the screen, which allows you to see only a few lines of text at a time. Susie Moore, who uses a portable computer when visiting companies to assess damages in legal cases, including fraud investigations, commented: 'The small screen is a drawback when producing large documents.' Some testers also found themselves having to hunch over the screen, which is flat. The computer rated poorly as a designer accessory. 'I wouldn't like to be seen with this at a high-powered business meeting,' said Gurnek Bains. Despite its exceptionally low price, only three testers thought it was good value for money. Sole enthusiast Andrew Brown said: 'It's simple, cheap and quick to run - well worth the pounds 200.'


Price: pounds 2,526

Weight: 2.9kg. Size: 30x21x5cm

Processor: 486/20MHz. Battery life:

up to 3 hours. Screen: STN colour

Overall, the testers rated this computer highly. But some said they wouldn't be happy having to carry it around for long because of its weight: 'It's much too heavy for me to want to tote it about,' said Andrew Brown. Simon Calder came to blows with the mouse. 'It seemed to fall off as soon as I touched it; considering how easily it was parted from the computer, it was quite a struggle to re-unite it.' On the other hand, he particularly liked the computer's chunky feel, which meant it had a good chance of surviving a bike ride. Opinions were divided about the screen. Susie Moore found a variety of faults: 'The screen just did not feel as user-friendly as others available.' But Gurnek Bains was enthusiastic: 'It was an excellent screen for the price.'


Price: pounds 2,579

Weight: 3kg. Size: 30x23x5cm

Processor: 486/25MHz. Battery Life:

up to 2 1/2 hours. Screen: STN colour

Susie Moore said: 'I would not feel happy to rely on this to prepare any sort of spreadsheet model quickly and accurately. The battery life is rather too short to do this anyway.' But she praised the screen: 'The clarity is very good.' Andrew Brown said: 'It's better than the Tosh. Excellent colour,' although he thought paying extra for colour screens on portables was a waste of money - it can add between pounds 400- pounds 1,000 to the price. Simon Calder had problems with the mouse again: 'What is it about computer designers? They invest millions in building extraordinarily robust and sophisticated machines, then attach the mouse using two Meccano rejects and a piece of sticky-backed plastic. The keyboard is OK except that the cursor keys are like spares from Fisher-Price.'


Price: pounds 2,680

Weight 3.2kg. Size: 24x24x6cm

Processor: 68030/33MHz. Battery

life: 1-2 hours. Screen: active

matrix colour

The Powerbook keyboard has a palm rest at the base and a trackball set in the centre, rather than a mouse. Although designed for comfort and speed, it wasn't popular with our testers. Susie Moore said: 'There's too much emphasis on a 'different' exterior design and not enough on users' needs.' Gurnek Bains called it 'a waste of space'. Simon Calder almost got stuck at first base: 'I was unable to switch it on, but once that problem was solved, I was annoyed by the keyboard. Why do the letters slope? And why is the control key there?' The computer gained highest marks for its screen - not surprising, as it uses top-of-the-range technology.



Price: pounds 1,763

Weight: 1.3kg. Size: 28x16x4cm

Processor: 386/20MHz. Battery life:

up to 10 hours. Screen: monochrome

Testers voted this computer our overall winner. It was very popular because of its weight and size, and the long battery life. 'This is wonderful. It does everything a real person might need and nothing else,' eulogised Andrew Brown. He could see only one defect - no games. Susie Moore commented: 'The size when compared to performance is outstanding. Nothing is given up in terms of screen clarity or keyboard facility in reducing size and weight.' The testers thought the built-in mouse, which pops out when you press a button, was a clever idea. It also scored highly on value for money, although it is more expensive than other monochromes at this performance level. One note of dissent. Gurnek Bains found the screen depressing: 'Writing reports is boring enough without having to do it on a murky screen. I'd rather pay extra for colour.'

(Photograph omitted)