Home Computer: Less strain on the train

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The Independent Online
OTHERS may worry about how large a portable computer may be and still be called portable. I worry how small it can be and still be called useful, writes Andrew Brown.

I like large screens that hold lots of information and full-sized keyboards which can comfortably accomodate eight or nine clattering fingers. This means that a useful computer must not be much smaller than a piece of A4 paper in breadth and width; if it weighed as little that would be good, too.

The Dell 325 SLi seems to me about as small as a notebook computer running Microsoft Windows can usefully be. The drawbacks of this are obvious at first glance; that is when you realise that you cannot see the cursor - the flashing little bar or blob which tells you where you are in a document. However, with some juggling with contrast controls and colour schemes, it is possible to get a cursor visible under any light good enough to type by.

There must be some light, though. In contrast to the brighter backlit screens used by the competition, the Dell's screen does not glow in the dark. On the other hand, nor does it show up well in bright sunlight.

The corresponding benefits outweight these drawbacks, in my view. The first is that the simple screen is light and thin, as is the whole machine. The second is that the lack of backlighting - screen illumination generated by the computer - saves a great deal of battery power. With all the various power-saving devices enabled - so that more and more of the machine shuts itself down when not in use - I was able to leave the Dell running all day on my desk without changing batteries and to use it with confidence on train journeys where previous laptops always required me to carry a spare, heavy battery around.

It is even possible to run Windows sensibly, if a little slowly, while on trains. The real problem, as with all laptops, is not running but starting and stopping it. It takes nearly a minute to get everything running properly from the moment when you first switch on, which is much worse performance than you would get from a paper notebook.

Most laptops are even worse, since they make you unpack, plug in and clip on a separate mouse substitute before they can be fully used. On the Dell you can use the cursor keys to move the mouse pointer around, an arrangement which is flexible enough for all normal purposes.

Exhaustive and carefully controlled bench-mark tests in a variety of settings revealed that it is sensitive enough to play Solitaire with, but not Minesweeper, the other game that comes free with Windows.

The other great merit of the power management software is that at the end of a train journey you can simply shut the machine and it will put itself to sleep, ready to resume exactly where it left off up to eight hours later. This is almost as good as paper, except that the batteries in a paper notebook do not run out at all. Machines without power management are much less use on trains, even if the batteries hold out, since you must go through the whole laborious business of shutting down all the programs before you can safely switch them off and unplugging the mouse at the back - it never fits in the case when plugged in.

I took the Dell on holiday and used it to keep a fairly complicated fishing diary, complete with illustrations - though those had to be drawn with a proper mouse.

It is certainly up to such tasks. The trouble comes when you want to print out your work. Portable printers may be extremely good printers. They may be conveniently portable. But no printer I have found is both. However, that is another story.

Vital statistics

System: PC-compatible/Dos

4 megabyte ram; 80 megabyte hard disk (expanded with MS-Dos 6 to 140- 150 megabyte); external floppy disk drive. Weighs 2.6 lbs.

Maker: Dell 0344-860546

Availability: Mail order direct from Dell within five working days of credit clearance.

Price: pounds 1496.95 incl VAT.

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