You want a notebook computer, but you do not have an unlimited budget. Which one should you go for? EMAP Computing Labs looked at 22 notebooks, in two categories. Those for around pounds 1,000 (excluding VAT) or less, and those for pounds 1,800 or less. Some more expensive models crept in, but note that the prices here are official prices - you may be able to buy cheaper through a retailer or mail order.

In testing the notebooks we were looking for the following:

A decent turn of speed, especially when running Windows applications.

Usability. Every one of the notebooks was tested by real people (all readers of What Personal Computer magazine). The volunteers were let loose on the machines for half a day each and given tasks which involved typing, using the pointing device and reading from the screen.

Screen quality.

To test battery life we created a Word for Windows macro which continually reads, edits and saves a large Word document. This continuous test gives us a worst-case battery-life figure.

The true cost of portability. Some notebooks may be light but if the battery only lasts an hour you'll need to carry the charger around with you too.

Value for money.

Warranty details. Does your warranty cover you anywhere in the world?

Expandability - all the notebooks in this test have at least one slot that accepts cards conforming to the PC Card specification.

BEST OF THE BUDGET NOTEBOOKS

Toshiba T2100/260 (pounds 1,195 plus VAT)

Without a doubt, the top budget notebook. It is based on a 486DX2-50 processor and comes with 4Mb of memory and a 260Mb hard disk. A well-built notebook, clearly designed from the ground up, rather than assembled from budget-priced bits and pieces.

The pointing device takes the form of a couple of buttons mounted at the front of the notebook coupled with a tiny pressure-sensitive pointer that sits between the G, H and B keys on the keyboard. The Tosh pointing device proved a real winner with our usability testers. The mono screen was also even, although the only control you have over it is a contrast button. Exceptionally well built and a good solid budget buy.

Toshiba: (01932) 841 600

IBM ThinkPad 360M01L (pounds 1,100 plus VAT)

You'll be surprised to hear that you can get an IBM notebook for around a grand. Noteworthy features include the bundling of the filofax-like personal information manager, Lotus Organizer, and the extending feet on the underside of the notebook which allow you to tilt the whole machine to a comfortable typing angle. IBM's TrackPoint also fared well in our usability tests. On the downside, there is no rest to cushion your wrists.

IBM: (0345) 727 272

Brother ProBook BCP631V (pounds 899 plus VAT)

Although this notebook suffers from a rather dim screen, it is good value for money. The bundle includes the rather splendid integrated package, Microsoft Works for Windows. Also worth a mention is the excellent battery life figures we got for the ProBook - the batteries lasted an incredible four hours, which was by far the top score in this test. On the downside, the built-in trackball is awkward to use and it is easy to lose track of the mouse pointer because of the dim screen.

Kyodai Electronics: (01279) 416 888

THE BEST FOR

UNDER pounds 1,800

AST Ascentia 810N (pounds 1,795 plus VAT)

The best thing about the AST is its excellent 10.5in dual-scan colour display with bright backlighting. This notebook is narrower than most and although this makes it easier to carry around you do a pay a price - the keys are smaller and the layout feels slightly cramped. And the wrist rest is so small that it's almost non-existent.

However, the recessed trackball built into the wrist rest was easy to get used to. The Ascentia is noteworthy for its small-size, reasonable battery life and good performance plus its three-year world-wide warranty.

AST: (0181) 232 5100

Dell Latitude 450MC (pounds 1,499 plus VAT)

Althought the Dell and AST might look like twins, the Latitude actually has a slightly smaller screen and a different trackball layout. Again the keyboard has been shrunk and there is no wrist rest so typing can be a bit of a strain. Nevertheless this notebook comes with Traveling Software's CommWorks for Windows which allows you to hook up to other PCs (with the help of a modem) and came in well above average in our performance tests.

Dell: (01344) 720 000

AJP 8590D (pounds 1,549 plus VAT)

This is one of the most unusual notebooks we came across in our test. If you're looking for a huge screen then this notebook is definitely worth exploring - we measured the screen at 11.4 inches - by far the biggest screen in this test. The AJP is also distinguished by its roomy keyboard and large wrist rest which makes typing a comfortable experience.

This hot-rod of a notebook is powered by an impressive processor - a 100MHz 486DX4 chip. But the beefy processor takes its toll on battery life - our tests revealed a figure of just over one hour.

AJP: (0181) 452 9090

Compaq Contura Aero 4/33C (pounds 1,399 plus VAT)

If it is true portability that you are after then check out the Compaq Aero. Packed into a sub-notebook casing you get 8Mb of memory, a 170Mb hard disk, a decent-sized keyboard and a 486SX-based processor. But portability has its price: there is no built-in floppy drive, the single-scan STN screen can display only 16 colours (instead of the more usual 256) and the Compaq came bottom of our performance tests.

Compaq: (0181) 332 3888

IBM ThinkPad 360CSE (pounds 2,330 plus VAT)

This ThinkPad is the colour DSTN screen version of the 360M also tested in our Labs. This IBM looks a little expensive by comparison with other notebooks in this test. For that money you get a notebook powered by a 486DX2/50 processor with a 340Mb hard disk and 4Mb of memory. Thumbs up for the bundled software - it is a sensible selection including Lotus Organizer, and a database of airline flight details. This notebook is a solid performer, but do you want to pay more than pounds 2,000?

Olivetti Echos 44 Color (pounds 1,749 plus VAT)

The most unusual-looking notebook in the test - not only is it terracotta- coloured, it has a rubber wrist rest. You'll either love it or hate it. The screen is evenly lit with sliding controls for both contrast and brightness while the keyboard has a light touch which you really should sample before you buy. An average notebook with a few interesting Italian design touches.

Olivetti: (0800) 447 799

BEST ALL-ROUND

Toshiba T2100 CS/350 (pounds 1,895 plus VAT)

As with the budget notebooks, the Toshiba excels. This model comes with a chunkier 350Mb hard disk and a colour screen. The notebook uses the same excellent trackball and proved to be a little faster than its mono brother in our performance tests. The well laid-out keyboard gives positive feedback and its good-sized wrist rest makes this a notebook suitable for lengthy use. Overall, a neat, well-priced package that we thoroughly recommend.

Toshiba: (01932) 841 600

The notebook tests were carried out in EMAP Computing Labs. EMAP, the publisher of industry-leading computer magazines such as 'PC User', 'LAN' magazine, 'Internet' magazine and 'What Personal Computer', has invested pounds 1.2m in creating a new product-testing facility. EMAP Computing Labs takes a new approach to product testing - evaluation of products concentrates on real users carrying out real business tasks. A much fuller version of these tests is in the June issue of 'What Personal Computer' (pounds 1.99). As well as the notebook tests, the issue includes a guide to the top five online services and offers advice on how to stop Windows crashing your PC.

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