Stereo, video - notebooks are bulging

Multimedia portables are where the action is. Cliff Joseph reports
The most important trend in notebook technology at the moment is the adoption of multimedia. Features such as stereo sound and built- in speakers have been common in notebook PCs for some time.

But these computers are now gaining features such as microphones and built-in CD-Rom drives. Notebook display technology is also improving, andsome high-resolution screensare capable of displaying high-quality video and animation.

A top-of-the-range model such as Toshiba's Tecra 720 currently costs about pounds 5,500, though prices are starting to come down. It includes a 133mhz Pentium processor, 16mb Ram, 2gb hard disk and a 12in TFT (thin film transistor) screen with a resolution of 1024 by 768.

Opt for a slightly slower processor, or a standard 800 by 600 resolution screen, and you can get a pretty good, brand-name system for about pounds 3,500. If you buy from a low-cost "clone" manufacturer, you should get the price down to pounds 2,500-pounds 3,000.

At first, the market consisted of business users who wanted to give impressive presentations but, because these notebooks now offer the power and features of a full-sized desktop PC, they are also sold as desktop system alternatives.

In many organisations, the sales and marketing staff have two computers - a desktop PC for the office and a notebook for travelling. Buying these all-in-one multimedia notebookssaves firms money as it provides a single computer which can be used for both. They also make it possible to adopt new working practices, such as "hot-desking", where employees move freely around their offices and set up their notebooks on any available desk.

Every new feature that you add to a notebook computer makes it heavier and less portable. There are two solutions to this problem, and accordingly two different types of notebook. Notebooks such as the Tecra adopt a modular design and are built with "swappable" holding bays that accept a number of components. If you don't need the floppy disk drive you can take it out and replace with a CD-Rom drive, or a second battery so the notebook lasts longer.

The alternative is a lightweight basic unit that can have extra components added. Compaq's Armada notebooks are a good example of this. The main notebook unit is very slim and light, with only a hard disk and floppy disk drive built inand can be clipped on to a flat "tray" unit that includes a CD-Rom drive, speakers and an extra battery slot.

This approach can be useful for people who want to use the notebook as a replacement for a desktop PC.