Differentstrokes for different folks

My never-ending quest for the perfect portable computer
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The Independent Online

COME THE summer holidays, I always get in a panic over delivering thiscolumn from various exotic parts of the world. That means having to conquerforeign phone sockets, temperamental electricity systems and dubious roamingagreements from my ISP.

COME THE summer holidays, I always get in a panic over delivering thiscolumn from various exotic parts of the world. That means having to conquerforeign phone sockets, temperamental electricity systems and dubious roamingagreements from my ISP.

Laptops and mobile computing have been growingfuriously over the last two years. I have been a laptop user for over fiveyears now, and still warmly remember the clunky Toshibas and lovely butback-breaking IBM Thinkpads. However, with the new wave of ultralightnotebooks, portable computers are moving into a completely newera.

This was sharply brought to my attention during a recent flight fromLA, when a kid next to me played games for over six hours on his tiny SonyVaio, and then nonchalantly slipped it into a mini-knapsack. My oldToshiba, which takes up more space than a small car, expired after justan hour: the time had come to bite the bullet and update mykit.

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

All in all then, lots of variables andnot an easy buying process. But I kept looking at News.com reviews of thelatest portables, and settled on four candidates. First, the ToshibaPortege 3020CT, which would be the natural upgrade path from my currentnotebook. I waltzed into one of my favourite shops, knowing my pricesinside out having diligently researched the issue on the Internet. So all Ineeded to test was the tactile experience of the keyboards, multimediaquality, weights and quality of the design.

The Portege failed thekeyboard tests, as the keyboard was slippery and would cause a significantdecrease of my typing speed. Accuracy goes out the window on badkeyboards, and you end up spending a lot of time correctingmistakes.

Having dealt with my legacy loyalties to Toshiba, I turned toone of the lightest toys on the market, the lovely Acer TravelMate. Neatmachine, great performance, but the keys give flat, almostimpossible-to-feel tactile feedback, and mistakes roll down even withserious effort and concentration.

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

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

Gateway is always strong on power, anddidn't take prisoners with its 366Mhz, but with the weight just over5.9lb one can question the "ultralight" category. It is easier tocarry around with all the necessary drives inbuilt, but the frequency of useof DVD didn't seem to merit the trade-off with significant increase ofweight. And so I resumed my search for the Holy Laptop Grail.

I mustconfess, after my terribly scientific evaluation process and multivariatecomparative analysis using intelligent online search engines, I finallysuccumbed to reasons a lot less logical. It was love at first sight when Ispotted this slim and hip Sharp A250. Light like a wafer, only3.1lb, and powerful at 300Mhz, the Sharp is not the latest in theultralight wave, but the first in the new category of truly original,futuristic designs. Its silky metallic surface feels great and its keyboardhas strong feedback, delivering smooth and error-free typing.

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

The only drawback isthat the speakers are hidden beneath the keyboard and have a slightly mutedperformance. Otherwise, it is a perfect little machine and has alreadypaid for itself as I enjoy taking it with me on trips and have done a lot morework. Now I'm looking forward to summers free of the Great HolidayPortable Trauma.

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