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    Lap top computers review Assessing the portability of the briefcase computers


    I f the manufacturers have their way, portable lap computers will be the first choice for any discern-

    ing executive wanting a lightweight, portable yet powerful system, incor- porating communications and prob- lem-solving software. In the short time it has taken to market these computers, a bewildering choice faces the executive on the move. But how reliable are these new additions to the computer range and what should a potential buyer be l.ooking for? Data Processing investigated the claims made about portable lap tops and discovered some to be quite mislead- ing.


    A number of companies claim their product is the most portable available, suggesting that once the computer is switched on, nothing else is required. However, many of the systems inves- tigated are standard basics which need -__--_____

    A bstruct: Lap top ~5nzp~ter~ are being heavily marketed by the manufacturers. They

    are useful for prqfessionals on the move, but

    do not replace rhe deskmp personal

    cumputers. In selecting a iap top computer,

    portability, rommunica tions capabilities, size

    of mem5~~, possible extensions and pnce

    should all he cmsidered.

    Kqwords: data processing, microcomputers,

    lap top computers.

    The shape that sits on a lap and fits into a briefcase. The Data General One has two integrated disc drives.

    the add-on options to function pro- perly. This brings portability into question.

    The heaviest of the computers, the Apricot Portable, weighs about 5.9 kg. That is over half a stone, even without batteries or a printer. In fact out of the 12 lap tops researched, eight weigh 4 kgs or more. Sharps PC5000 is the only computer which includes a tiny thermal printer attached to the back of the lap top. Since the batteries are internal, the model offers a very good example of portability, with an inclusive weight of just over 5.8 kg. A much lighter model is the Epson PX8 at 2.3 kg, excluding the printer, but including built-in rechargeable batteries. Other lightweight computers include the

    Olivetti MlO, NECs PC-8201 and Tandys TRS-80 Model 100, all at around 1.7 kg.

    True portability should include ease of carrying, under the arm, in a briefcase or using the carrying handle if available. Obviously the latter method is by far the easiest. Sharp has included this on the PC5000 and other models offering this feature are the Epson PX8 and the Osborne Encore. Data Generals DG One model and IIs Prolite each have a separate carrying case, both at &X5. The Tandy and NEC models are small enough to fit into most briefcases, but the Grid Compass is both heavy and has to be carried under the arm. Since the Apricot Portable has a separate key- board, the manufacturers have made a

    ~127 no 3 april 1985 OOll-684X/S~~O30029-04$03.00 63 1985 Butterworth &Co (Publishers) Ltd. 29

  • case with handle to carry all the attachments. This is not true of the Apple IIc, which has a fold away keyboard and handle, but since the LCD flat screen is a recent introduc- tion, it has to be carried separately. An executive then, needs to ascertain how much space he/she has available in a briefcase or if the computer is easy enough to carry separately.


    A standard RAM of 256 kbyte should

    Above: Epson PX-8 with acoustic coupler.

    Left: For total portability, try a Microlite plan and a Proiite, says Texus rnstruments.

    Above: Grid Compass II 1139.

    Above right: NEC-8201A.

    Left: Apple Ilc with flat panel display.

    Right: Sharps PC.5000 with inbuilt printer.

    provide enough memory for most executives thinking of purchasing a portable lap computer. Unfortunate- ly, few of those on the market offer this amount as their standard RAM. In fact, only five companies give this, including Grid, Hewlett Packard, Apple, Data General and TI. The rest vary from 128 kbyte down to as little as 8 kbyte in the Olivetti and Tandy basic models. However, all models do offer backing stores to increase

    memory on cassette, bubble or discs.

    Peripherals and interfaces

    When choosing a lap top computer, it is important to know what expansion slots are available, and if a printer or modem is inbuilt.

    The Sharp PCSOOO, for example, has a thermal printer attached. Other models such as the DG One have thermal printers as a separate option.

    30 data processing

  • [systems

    Top: Olivetti calls its Ml0 a portable


    Above: Tandy TRS-80.

    Above: HP IIO.

    Above right: Osborne Encore 3.

    Right: Apricot Portable.

    The Osborne Encore 3, NEC, Tandy models and the Olivetti Ml0 have parallel printer interfaces to the Cen- tronics standard as ,well as the more common serial ports. This is a useful interface for higher quality letter prin- ting than on the thermal type of paper. Hewlett Packards HI 10 has a ThinkJet printer as an option which is battery powered and small enough to be portable. The Grid Compass offers a choice of dot matrix, inkjet or letter

    quality printers for its model as add- on options.

    Some, like the Apple IIc and the Osborne Encore, offer serial ports for both a printer and modem. The Apricot Portable, however, has only one expansion slot which does not allow for an onboard modem. Very few of the models tested have inbuilt modems simply because of the diffi- culty of obtaining BT approval for UK use. Olivetti and Grid do though have inbuilt modems for American

    models. Sharp offers an external bus for communications purposes and there is a serial port for the American model. BTs electronic mail service, Telecom Gold, has been taken up by the Olivetti Ml0 and Epson PX8 which both give free membership to this service.

    Screen size and adjustability

    Except for the Grid Compass, which has an electroluminescent amber dis- play, all the lap top computers have an LCD readout. For short-term and

    ~0127 no 3 april1985 31

  • Tabie I. Lap top computers tested in the survey

    easy use, the LCD readout is quite adequate, but can prove difficult in certain light. It also becomes difficult if more than one person wants to see the display. The Tandy and NEC models have fixed screens, which mean problems with light reflection. The Apricot Portable is permanently tilted at an angle of 45. The rest of the models have tiltable screens which fold over the keyboard.

    For the best high resolution dis- play, the DG One and Grid Compass have large screens. DG One measures 10% in across the diagonal and the Grid Compass 8% in. Both have 80 x 25 characters/lines. The smallest dis- play comes from the Olivetti, Tandy and NEC models - all manufactured by Kyrocea of Japan.

    Battery or mains

    When travelling abroad it is worth making a note of the local mains power and if it is AC adaptable i.e. can be plugged into the mains. A backup pack of spare power in battery form is a useful alternative if the lap top computer of your choice can plug in to it. Most of the computers inves- tigated have a choice of inbuilt battery power and mains supply or separate battery pack. TI Prolite has an optional battery pack, but the Grid Compass, Apricot Portable and Apple

    IIc have no battery facility, working solely on mains supply. Obvious drawbacks to this would be if the power is down or, in the case of Apple and Apricot, if the power is not AC adaptable. At the other end of the scale is Hewlett Packards HP110, which is totally battery-operated with no mains option. According to the manufacturers, there is enough power for 16 hours continuous use on full charge and it retains the memory for one year while not in use.


    With so many variations on the mar- ket, choosing the most suitable lap top computer can prove difIicult. It is worth looking at what the price in- cludes. At the top of the price range are the Grid Compass 1131 and 1139, the Rolls Royce of the lap top com- puters. The price for the basic 256 kbyte memory model is &6950 and for the 512 kbyte model, $7950. Most of the computers looked at are in the range of &300-&2 000.

    Sharp has bundled its PC5000 to include the printer, bubble Super- writer and standard 128 kbyte mem- ory at a total of &1670. Epsons PX8 offers four software programs for &798 including Micropros WordStar, portable talc, cardbox plus and sche- duler. For the student or researcher

    who is looking for value for money the NEC, Tandy or Olivetti Ml0 offers a good packge for around 2350 includ- ing startup packs. The Apricot Port- able has included ACTs diary, sketch, SuperCalc, Superplanner and Superwriter with backup memory, for &1795. The Osborne Encore how- ever, offers one disc of 128 kbyte RAM and excludes the power supply in its price of &1995. For further details, see Table 1.

    Future for lap tops

    According to a recent US study by Future Computing, lap top compu- ters will increase seven-fold by 1989, which suggests an increasing demand for portability. Yet it is important to check the small print when consider- ing an LCD portable and to find out its true capability and compatability. Many manufacturers suggest their computer is IBM-compatible, but few function to a high standard.

    The lap top is not a replacement for the PC, but an answer for the execu- tive wishing to have a computer at hand wherever heishe may be. The graphics and viewing still need im- proving but judging by the short length of time it has taken to market the present LCD models, it will not be long before most of the problems are solved. cl

    32 data processing