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What to Look For in Notebook Computers

WHEN friends call for computer-buying advice, I always mention notebooks. These portable wonders are powerful enough to carry all your programs and data on the road.

For some special applications, such as high-end graphics or multimedia, desktops are still the way to go. But users running standard software should investigate notebook computers. Here are some features to look for:

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PCMCIA slots. If you plan to hook up your notebook to a phone line or computer network, consider a machine with at least one (and preferably two) PCMCIA Type II slots. You can plug in a fax/data modem, a network connection, or added disk space (but make sure the cards are compatible with the machine).

NiMH batteries. While nickel metal-hydride batteries probably don't live up to all their vendors' claims, they're still better than the older nickel-cadmium or NiCad technology.

Low-power chips. Intel's 386SL chip technology extends the precious operating time of a notebook computer on batteries.

Well-lit screen. Get the best back-lit display you can afford. If you want color, get an active-matrix screen.

Other features will depend on your personal preferences. Here are a few of mine. I like the little display tucked behind Toshiba notebook keyboards that tells how much battery time is left, but I don't like the plug-in track ball, which you have to carry separately. Texas Instruments' TravelMates have the same drawback.

I prefer the more ergonomic track ball on the Apple PowerBook and am even more intrigued by new pointing devices on the IBM ThinkPad (pointer in the middle of the keyboard) and the Hewlett-Packard OmniBook (pop-out mouse).

HE OmniBook is one of the new 486 machines that weigh less than half the standard six or seven-pound notebook. Gateway's new line of HandBooks also fits nicely in this ``sub-notebook'' category. The tradeoff: no built-in floppy-disk drive.

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If you're still not sure whether to buy a notebook or a desktop, consider a system that does both. The smoothest solution is Apple's Duo Dock line, which lets you plug a PowerBook into a full-sized desktop module with standard keyboard and monitor. Several IBM-compatible vendors offer similar docking stations or bundles to hook up to an external screen and keyboard.

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