Mobile Computing: Best Notebook Alternatives

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* Feature: How to Choose the Ideal Notebook Alternative *

Airport security hassles. Coffee spilled on your keyboard. A bulky shoulder bag that crushes your clavicle. Aside from that last teensy exaggeration, this is the joy of traveling with a notebook.

But with cell phones morphing into smart phones, and PDAs acting more and more like miniature PCs, who says you need to lug a laptop? I vowed over six months ago not to travel with a notebook again unless absolutely necessary. So far, I've done just fine without one.

Ready to take the dare yourself? Just figure out which notebook alternative is right for you, based on the mobile professional profile below that best describes you.

Hopeless E-Mail Addict

Profile: You carry a computer on trips primarily for e-mail.

Recommendations: Research In Motion's BlackBerry is such a hugely popular e-mail device, it's often dubbed "CrackBerry" because of its addictive powers. The BlackBerry features a personal information management program, a built-in keyboard, and e-mail delivered automatically, like messages to a pager.

The BlackBerry is probably your best bet for e-mail on the go. But its PIM programs aren't as robust as those on Palm OS or Pocket PC devices.

If that's important, Palm devotees should consider the PalmOne Treo 600 (about $450, depending on the carrier). The Treo 600 combines cell phone, e-mail, Web browsing, and a digital camera in one device.

For Pocket PC users, T-Mobile offers the Pocket PC 2003 Phone Edition. As of this writing, the device is one of the few wireless devices running the most recent version of Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system for phones. Details:

If you primarily pick up e-mail over a Wi-Fi connection, Pocket PC users should also consider Dell's new Axim X30. More on that in "Perpetual Web Surfer."

Reseller/service provider Motient sells a 2MB model of the BlackBerry 850 for $99. This basic monochrome device is designed primarily for e-mail and organizer programs.

At the high end, the color-screen BlackBerry 7750 provides cell phone service, Web browsing, and e-mail with attachment viewing. It costs $500 with a two-year service contract from Verizon Wireless. For more details, go to Verizon's site.

Efficient Office Jockey

Profile: You spend tons of time using Microsoft Office applications, even when you're out of the office.

Recommendation: The PalmOne Tungsten T3 ($399) screen slides out to provide a larger view of your Office (and other) documents than most other PDAs offer. The T3's resolution is 320 by 480 pixels, while many handheld screens are 320 by 240. You can view files in portrait or landscape mode--which is particularly helpful for spreadsheets. The handheld, introduced last fall, also comes with Dataviz's Documents To Go 6.0 Professional Edition, which lets you create and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. Add a fold-out, full-sized keyboard ($70 to $100), and you've got a true "pocket" PC.

On several trips, I've worked on Word files using a Tungsten T3 instead of a notebook. Most of the time, I was glad I did. Unfortunately, the T3's only built-in connectivity is Bluetooth. That's not much help when you need an Internet connection--unless you have a Bluetooth cell phone, because the T3 can use a cell phone to connect to the Internet.

For my review of the Tungsten T3 as a notebook alternative, read "Notebook Substitutes." You can go to the PC World Product Finder for the latest prices.

I checked e-mail on the Tungsten T3 using a 3JTech Pegasus III infrared, dial-up modem ($99). Though a bit slow, and not as convenient as a wireless connection, the modem works fine. It's available online at

Perpetual Web Surfer

Profile: You spend so much time on the Web, you dream about Googling--and then you Google your dreams.

Recommendation: Let's be honest. Surfing Web sites on a PDA screen can be like viewing Michelangelo's David through a keyhole. The typical handheld's slow processor makes the experience doubly painful. But Dell's new high-end, Pocket PC-based Axim X30, with the top-of-the-line 624-MHz Intel XScale PXA270 processor, is an exception.

In informal tests on my home wireless network, most Web pages I tried loaded far faster on the Axim X30 than on any other PDA I've used. The Axim X30's 320-by-240 pixel resolution screen is smaller than the Tungsten T3's stretch screen. But the T3 lacks the Axim's Wi-Fi connectivity. And besides, the Axim's screen is actually brighter than the T3's. And it's just fine for viewing most Web pages.

In fact, the Axim X30 is one sweet PDA. Along with Wi-Fi, it has Bluetooth connectivity, the aforementioned gorgeous screen, a Secure Digital card slot, and a handy Wi-Fi utility for quickly connecting to wireless networks, among other attributes. At $379, it's also $50 less than the Tungsten T3.

To transform the Axim into a true notebook alternative you can connect it to a fold-out, full-sized keyboard ($59). The keyboard, available from Dell, is comfortable to use and well designed. In late June, Dell plans to introduce an external Bluetooth foldable keyboard for Axims, too. As of this writing, though, pricing wasn't available.

Read "Dell Unveils New Axim PDAs" for more about the new Axim models.

'All of the Above'

If all of the above profiles fit you in equal measure, a notebook alternative is probably not in your future.

A PDA, by its nature, requires that you compromise on processor speed, display size, storage capabilities, and other features that are standard on a notebook. That's okay if you primarily use the PDA instead of a notebook for one thing, such as e-mail, and you buy the PDA with the fewest compromises in that area.

But compromising on e-mail, Office applications, and Web surfing, when all three are equally important to you on the road? Don't go there.

What's Your Notebook Alternative?

Do you leave your notebook at home in favor of another gadget for e-mail, Office applications, or Web surfing? If so, tell me about it.

Further Reading

Check out some previous newsletters on notebook alternatives:

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