Portable Computers – Comparing notes while on the move

Portable Computers - Comparing notes while on the move

Different users want different things from a laptop: some simply wantto duplicate their desktop system in another location while others want towork while travelling. With the needs of the latter in mind, VNU Labs putfour top-end notebooks through their paces en route to Brighton.

Notebook users fall into two major categories. The first are users who simply want to duplicate their desktop system in different locations, the second are those who need to work while travelling. With the second group in mind, VNU Labs studied the effectiveness of the notebooks in a travelling environment. We took four professionals, put them on trains to Brighton, and asked them for their opinions on how effective each notebook would be in their day-to-day lives. Each evaluator tested all of the notebooks.

Usability or HCI (Human Computer Interaction) is a multi-dimensional assessment of learnability, efficiency, intuitiveness, memorability, error rates and ergonomics. All these factors are essential in order to produce useful work easily. VNU Labs tested the top-end notebooks from Compaq, Toshiba, IBM and Dell for usability on the move. Once in the Labs the notebooks faced 16 & 32-bit performance tests and physical attribute tests.

The usability test focused on ergonomic and other areas important to our evaluators. The four evaluators completed a series of tasks using Microsoft Office and using any pre-installed notebook software under Windows ’95. The aim of the test was to see which notebook is most suitable for performing common office tasks in a mobile environment.

Evaluators were asked to assess the following areas: ergonomics (screen, keyboard, pointing device, build quality), power management (was it easy to understand, set up and change), help (on-line and manuals), Installation, weight, ease of use and modularity via installing of peripherals such as a CD-Rom using a series of scenario tasks to be performed on each of the notebooks.

The evaluators were given five main tasks: battery and CD-Rom/floppy drive installation, word processing a business document, modifying a spreadsheet, loading and using a CD-Rom, changing power management settings. The evaluators were allowed to use manuals and any on-line help to assist with the task but had to note when this was necessary.

They decided whether each of the products performed to a satisfactory level for each task undertaken. Our evaluators rated the performance of the products via a series of questionnaires and interviews.

Compaq’s innovative design raised high hopes for a top-notch notebook.

The Armada 4130T, toughly designed with mobility in mind, failed to impress our evaluators although the slim, light and modular notebook offers a P133, 16Mb Ram and a colour TFT which comfortably held its own against the traditionally market-beating screens from Toshiba and IBM.

The Compaq’s major downfall was the touchpad pointing device. All the evaluators commented strongly on how work was extremely frustrating with this device in a moving environment: “ridiculous design for people on the move – virtually impossible to navigate the screen”. “Every task has taken twice as long with this Compaq”. The Armada is available with an add-on trackball, but this was not supplied for the mobility test. It does raises the question, if a trackball is an available option, why is it not fitted as standard? The touchpad is fine in a solid position but completely unusable in an environment which has base vibrations, such as a moving train. Evaluators spent most of their time trying to select the correct option, and ended up accidentally selecting the wrong one.

In consequence the product became very unpopular and frustrating to use, with evaluators falling back to function keys where possible. “There was so little control of the cursor – no control at all on a bumpy bit of the railway – that the machine was executing tasks seemingly of its own accord. It took nearly five minutes to locate and click on the undo button.” This knock-on frustration meant the notebook performed less well in all tested aspects of usability due to the additional time taken to complete a task. The Armada would be a strong bet in a different environment.

Stock controlling or walking around with the product is a dream, the sturdy handle enabling risk-free, one-handed computing. This product would be well suited to users who want to duplicate a desktop in different environments. The Compaq is also a very modular product, with a potential battery life of 10.5 hours and good multimedia features.

Evaluators rated the Armada slightly lower than the other notebooks on keyboard, screen and CD-Rom quality, probably due to the intense frustration caused by the touchpad. However, positive comments mentioned the ease of setting up the notebook. The folding handle at the back of the notebook is also one of the battery bays into which evaluators found it easy to install a battery. The handle also folds back to raise the notebook so that you can type at an angle, producing a similar effect to IBM’s raised keyboard.

Compaq’s power management was also popular with the evaluators, only coming second to IBM’s. The Armada comes into its own with its modularity.

CD-Rom expansion is available via an additional module which evaluators found easy to install. Compaq’s help was highly rated, with evaluators warming to the included set-up cards and the easy on-line and off-line help.

Performance was disappointing in comparison to the other notebooks but quite respectable for a slimline notebook – which in previous lab tests have performed less well than the thicker notebooks.

– Compaq Armada 4130T

Price: #3,400 ex VAT

CD-Rom module #340

Comment: A notebook let down by touchpad

IBM’s ThinkPad continues to be a clear winner with users. The P133, 16Mb Ram, 1.2Gb drive outperformed the competition in both the performance and usability tests.

The most commented upon feature was the easy-to-use trackpoint, which performed very well even through the bumpiest part of the journey: “I liked the trackpoint, found it easy to use and liked the keyboard a lot.

Nice ‘standard’ feel to it.”

There were two main problems, however. The first was the difficulty in installing batteries and changing from the floppy drive over to a CD-Rom drive. For a first-time user these tasks are not intuitive. All the evaluators required documentation to install a battery and change over the floppy to a CD-Rom. Installation of the battery and desired drive is achieved by pushing back the lid clips and pushing back the keyboard to reveal the floppy and battery compartments. On repetition, though, battery installation proved to be an easily learnable task. Even so, three of the evaluators reported feeling uncomfortable about going “inside the machine,” and so the ThinkPad’s intuitiveness suffered.

The second problem was the poor quality of on-line and off-line help.

The ThinkPad was rated the worst at informing the evaluator on to what to do. When trying to install the battery and CD-Rom from the manual, one evaluator commented: “Not very clear. Took me quite a while to figure out. Didn’t like the way you had to go to a different page for different models. Even the figures were unclear.”

Evaluators commented on how easy it was to adjust screen brightness and volume levels via the manual sliders. The ability to raise the keyboard enabled users to adopt a more comfortable typing position.

The ThinkPad achieved the highest usability score for power management.

The evaluators were reassured by the LCD showing battery life, and using this as a building block were encouraged to explore other areas: it made them feel in control.

Performing well in all areas, the ThinkPad was first choice with three out of four evaluators for daily use.

– IBM ThinkPad 760 ED

Cost: #5,441.69 ex. VT

Floppy drive #38.70

Comment: It was first choice with three out of four evaluators for daily use. Only let down by awkward battery and CD-Rom installation and manuals.

Toshiba’s Tecra 720CDT is a good, versatile allrounder. It performed well on the move and in VNU Labs benchmark tests. Evaluators were generally favourable about the P133, 1.2Gb HD, and 16Mb spec. product and liked its high quality 12.1 inch TFT screen. All would feel happy in using it daily.

Supplied with an external unit to house a floppy drive and an internal CD-Rom, the user can swap the floppy drive or CD unit to fit the floppy enclosure, so that the CD is external and the floppy internal.

Evaluators expressed concern that, when moving the mouse it vanished from the display, becoming lost against the background. Although this was not a universal view, one evaluator found this very frustrating: “it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint cells with the trackpoint”.

The evaluators liked the keyboard’s design: “a good rest area for hands, not cramped”; and the screen: “clear and wide, didn’t flicker with train and was clear from different angles”. The Toshiba’s on-line help received a mixed reception from the evaluators, with opinions ranging from approval to disapproval.

Although the Tecra notebook performed just below the Dell, evaluators did not comment on any lack of performance.

Dell’s Latitude notebook only just outperformed the Tecra in performance and usability. The product is mainly hampered by the external Panasonic CD-Rom drive which is connected via a PCMCIA card. Our evaluators complained that this was bulky and said that they would probably not use it in a mobile situation.

The external drive runs on six AA batteries which last for only a relatively short period of time, and are another item to recharge and pack prior to a business trip. Notebook battery life would be extended as there is no internal drain when using the CD-Rom drive. The other systems’ CD-Rom drives, either external or internal, relied on the notebook for power thus making their operations relatively easy.

None of the evaluators were able to play audio through the Latitude’s speakers and had to resort to plugging the headphones into the external drive to reproduce sound.

– Toshiba Tecra 720CDT

Cost: #4,995 ex. VAT (action dealership price #4,239) inc. floppy drive

Comment: Good all rounder

The Dell Latitude was also criticised for the size of its keyboard: “The keyboard is very fiddly – but the keys feel good. Feels like it’s designed for smaller hands than mine.”

The trackball was universally well received: “A pleasure to use after touchpads and trackpoints.”

Power management settings worked well on the Latitude; however, the evaluators commented that with full power management the notebook appeared to stop and start, causing delays in working which became annoying. This problem does not exist on the other settings.

Evaluators commented that build quality felt less sturdy than the other notebooks in our group test.

Overall, Dell’s Latitude performed remarkably well, considering the relatively low purchase cost of the device. The score applies to both the performance tests and usability tests.

It is a pity that Dell didn’t produce either an internal CD-Rom, as it does for its P150 based notebook, or an external device like the one provided by Toshiba. The external CD device is of a good standard compared with other PCMCIA CD-Rom drives, but it does not offer the same ease of use as the others in the test.

The quality of the pointing device and keyboard are very important issues in mobile computing. The evaluators were in a moving environment and in consequence were dependent on the input devices to work well. Those that didn’t work well suffered in the evaluation.

The notebook users generally did not understand power management. Systems which provide clear power facilities fared best, allowing users to feel in control. Experience in support suggests that the majority of notebook users leave the notebooks’ power management configured as supplied. The majority of users do not want to bother with switching power-saving modes, but want maximum battery life with a minimum of fuss. Some users are also unhappy with function keys that change system setting and prefer them to be left to the “techies”.

It is important to remember that in a working environment, you only install options such as CD-Rom drives or modem cards on an as needed basis. Powerful portable computing is constantly a trade-off. Whether it’s functionality against weight or price against performance, it’s important for any individual to decide which features are important to the task that they have to do.

Our evaluators were asked to assess what would make them productive or unproductive. Each came back with differing criteria as to what was important to them, each evaluator had a different idea as to what was easy to work with and what wasn’t. In deciding which notebook to purchase, one must decide primarily what task it has to achieve.

Communications are also a critical factor for some mobile users, and our test does not focus on internal modems or indeed the ability to connect to an office LAN remotely.

– Dell Latitude XPi

Cost: #2,594 ex. VAT

PCMCIA CD-Rom #349

Comment: Strong contender, let down by the external PCMCIA CD-Rom drive.

– Jonathan Ricks is labs testing editor at VNU European Labs

Consistency (deviation): consistency of scores across all test areas, the smaller the score the greater the consistency.

Average: average score of all test areas.

Our evaluators were: Mike Hodgeson, roaming technical support specialist; Catherine Russel, sales executive; Jessica Hodgeson, freelance journalist/reporter; and Mike Wignall, business entrepreneur. Each evaluator had a varying level of experience; none of our evaluators had intensive experience with any one or more of the brands.

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