Portable Power

Until recently, I had never owned a name-brand computer. Really. All my systems were custom-built jobs made for easy upgrade ability and packed with solid-performing hardware. My last system, built around Intel’s 430 chip set with 150 MHz Cyrix 6×86 processor, 64 MB of RAM, 4 MB Diamond graphics card, 3.1 GB Western Digital hard drive and NEC 17 inch monitor, is a UNIX Web server in Presque Isle, Maine. I sold it before abandoning the far northern reaches for a more-southern city.

I decided a notebook would better suit my new job and our small apartment. My 2½-year old daughter would get the room that in other times would have been an office. I chose, with great anxiety, a Micron Millennia Transport. The Millennia Transport was a favorite when testing portables for review and Micron offered a 15 percent reporter’s discount. 

But MMX portables had just come on the market at the time of my purchase. Hence, my anxiety. After struggling over what I could afford and the reality big money buys much less power in a portable, I settled on the Millennia Transport for a cool $3430 and $299 more for a mini-docking station. Oddly, Micron discontinued the model the following month (April).

Performance is exceptional and good enough to run Windows NT Workstation 4.0, which I do. My configuration: 133 MHz Pentium with 48 MB of RAM (the maximum), 2.1 GB hard drive, 8-speed CD-ROM drive and 12.1 inch active-matrix screen. Other than a bit more computing power or memory, I couldn’t ask for more. Micron’s notebook is an exceptional desktop replacement.

The Millennia Transport is so suitable a desktop replacement, I rarely pull it from the docking station. Nor do I long to bang this big investment around. So it’s not all that portable, and I found myself looking for a second notebook. Something I could tote to the office.

My office is a bit of an enigma: a computer magazine where Windows 3.11 dominates desktops. It’s tough. I come from a work-at-home environment that was primed for efficiency; I used the best technology necessary. My current setup runs me ragged, but I don’t fault the company. The magazine is part of a large publishing empire that needs time for an enterprise-wide upgrade to a newer operating system, in this case Windows 95.

So I hunted down and bought a second notebook—and what an experience. Since my March purchase of the Micron model, the notebook market has changed radically. MMX models have driven portable prices way down. A month ago, I spotted a Toshiba Satellite Pro 420CDT, a 120 MHz Pentium notebook with 32 MB of RAM, 1.08 GB hard drive, 10-speed CD-ROM drive and 11.3 inch active-matrix screen, for $1999 from PC Connection. My sister was looking for a good notebook and snapped one up. Today, you can get the 425CDS with 120 MHz Pentium processor, 8 MB of RAM, 810 MB hard drive, 6-speed CD-ROM drive and 11.3-inch dual-scan color screen, for $1199 from Micro Warehouse. Go figure.

Toshibas are a good buy right now because of a glut in the marketplace. IBM ThinkPads are good deals, too, as new models drive the old out of the market—and at unheard-of prices for portables. PC Zone is selling the ThinkPad 365XD with 120 MHz Pentium processor, 8 MB of RAM, 810 GB of RAM, 4-speed CD-ROM drive and 10.4 inch active-matrix screen for $1249. You can add another $160 for 24 MB total RAM or about another $300 for 40 MB (the maximum). The 365XD isn’t exactly a speedster among portables, but it’s light, rugged and backed by Big Blue. I picked one up from PC Connection with 24 MB of RAM.

But I missed out on a new model and walked away with a refurbished 365XD for exactly the cost of a new one from PC Zone. This followed my canceling an order for a reconditioned Toshiba Satellite Pro 420CDS, a 120 MHz Pentium portable with 24 MB of RAM, 810 MB hard drive, 10-speed CD-ROM drive and 11.3 inch dual-scan color screen, for $1248 (starting price was $999 before a memory upgrade from 8 MB). I really wanted a ThinkPad.

Reconditioned notebooks are a great deal. When a computer is returned for any reason—and most of the time the units work perfectly—they cannot be sold as new. Companies refurbish and resell them. How good are the deals? Outstanding if you look. PC Connection recently sold IBM ThinkPad 365EDs, Cyrix 5×86 100 processor portables with 8 MB of RAM, 540 MB hard drives, 4-speed CD-ROM drives and 10.4 inch dual-scan color screens, for $699. That’s right, $699, what a Windows CE hand-held computer goes for. Add a 16 MB memory upgrade and you have a Pentium 75 equivalent portable for about $850. Now that’s sweet.

Warranties vary. IBM’s is 90 days on refurbished ThinkPads, but PC Connection will extend that by four years for about $160. Micron reconditions come with full warranty. Oh. Oh. The day I checked, I could have grabbed a Micron Millennia Transport XPE with 150 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32 MB of RAM, 1.4 GB hard drive, 8-speed CD-ROM drive and 12.1 inch active-matrix screen for $150 less than what I paid for my non-MMX 133 MHz Pentium model. Had I known Micron sold refurbished models, I might not have bought new.

My ThinkPad reburb runs great, though I replaced Windows 95 with OS/2 Warp 4. Warp flies in the 24 MB memory footprint and gives me greater stability and speed over Microsoft’s pseudo 32-bit operating system. I recommend Windows 95 to no one.

If you’re looking for a good notebook, whether new or reconditioned, it’s a great time to buy. Speculation is prices will stabilize once MMX models push out older Pentium portables. After all, prices there still remain 30 percent to 40 percent higher than typical desktop PCs for units with 30 percent to 40 percent less computing power—maybe more. But I think once the market adjusts to these great buys and with a greater variety of Intel and non-Intel processors driving down prices, notebooks will approach PCs in power and price.

Editors Note: On July 28, 2017, this post was recovered, using Archive.org Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of my first website, at editors.com strangely called: “Blue Sky, Business, and the Maine Outback”. What was I thinking?