Lappin' It Up

If you haven't bought a new lap-top in the past two years, there's a whole new scene today. Here are four features that have become nearly universal in new machines:

*USB connections have taken over. These little slots let you plug in a mouse, an external keyboard, digital camera, printer, and much more. Most laptops have at least two; many have four.

*Communications galore. Built-in 56K modems and Ethernet ports to access local area networks (LAN) are de rigueur, as is a Wi-Fi 802.11 connection for wireless LANs and Internet access.

*Bye, bye, floppy. The 3.5-inch drive, long a computing staple, is obsolete and virtually impossible to find today except as a sub-$100 option. Its replacement: CD-ROM drives. Most notebooks include a read-write drive, so you can play CDs and create your own. Many drives also play DVDs, and some burn them. Another replacement is the "keyring drive," a tiny and cheap storage device (128MB for $50) with a USB connection. Plug it into your laptop, transfer a PowerPoint presentation, then download to your desktop.

*Popular prices. A few years ago, the best laptops were $5,000. Today, most are under $2,000, and even brand-name firms like Toshiba, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard offer nice models for $800-$1,000.

What hasn't changed much is battery life. Powerful processors, big screens, and wireless connectivity drain even the newest batteries in less than three hours.

Three Types

Desktop replacement units provide desktop PC power, capability, and screen size in a portable form. Despite 15-inch displays and big keyboards, they still save precious desktop space. They also have huge processors and hard drives, and much memory. The downside: They're at least seven pounds, nearly 10 with AC adapter. An alternative: the IBM ThinkPad T40, with Pentium M processor, 14.1-inch screen, Wi-Fi wireless connectivity, and 80GB drive. Weighs 5.4 pounds, but costs $2,800.

Ultralights (under four pounds) are good for business applications, but they make some compromises. They have smaller keyboards and screens, and slower processors. Some lack external connections, like parallel ports for older printers or external display ports for data projectors. The very lightest, like Dell's three-pound X300 ($2,316), lack built-in CD/DVD drives. Instead, the Dell has a docking station for drives and ports. Another unit of note, Sharp's Actius MV14, has a 1.2GHz processor, a 40GB hard drive, a built-in CD/DVD drive, and a 12.1-inch screen. It's 4.2 pounds, and costs $2,000.

The value category is getting crowded. Toshiba's Satellite A15-S127 has a 15-inch screen, 2GHz Celeron processor, and DVD/CD drive. Though a tad slow, this 6.5-pounder is just $949. WinBook (www.winbook.com) has a fine selection of notebooks, like its M301 ($999).