Small is Beautiful—Sometimes

Laptops have become meeting planners' indispensable companions for researching sites; coordinating on-site registration, schedules, and logistical details; checking e-mail; taking notes; and creating expense reports. And while most hotels offer PCs and Internet access, lugging that laptop is a necessity for most planners. "You can't get through the firewall back home if you log in from a business center," notes planner Michelle Snock from Cisco Systems. "You have to have your virtual private network loaded on your PC." Independent planner Kris Wiley adds, "A laptop's simply second nature now; you've got to have it with you on the road."

But as ultralight laptops scrape the two-pound barrier, are cutting-edge laptops actually getting too small to be useful?

Laptop computer designs gravitate towards either ultraportability or desktop replacement, and the goals of each are essentially contradictory. Desktop replacement PCs cram all the functions and features of a desktop into a portable unit: large screen, full-sized keyboard, built-in DVD/CD-ROM, and ports to connect printers, external monitors, and so on. Extreme examples include the 17-inch-screen models like the HP Pavilion zd8000. With audio, TV, and digital recorder functionality, this $1,899 "portable" is perfect for multimedia—and at 12.3 pounds, it can double as a boat anchor.

That's way too big for Snock, who recently got a rolling laptop bag for her seven-pound notebook, which also holds her charger, calculator, and make-up kit. "Even that gets heavy on my back with a shoulder strap bag," she reports. But at Cisco, "Everyone brings a laptop with them wherever they are; even in the office, desktops are very rare."

At the other end are ultralight notebooks, like the Sharp Actius MM20 (two pounds), IBM ThinkPad X40 (2.6 pounds) and Sony VAIO X505 (1.85 pounds). But shaving weight means features are trimmed. The big screen of the bunch is the IBM's 12.4-incher; the Sony (with its 90-percent-sized keyboard) and Sharp have 10.4-inch displays. Each comes only with a 20GB hard drive and a 1.1GHz (or slower) processor and lacks a built-in CD/DVD drive. (Attachable versions of these drives exist, but 3.5-inch drives are obsolete.) Often, these laptops have limited connectivity in terms of USB, parallel, and video-out ports. These can be added via a portable docking station, putting back some of the weight and carrying hassles you first avoided. "I don't like the idea of those sacrifices," says Wiley. "I'd just end up with two laptops."

Fortunately, there's a happy medium. Many planners choose six-pound notebooks, which provide key features needed in the office and on the road. The IBM ThinkPad T42 (5.7 pounds, $1,800) has a CD-RW/DVD drive and a 15-inch color screen; the 6.3-pound WinBook W322 ($1,399) and the six-pound Toshiba Satellite A55-S326 each boast a 15-inch screen, 1.6MHz processor, 60GB hard drive, and CD-RW/DVD drive.

Snock says that "planners definitely need a CD-ROM/DVD drive; hotels today give you their 'printed collateral' on DVD. And any screen less than 14 inches is tough to see." Wiley adds that many speakers hand her a PowerPoint project on CD-ROM, so she needs a laptop with a built-in drive and a full-size video port for hooking up a data projector. Snock also advocates being prepared to work without wireless access: "You can get online now from most hotel lobbies, but that dial-up modem can come in handy."