Traveling with a laptop has become harder in recent years. Toting the portable computers around was always rough on your back and shoulders, but now you have to quickly yank them out for inspection to get through airport security. And once you’re on the plane, the inhuman space allotment for coach seats can make working on a laptop a painful experience.
All of this makes carrying a large laptop less and less practical. But the smallest, lightest models have historically included design compromises that have ruled them out for many users.
Lately, however, the computer industry has been beefing up the capabilities of the so-called ultralight models. They cover all the key bases for mainstream travelers. And you can actually use them in coach.
I’ve been testing two good examples of this new class of full-featured ultralight laptops, the Sony Vaio T250 and the Fujitsu LifeBook P7010. I like both machines, but there are some key differences between them.
The Fujitsu costs less, at $1,999 after rebate, yet it boasts more and better features, including a larger hard disk and more ports and connectors. But the Sony, which costs $2,199 after rebate, wins this comparison in three areas that matter greatly to travelers: It’s a bit lighter, a bit thinner, and it has much better battery life.
The Fujitsu LifeBook, top, and the Sony Vaio
And the Sony’s screen, while the same size as the Fujitsu’s, doesn’t extend upward as far when fully opened, making the Sony a bit easier to use when you’re seated behind a serial recliner.
Both laptops weigh only about three pounds and have very small footprints that fit easily on a coach-seat tray table. But, unlike past generations of light laptops, these two models include internal disk drives that can play, and record, both DVDs and CDs. So you can install software from a CD or watch a DVD on the plane.
The two laptops use the same Intel processor, a power-saving Pentium M running at 1.2 Gigahertz. That’s plenty of processor for common tasks. And both have built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking.
Each has a decent 512 megabytes of memory, though, in both cases, up to 64 megabytes of that memory can be siphoned off by the identical Intel graphics chips they use. The Fujitsu’s hard disk holds 80 gigabytes, the Sony’s 60 gigabytes.
Both laptops have wide-angle screens that measure 10.6 inches diagonally. That’s very small by today’s standards. But size isn’t everything. A high screen resolution can squeeze lots of material onto a small display, and both the Fujitsu and Sony sport a resolution of 1,280 by 768, which does the trick.
Also, both of the screens are of the new, reflective type that delivers great contrast, though that can be a problem if there’s a strong light source over your shoulder.
Because of their small size, both models have slightly cramped keyboards. But I found both quite usable. I liked the feel of the Fujitsu’s keyboard slightly better than the feel of the Sony’s, though the Sony has larger right-hand Backspace, Enter and Shift keys.
Another limitation common in past generations of little laptops has been battery life. To keep weight and size down, manufacturers have often scrimped on battery size. But these two models boast battery life that would allow for nearly constant work on a cross-country flight.
I put both machines through my tough battery test, where I turn up the screen brightness all the way, disable all battery-saving controls, and play an endless loop of music to keep the power-hungry hard disk spinning. The Fujitsu’s battery lasted a very respectable three hours and 38 minutes, meaning that in a more normal usage pattern, with battery-saving controls turned on, it would likely approach five hours of life on a single charge.
But the Sony’s battery life was truly amazing for such a small machine. In my test, it lasted four hours and 25 minutes, or 22% longer than the Fujitsu. In more normal use, with battery-saving controls enabled, the little Sony could likely approach six hours of life.
The Fujitsu weighs 3.3 pounds and is 1.26 inches thick, 10.27 inches wide and 7.83 inches deep. The Sony weighs 3.04 pounds and is one inch thick, 10.7 inches wide and 8.1 inches deep — mainly because its battery protrudes from the back a bit.
Both laptops have two USB 2.0 ports; a PC card slot; and a Firewire port (also called “1394″ or “iLink”). And each has a standard video-out port for use with desktop monitors, and a touchpad for controlling the cursor.
But the Fujitsu also has a built-in fingerprint reader, which can lock out anyone but people whose fingerprints it recognizes. And it has an S-video port, for hooking up to a TV, and a multiplicity of slots for camera memory cards. It can handle the popular Secure Digital and Compact Flash types of cards, as well as the Memory Stick Pro cards that are mainly used by Sony cameras.
In Sony’s typical proprietary fashion, the T250 can handle only Sony’s own Memory Stick Pro cards. And the Sony lacks S-video and a fingerprint reader.
If the extra features and lower price matter a lot, go with the Fujitsu. But if lower weight, thinner size and better battery life are your key considerations, the Sony is the better choice.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at firstname.lastname@example.org