Lesson 2: Portable Computers

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Portable computers, once a novelty, are now a part of everyday business life. Portable computers work and act just like the big ones except they are very compact. In this lesson, we look at those elements that make a portable computer unique.

After this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between the different categories of portable computers.
  • Identify the unique components of portable systems.
  • Define the unique problems of portable systems.
  • Distinguish between the different types of computer cards designed for portable computers.
Estimated lesson time: 20 minutes

The category of portable computers includes laptop, notebook, and subnotebook (palmtop) computers, as well as the newest categories: PDA (personal digital assistant) and handheld computers.

Types of Portables

Portable computers are classified according to size and function. Today there are three basic types of portable computers: laptops, notebooks, and subnotebooks.

The first "portable" computers were often called "luggables." The size of a portable sewing machine, they tipped the scales at 30 pounds. Equipped with a small CRT display, they were actually a traditional PC in a slightly smaller case. The real change in portable computers came with the advent of the flat-panel display, allowing the portable to take on the now-familiar slim design. "Laptop" is the term used for the heavier version, usually offering most of the features of a full-fledged PC, but with a folding flat-panel display and integrated keyboard. Notebooks are slender devices that often lack the full range of storage as part of the normal configuration. PDAs, a special group of products offering a subset of features including e-mail, schedule-tracking, contact records, and allowing limited note-taking and Web-browsing, are beyond the scope of this chapter.

Laptop Computers

With advancements in battery technology and the advent of functional large-screen LCDs (liquid crystal displays), the first truly portable computers, referred to as laptops, were produced in the late 1980s. These units featured integrated AT-compatible computer boards, including I/O and video controller functions. Laptops, as mentioned, usually feature a folding LCD display and a built-in keyboard and pointing device. They also use an external power supply and a removable, rechargeable battery. Today's laptops have fairly large (2 GB or more) hard drives, a CD-ROM drive, and floppy disk drive (often the latter two are interchangeable plug-ins).

When laptops originally appeared on the market, they were the smallest portable computers made. Today, they are high-end machines that offer features and performance comparable to a desktop system.

Notebook Computers

Advancements in integrated circuit (IC) technology allowed the size of computer components to be reduced even further, and in the early- to mid- 1980s the notebook computer was born. Notebooks are roughly 8.75 inches deep, by 11 inches wide, by 2.25 inches thick, and designers are working to decrease the size and power consumption of these units even further. The reduction in size comes at a cost, however, and notebooks typically have smaller and less-capable displays and keyboards than laptops. A wide variety of specialty items have appeared on the market intending to overcome some of the notebook's shortcomings. Docking ports are one such item.

Docking Ports

Docking ports (also known as docking stations) are specialized cases into which an entire notebook can be inserted. This allows the notebook to be connected to desktop I/O devices such as full-sized keyboards, CRT monitors, and network connections. At the very minimum, a docking station provides an AC power source for the notebook. Docking stations are highly proprietary items that are designed for use with specific computer models. They are handy for the user who wants to maintain only one computer system and avoid the necessity of transferring information between two systems. With a docking port and a well-equipped notebook computer, it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

It is not necessary to have a docking port to use a portable computer with a full-sized keyboard, pointing device, and monitor. Most portables have standard connectors for these peripherals. Be aware that you might have to connect the devices before booting up the computer, though.

Subnotebook (Palmtop) Computers

Even smaller than the notebook computers are subnotebook computers, also known as palmtops. These tiny systems are 7 inches wide, by 4 inches deep, by 1 inch high. Due to their size, they are rather limited in function. Keyboards, for example, are too small to permit touch typing. With notebooks decreasing in cost and weight, palmtops have been losing market share and popularity.

Computer Cards (PCMCIA)

To provide laptop and notebook computers with the same expandability associated with desktop computers, the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) established several standards for credit-card-sized expansion boards that fit into small slots on these smaller machines. PCMCIA is also referred to as the PC Card bus. The PCMCIA standards have revolutionized mobile personal computers, providing them with the ability to add memory expansion cards, SCSI devices, communication hardware (for instance, modems and faxes) and many other devices that were previously unavailable to laptop and notebook computer users.

Compatibility problems surfaced along with the development of the PCMCIA card for portable computers. To overcome these incompatibilities, PCMCIA standards were created. The following table outlines the four PCMCIA types and their guidelines.

TYPE Standard Description
Type I This original computer-card standard is now referred to as the Type I standard. These slots work only with memory expansion cards. Type I cards are 3.3 mm thick.
Type II Type II cards support most types of expansion devices (like communication hardware) or network adapters. Type II can accommodate cards that are 5 mm thick.
Type III Type III slots are primarily for computers with removable hard disk drives. This standard was introduced in 1992. They are 10.5 mm thick; however, they are compatible with Type I and Type II cards.
Type IV Type IV slots are intended to be used with hard disk drives that are thicker than the 10.5 mm Type III slot.

The PC Card itself is usually sealed in a thin metal case. One end contains the interface to the PCMCIA adapter (68 tiny pinholes); the other end might contain a connector for a telephone line, a network, or another external device.

PCMCIA (PC Card) is part of the Plug and Play standard¾which means it allows you to add components without first shutting off or rebooting the computer. In short, PCMCIA buses are not configured with jumper settings (because they don't have any) but with software.

Portable Computer Hardware

Although many components in a portable computer are similar to those of a desktop system, some components are very different. The major difference between a portable system and desktop system is the display screen.


Portable computers have a flat, LCD screen that is about .5 inch thick. The display is typically the most expensive component in a portable system. Often it is more economical to replace the entire computer than to replace the screen. An LCD display is designed to operate at a specific resolution because the size of the pixels on an LCD panel cannot be changed. On a desktop system, by contrast, the signal output from the video adapter can change the resolution on the monitor, thereby changing the number of pixels on the screen. An LCD panel should be thought of as a grid ruled to a specific resolution. Transistors control the color that is displayed by each pixel. The two major types of LCD displays used in portable systems today (dual-scan and active-matrix) are defined by their arrangement of transistors.

Dual-Scan Displays

The dual-scan display (also known as a passive matrix display) consists of transistors running down the x and y axis of the screen. The number of transistors determines the screen's resolution. Each pixel on the screen is controlled by the two transistors that intersect on the x and y axis.

If a transistor fails, the entire line of pixels is disabled, leaving a black line across the screen. There is no way to repair this problem except to replace the display. The term "dual-scan" is derived from the fact that the processor redraws half of the screen at a time, which speeds up the refresh rate a little.

Dual-scan displays are considered inferior to active-matrix screens because they tend to be dimmer. They work by modifying the properties of reflected light rather than generating their own light. They are also more prone to ghost images, and make it difficult for two people to see the screen at the same time, because these displays can't be viewed well from an angle. The standard size for this type of screen is 10.5 inch (measured diagonally) with a resolution of 640 by 480. New systems are available with 12.1 inch displays that have a resolution of 800 by 600.

Active-Matrix Displays

Active-matrix displays are also known as thin film transistors (TFTs). They differ from dual-scan screens because they have a transistor for every pixel on the screen rather than just at the edges. Voltages are applied by electrodes at the perimeter of the grid to address each pixel individually.

Because each pixel is powered individually, generating its own light and the appropriate color, a much brighter and more vivid picture results. Creating light instead of altering reflection provides a wider viewing angle, which allows more than one viewer to see the screen at a time. The refreshes are faster and lack the fuzziness associated with the dual-scan systems.

Naturally, the cost of having 480,000 transistors instead of merely 1,400 (on an 800 by 600 screen) makes the active-matrix screen more expensive. Another drawback is that it also requires a lot more power and drains batteries faster. Failure of a transistor causes individual "dead pixels," but this is far less noticeable than the black line caused by a transistor failure of the dual-scan screen.

The 12.1-inch screen has become the standard on high-end laptops with resolutions running at 800 by 600, or even 1,024 by 768. Many portable systems today also include PCI bus video adapters. These screens come very close to the quality of a desktop display.

Screen Resolution

An LCD display's resolution is determined as much by the screen hardware as by the drivers and amount of installed video memory. Some portables can use a "virtual screen" to achieve resolutions of 800 by 600 (and even more) on a 640 by 480 pixel screen. The larger display is held in video memory while the actual screen displays the portion that fits into a 640 by 480 window. The cursor can be used to "pan" the image so that the 640 by 480 window is moved around within the 800 by 600 display. Some manufacturers advertise an 800 by 600 display while using this method, which is a little misleading.

Like a desktop system, color depth is affected by video memory. To operate any LCD display in 16-bit or 24-bit color mode, you must have sufficient video memory available. Portables usually have the video adapter hardware permanently installed on the motherboard, which makes an upgrade virtually impossible. A few PC Card video adapters, however, allow you to connect to an external monitor and increase your video capabilities.

LCD technology has progressed to the point that large, flat-panel LCD-type displays are now available for desktop computers, although they're quite expensive.


Computer CPU manufacturers spend a great deal of time and effort on the design and creation of chips specifically for the portable market. In desktop systems, CPU heat is dissipated by cooling fans housed inside the case. There is no room for this solution in a portable system, so manufacturers have addressed this problem in the packaging of the chip itself.

Chip manufacturer, Intel's, solution to the size and heat problems is the Tape Carrier Package. This method of packaging reduces the size, power consumption, and heat generated by the chip. A Pentium mounted on a motherboard using Tape Carrier Packaging is much smaller and lighter than the pin grid array (PGA) used in desktop systems. The 49-millimeter (mm) square of the PGA is reduced to 29 mm, the thickness to approximately 1 mm, and the weight from 55 grams to under 1 gram.

The Tape Carrier Packaging processor is bonded to a piece of polyamide film (which is like photographic film) using tape automated bonding (TAB). This is the same process that is used to attach electrical connections to LCD panels. The film (called tape) is laminated with copper foil etched to form the leads that connect the processor to the motherboard. When the leads are formed, they are gold-plated to protect them against corrosion, bonded to the processor chip itself, and then the entire assembly is coated with a protective resin.

After being tested, the tape is cut to the proper size and the ends folded into a "gull wing" shape that allows the leads to be soldered to the motherboard while the processor is suspended slightly above it. A thermally conductive paste is inserted between the processor chip and the motherboard, allowing heat to be dissipated through a sink on the underside of the motherboard, while keeping it away from the soldered connections. Of course, because Tape Carrier Packaging processors are soldered to the motherboard, they usually cannot be upgraded.

Some manufacturers use standard PGA processors, sometimes accompanied by fans. As well as a greatly reduced battery life, these systems can be too hot to touch comfortably. Always check the exact model of processor that is used in a system you intend to purchase, not just the processing speed. You might not want to purchase a non-Tape Carrier Packaging processor for the aforementioned reasons.

Voltage Reduction

Mobile Pentiums have operated at 3.3 volts from the days of the original 75-MHz chip, but the newer and faster models have reduced the voltage to only 2.9 volts for internal operations, while retaining the 3.3 volt interface with the motherboard. This translates into a processor that uses as little as 60 percent of the power of a desktop system.


As with desktop systems, adding memory is one of the most common upgrades performed on portable computers. Unlike desktop computers, which offer only three basic types of slots for additional RAM, there are dozens of different memory-chip configurations designed to squeeze memory upgrades into the small cases of the portable systems.

Some portables use memory cartridges that look a lot like PC Cards, but they plug into a dedicated IC memory socket. Others use extender boards like the SIMMs and DIMMs. In any case, it is strongly recommended that you only install memory modules that have been designed for your system, and only in the configurations recommended by the manufacturer. This does not necessarily limit you to products made by your system's manufacturer, however, because a number of companies manufacture upgrade modules for dozens of systems.

Portable computers use the same types of DRAM and SRAM as desktops and, thanks to advances in thermal management, today's high-end portable systems usually include SRAM cache memory.

Hard Disk Drives

Except for their size and packaging, portable hard disk drive technology is mostly similar to desktops. EIDE drives are standard in portable computers with the exception of the Macintosh computer, which uses SCSI. Internal hard drives, depending on the size of the system, are typically 12.5 mm or 19 mm tall, and use 2.5-inch platters. As with memory modules, hard drives are also mounted in the system a little differently by manufacturers. And, as with memory modules, this can cause upgrade compatibility problems.

Some manufacturers use a caddy to hold the drive and make connections to the system. This makes upgradability as simple as inserting a new hard disk drive into the caddy and then mounting it in the system. Other systems require you to purchase a specifically designed drive complete with the proper connections built into it. Replacing the hard drive can be much easier in many portable systems than in their desktop counterparts. This makes it possible for multiple users to share a single machine by simply snapping in their own hard drives. However, because laptops are specialized equipment, any servicing beyond batteries, hard drives, and memory is usually left to specialists or the manufacturer.

The support provided by the system's BIOS determines the upgradability of a system. Older systems, particularly those manufactured before 1995, might offer only limited drive-size options. BIOS chips made before EIDE hard disk drives became the standard can support a maximum hard drive size of 528 MB. A flash BIOS upgrade might be available for your system to provide additional drives. Another option for expanding hard drive space is the PC Card hard drive. This device fits into a Type III PC Card slot and can provide as much as 450 MB of additional space. External drives are also available and can be connected using a PC Card SCSI host or specialized parallel port drive interfaces—you can use any size SCSI drive you choose without being limited by your system's BIOS.

Removable Media

Portable systems are now equipped with other types of storage media that can provide access to large amounts of data. CD-ROM and Zip drives are now available, as well as standard floppy disk drives. Just as in their desktop counterparts, CD-ROM is becoming standard on portables.

The swappable drive bay is increasing in popularity. This product allows the user to switch one of several types of components in the unit. For example, you might not need a floppy disk drive when traveling, so you can insert an extra battery.


Portable keyboards are integrated into the one-piece unit and are therefore very difficult to repair or replace. Unfortunately, the keypad is almost always the first component to fail in a portable. The functionality and durability of the keyboard should be an important concern when purchasing a portable system.

Today's portable keyboards are approaching the size and usability of desktop systems, thanks to the larger screens found in most systems. This has created more space for manufacturers to utilize in the overall design.

Pointing Devices

Today's portable computers come with built-in pointing devices. Most of these pointing devices conform to one of three types: trackball, trackpoint, or trackpad.


This small ball (approximately .5 inch in diameter) is partially embedded in the keyboard below the spacebar. The ball is manipulated by the user's finger. These are accurate and serviceable, but they are unpopular because of their tendency to gather dirt and dust, which dramatically reduces performance.


The trackpoint was developed by IBM and many manufacturers install it in their systems. It is a small, rubberized button (approximately .25 inch in diameter) located above B and below G and H on the keyboard. The user nudges it in any direction (rather like a tiny version of a joystick) to move the cursor around the screen. It is convenient because the user's hands don't need to leave the keyboard to manipulate the trackpoint.


The trackpad is the most recent development of the three—it is an electromagnetically sensitive pad measuring about 1 by 2 inches located in the keyboard below the spacebar. It responds to the movement of a finger across its surface to move the cursor. Mouse clicks are simulated by tapping the pad (buttons are also provided). It's a truly innovative device, but does tend to be overly sensitive to accidental touches and taps. It is also sensitive to humidity, so moist fingers can cause unpredictable performance.


A great deal of technology has been developed to extend battery life and improve power management in portable systems. However, battery life is still one of the biggest complaints about portable systems. Even though power management and batteries themselves have improved dramatically over the last few years, the power needed to run faster processors and external devices has increased, leaving battery life about the same. Actual battery life depends as much on how the computer is used, as it does on power-management technology. Simply put, the more you ask the computer to do, the shorter the battery life. Today, battery life is still an issue with portable-system users. Most systems use one of three types of batteries.

Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) Batteries

The oldest of the three technologies, nickel cadmium is rarely used today. It has a shorter life and is sensitive to improper charging and discharging. After being charged, NiCad batteries hold the charge very well. However, their life can be severely shortened if they are not fully discharged before recharging, or if they are overcharged.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) Batteries

NiMH batteries have a longer life than NiCad (about 50 percent longer), and are less sensitive to improper charging and discharging. They are more expensive than NiCad and don't hold a charge as well when not used. They usually cannot be recharged as many times. They are, however, used in most portable systems, especially those at the lower end of the market.

Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) Batteries

Li-Ion batteries cannot be overcharged, hold a charge well when not in use, and are longer lived than the other two types of batteries. They are also proficient at handling the heavy-duty power requirements of today's higher-end portables. Unfortunately, Li-Ion batteries can be used only in systems specifically designed for them.

Never install a Li-Ion battery in a system designed for a NiCad or NiMH battery. Doing so could result in a fire.

Because they are the most expensive of the three battery technologies, Li-Ion batteries are usually found only in high-end systems.

Sometimes, buying a system with a Li-Ion battery does not mean you will realize a longer battery life. Some manufacturers take the opportunity to make the battery smaller because it is more powerful, thereby saving some space inside the computer while delivering the same performance as a NiCad or NiMH.

New Technology

Battery technology has trailed behind nearly all the other advancements of the portable system. A battery life of two hours is considered very good even when a system's power-saving features are utilized. Some manufacturers are designing systems that hold two batteries to try to overcome this limitation.

A fourth type of battery technology—the Lithium Polymer—has been in development for several years, but it has not yet appeared on the market. Lithium Polymer batteries can be formed into thin, flat sheets and installed behind the LCD panel. They provide approximately 40 percent more battery life while adding far less weight to the system.

All battery types function best if they are completely discharged before recharging. Even Li-Ion batteries perform better and last longer if they are discharged before being recharged. Another tip is to store charged batteries in the refrigerator. This helps them maintain their charges longer.

Power Management

Some components in a computer system do not need to run continuously. The purpose of power management is to conserve battery life by shutting down these components when they're not needed.

Most portable computers include power-saver modes that suspend system operations when the computers are not in use. Different manufacturers have different names for their power-saver modes such as: suspend, hibernate, or conserve, but they all usually refer to two different states of power conservation: one state continues to power the system's RAM, while the other does not.

Generally, the suspend mode virtually shuts down the entire system after a certain period of inactivity. However, power continues to be supplied to RAM, and the system can be reawakened almost immediately.

The hibernate mode writes the entire contents of memory into a special swap file and then shuts down the system. When reactivated, the file is read back to memory. The hibernate mode takes a little longer to reactivate than the suspend mode, but conserves more battery life. In some systems, the swap file used for the hibernate mode is located in a special partition of the hard drive. If it is inadvertently destroyed, it might require a special utility from the manufacturer to re-create it.

A document jointly developed by Intel and Microsoft—known as the Advanced Power Management (APM) standard—has been, for the most part, responsible for defining the interface (interaction) between the power-management policy driver and the operating system. This interface is usually implemented in the system BIOS.

Another standard currently under development by Intel, Microsoft, and Toshiba is called the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI). This standard is designed to place the power-management functions under the control of the operating system. As power-management techniques develop, it becomes difficult for the BIOS to maintain the complex information states needed to run the more advanced functions. Placing power management under the control of the operating system allows applications to interact with the operating system to let it know which of its activities are crucial and which can wait until the next time the hard disk drive is activated.

Lesson Summary

The following points summarize the main elements of this lesson:

  • Portable computers are classified as laptops, notebooks, or palmtops.
  • PCMCIA cards provide expandability to portable computers.
  • Type I PCMCIA cards are used for memory; they are 3.3 mm thick.
  • Type II PCMCIA cards are used for expansion devices; they are 5.0 mm thick.
  • Type III PCMCIA cards are used for hard drives; they are 10.5 mm thick.
  • Display screens for portable computers are either dual-scan or active-matrix.
  • Tape Carrier Packaging is used to make processors consume less energy and put out less heat.
  • Good power management is the key to long battery life in a portable computer.

Microsoft Corporation - A+ Certification Training Kit
Microsoft Corporation - A+ Certification Training Kit
Year: 2000
Pages: 127

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