NEC VersaPro VY10F/BH-L (a.k.a. Versa S820 a.k.a. Lavie LJ700)
This is a ridiculously light yet rigid 12" XGA notebook which packs a ULV Pentium M and a Mobility Radeon 7500. Although that is only a DirectX7 GPU, it is a fast one, and runs games like Half-Life 2 smoothly. (Or it did, until one of Valve`s precious updates came along. Now it only does this.) The touchpad includes a rare center mouse button and the keyboard has a Japanese layout which is both good and bad depending on the situation. The only thing that really stinks about this model is that replacement batteries (part no. PC-VP-BP31 or OP-570-76103) are practically non-existant. Thankfully, I was able to obtain one from Worcell. It should be noted that the CF card slot is also rather slow. The video drivers provided by NEC suffered some graphics glitches in direct3d apps, so I have been using a set of Compaq-supplied drivers for the Mobility Radeon 7500 instead. With proper skills and equipment, the 1.0GHz CPU can be swapped out for a Pentium M 773 (it is a soldered BGA!)
The last notebook ever made with 12" 4:3 screen and a real GPU?
Panasonic Toughbook T8 (similar to Let's Note T9)
This is the last notebook ever made with a 12" 4:3 screen. Has the terrible Intel Graphics which runs Mount&Blade at 6fps (vs. 30fps on the Radeon 7500). Somewhat disappointing overall compared to the brilliant NEC laptop, with only one speaker, CPU fan that runs all the time, and so on. But the Core 2 Duo does offer a performance boost, particularly with the odd program that can actually benefit from multiple cores. The thicker, wedge-shaped chassis is plenty strong for daily use and fits a battery with roughly double the capacity. Windows NT/2K/XP are difficult (if possible?) to install because of lack of IDE compatibility.
Here are some reviews of previous machines I've owned, in the order that I obtained them
1) Panasonic Exec. Partner model FT70
It's not really a laptop, although it is barely portable. Weight was 29lbs and it had a built-in thermal printer. It contained one 8-bit ISA/XT-bus slot attached via ribbon cable so it could slide out the side. I had a 2400bps modem installed in it for dialing BBSs. The machine was a nightmare to disassemble due to the large mass of stuff (including drives) that had to be lifted out the bottom. It finally died when it got zapped by a non-working, gigantic, external 9600bps modem that I was fooling with.
2) TI Travelmate 4000 WinSX
The notable thing about this computer was the battery pack which was basically 4x D-cell NiCads wired in series, and the awful power connector design. The cable leading from the AC adaptor brick was unusually heavy and the plug was similar to the mini-DIN used by PS/2 keyboards, etc. The weight of the cord stressed the connector in the laptop and eventually it worked loose to the point where it shorted out the battery, which then heated up and melted some of the surrounding plastic. An ugly hack replaced the old power connector and kept it going a while longer but then the hinges for the screen lost tension so that the screen wouldn't stay open. Much time was spent on this computer browsing AOL and the www with a 14400bps external modem and playing Warcraft II, despite it being a bit sluggish.
3) Sharp PC-3030
This was a relatively cheap Intel 430MX based Pentium laptop. The 800x600 LCD combined with a 768KB video card was particularly frustrating because all screen modes were expanded ugly-style to 800x600. There wasn't a working 400x300 mode so the only screen mode that was not ugly was 800x600 and it couldn't be used with 16-bit color because of a lack of video memory. With the lack of built-in sound it was not a good system for games. I did add an IBM PCMCIA sound card which worked with win3.x and win95. I noticed that the CPU was socketted and there were jumpers for bus speed and multiplier. During a bit of overclocking experimentation I accidentally shorted something out while the battery was still inserted and killed the motherboard.
4) Toshiba Satellite 1555CDS
This packed in more features than the others, with a built-in CD-ROM, modem, USB port, and 512KB L2 cache. It was physically larger also, and because of the 380MHz CPU was the first to require a CPU fan. The fan was slow to kick on however, letting the CPU become too hot and the machine unstable. I had to use the 190MHz low-speed mode most of the time instead. The S3 video was a little on the slow side for 2D and not really useful for 3D at all. Finally I disassembled it to try adding heatsink compound to improve the cooling situation and once again made a mistake that killed the motherboard.
5) Toshiba Satellite 1555CDS/2535CDS act 2
Searching for replacement parts to repair the 1555CDS, I found a random motherboard for sale that was the same shape as mine. The only info given for it was that it was from a Toshiba Satellite. I got it for $10 and put it in, and it worked! Except it was apparently incompatible with the existing LCD. I detached the display and put it to work as an always-on internet access point/router/firewall/torrent/folding@home client for over five years.
6) Hitachi E133
This was another Intel 430MX based computer, almost exactly the same as the Sharp. I got it bare-bones, and took the spare parts out of the Sharp and put into it. It was slightly faster, and had a Sound Blaster Pro compatible ESS sound chip (although it had a weird resource conflict and didn't always work). As with the Sharp, TweakBIOS could be used to speed up the RAM timing. It was still a bottleneck without any L2, especially after I replaced the CPU with a P-200 and soldered the multiplier pins so it would run at 166. This made the machine run hotter but it was still stable. The touchpad was improved over the one in the Sharp, which had a habit of randomly clicking on stuff when I was typing. The video had the same old problems. I found some NM2070 debugging utility on the web somewhere and by playing around with register settings was able to get a 640x400x16bit unexpanded screen mode working in my own programs. No success getting games or Windows to not be ugly. After I got the Toshiba 2250 I used this laptop as an alarm clock (throttling it back to 100MHz) but now it has become unusable. Apparently the motherboard was damaged from the weak plastic chassis setting on an uneven surface.
7) NEC Versa Ultralite and V/50
I got three bare-bones 486 laptops for no particular reason, for the cost of shipping. I only have one HDD caddy, one battery, and one power supply between the three of them. At first the battery held a charge, and it was the only battery I had that did. So I used one of the Ultralites while developing one of my TurboGrafx ROMs. I now use the V/50 as an alarm clock because the CMOS battery is dead on the other two. I have an 8MB RAM card which doesn't seem to be recognized by the Ultralites (only 4MB of it). The full 8MB shows up on the V/50 but memory access time slows down a bit for some reason. I have an old magazine that contains an add for these machines showing the roughly $4K asking price when they were new.
8) Toshiba Satellite 2250XCDS
I was hunting for an LCD that would work with the 2535 board and according to the intertubes, the Satellite 2250 seemed to be a match. I bought this cheap non-working laptop for the screen. I didn't get the screen to work but the main problem with the laptop was a fried power supply PCB. Another problem was overheating again, except even worse than the 1555. I replaced the power supply PCB, and hard wired the CPU fan to run all the time, then it worked fine (except the fan would run when it was on standby). There was also an issue with the CPU speed throttling under Windows because an otherwise irrelevant setting under the Toshiba power control panel was set to "quiet" cooling mode instead of "performance." It took me a long time to figure out why the Celeron 600 was so much slower under Windows than my desktop Pentium III 600. The video was somewhat improved on this over the 1555 but the 2.5MB of video RAM made it impossible to run most programs requiring 3D acceleration (the Warcraft III map editor would run but the game wouldn't)
9) Gateway Solo 2200
When the battery in the Toshiba became tired, I decided not to buy another because the chassis had developed some cracks in it and I thought it would be more convenient to carry a smaller machine back and forth to work. I got a battery for the Hitachi laptop, and then quickly discovered that typing on it or otherwise moving it caused it to freeze. I searched for other (hopefully superior) laptops that used the same type of battery. I ended up finding a cheap Gateway Solo 2200 which is a bit bulkier than the Sharp/Hitachi but otherwise much improved. It was a high-end model in its day and has an excellent screen, TV output, and a useful on-screen battery meter. It also shares a problem that both the Sharp and Hitachi had, and that is a loose ribbon cable behind the screen which causes intermittent display corruption.
10) Dell Latitude L400
Now that I had a good screen I kind of wanted to spend my time playing games but the 166MHz CPU was not quick enough for most of the games/emulators that I had in mind. Only a few DOS-based emus have support for a parallel port controller (and there is no USB or standard game port). So I began a search for the ultimate laptop: something with a 12-13" TFT LCD, external dimensions smaller than the Toshibas, 4:3 aspect ratio (because "widescreen" is ugly), touchpad, and a CPU that was faster but still cool-running and wouldn't rely heavily on a fan. Oh and I wanted a parallel port to plug in my SNES pad. Even though 12" screens have basically been the norm in my history of portable computers, at some point these came to be considered "ultra-portable" and gave up certain features which were reserved for 14" mainstream notebooks and 15"-17" monstrosities. So as far as I can tell, the Dell Latitude L400 is the best small laptop ever, that has a parallel port. It is a great machine, with a rigid case, the best keyboard, and a great display. It's only a shame that it was never updated with newer, more efficient CPUs and GPUs. Also, compared to the old 486 and Pentium laptops, it gives up the possibility of holding two batteries and has to make do with one slightly smaller battery. One annoyance: the obnoxious full-volume beep at power on which apparently can't be disabled.
This laptop contained a Varta V20HR 6-pack battery presumably for keeping time/BIOS settings. ebay is littered with similar no-name batteries that claim to fit the Latitude L400 but they are too thick! (some of them also have the wrong polarity.) When searching for a replacement, I would advise to look for one that says "Varta" on it or is confirmed to be less than 7mm thick.
11) Fujitsu Lifebook B6110D
After dropping the parallel port requirement (resorting to a cardbus parallel port adaptor when needed) what has newer guts in the same form factor? There are various Tualatin Pentium III-M or Pentium M powered machines and a few rare Core or AMD models. Most of these use the craptastic Intel graphics (or some other, equally useless integrated video) which is better than the ancient Rage Mobility M1 but not as good as a proper DirectX 7 GPU with transform and lighting acceleration. I spotted a Fujitsu Lifebook B6110D for a good price and snapped it up. It's fairly quick and has a slightly larger battery. One odd aspect of this computer is the Realtek audio, which requires the bloated Realtek applet to be loaded just to perform the task of disabling the internal speakers when headphones are plugged in (a feature that I had taken for granted on all the previous machines). The chassis was very light but felt flimsy, this being aggravated by a crack in the side, and it seems to have succumbed to motherboard flex like the Hitachi did.