Ocean-Ready Gateway Laptop

A magnesium-encased computer provides good performance at sea.

Gateway's new Solo 3450 laptop is one example of the new breed of semi-rugged skinny laptops with docking station. I recently installed Nobeltec's Admiral Series navigational software to see how well the 3450 goes to sea.

The term "semi-rugged" in many ways applies to all modern laptops. The realities of portability have led manufacturers to make the internals more resistant to the inevitable shocks of daily use on the run ("Endurance Quest," April).

Gateway takes durability a step further, making the case of magnesium, to reduce weight compared with aluminum, dissipate heat and prevent a shabby look after years of hard use.

No one is likely to dispute the 3450's portability. The computer alone weighs 3 pounds and is only three-quarters of an inch thick, similar to the smaller of the two Sony Vaio models. The docking station, which makes the computer a complete multimedia tool, adds a little more than 2 pounds. The CD and disk drives are in the docking station, but after I installed the software, I could leave the extra 2 pounds in the drawer. Navigational chores required only the computer. The overall dimensions of the computer and docking station are 103/4 inches wide, 13/4 inches thick and 9 inches deep-smaller by an inch or more in depth and width than a full-size laptop.

After using the 3450 for a few months, I realized size does make a difference. The keyboard, for example, is only 101/4 inches across and 4 inches deep, about an inch shy in width and a hair in depth to my Mac G3 laptop. At first, this seemed too tight, but I adapted and eventually preferred it.

Keypad action is super. This is a tactile sensation that may not hold for every user, though the keys seem to have less travel than what I am accustomed to feeling, and they are quiet. The touch-pad cursor control is of average size and easy to use, but I don't like the size of the click pads. They are tiny and hard to find in a hurry. They are half the size in total area to the one on my G3, and divided into the left click/right click, each one becomes truly minuscule.

Reducing the overall size of the package also shrank the screen. I often wished for a 15-inch screen when I ran the Nobeltec software. The difference in total area between the two is a great deal more than the numbers suggest.

On the other hand, the Gateway's LCD is bright, and has excellent resolution and sharp presentation of the images. Reproduction of a chart's riot of colors was as good as I've seen on many dedicated chart plotters. Direct sunlight, though, diminishes the screen's brilliance.

Laptop computers pioneered flat-panel displays, and they have become more and more sophisticated. Lighting these becomes a problem because laptops have a limited amount of power in the batteries. High-performance backlighting is beyond them. The best way to deal with the wide range of lighting conditions under which a laptop needs to function is to combine backlighting with transflective technology ("Sharp Turns, April).

The VGA TFT liquid crystal display of the Solo 3450 copes well with most ambient lighting conditions. It even hung in there when I exposed it to direct sunlight. No, the screen wasn't as bright as one designed to be viewed in direct sunlight, but I could see all the details on the charts and read the data without straining my eyes. Indirect sunlight, however, overwhelmed the screen. The glare filters simply aren't up to dealing with these angles. In the direct sun, I observed a viewing angle of about 45 degrees.

The 3450 should perform beautifully in a yacht's pilothouse, no matter what sort of light is outdoors.

Gateway's Solo 3450 fits into the yachting market as a standalone for smaller yachts or a backup for the bigger ones. It isn't waterproof, so it won't do well on an open deck in rough going or pouring rain, but for every other occasion, it fills the bill.

My test computer came with an Intel Pentium III processor and 750 MHz of computing power. Among the standard features are an integrated V.90 modem and 10/100 Ethernet, digital connection for video and multimedia displays, 192 MB of RAM, a 20-gig hard drive and WindowsXP. The docking station houses the monitor connection, two USB ports and the Ethernet port.

Base price is $1,999.

Contact: Gateway, Inc., (800) 846-2106; www.gateway.com.