My first laptop was a hand-me-down. Most readers would not even have heard of the company that made it. The Power Exec, by AST, was a grey, impressive hulk that tipped the scales at 4.5 kilograms but felt more like 10kg to my under-exercised biceps. It had a 17-centimetre colour display, an Intel Pentium processor and ran Windows 3.1 - state-of-the-art seven years ago. Between using the keyboard, which required more finger pressure than kneading a ball of dough, to the now-antique trackball which does what a ball does best - roll away - the machine could offer RSI for life. In its time, the Power Exec was regarded as a light, fully featured notebook computer. The ultra-portables, so popular today, were called sub-notebooks then and sub-notebooks had a bad name, just as the personal digital assistant did. IBM was always innovating when it came to laptop designs. In 1995, it introduced the Butterfly, a small and light notebook computer which had a keyboard that unfolded outwards, like a butterfly spreading its wings, expanding to become a full 85-key keyboard. It was similar in concept to today's stowaway keyboards that work with hand-held computers. IBM's ThinkPad 701, better known as the Butterfly, arguably, made sub-notebooks popular. Until the ThinkPad 701, there was little reason to buy a sub-notebook. They compromised on performance, features and power to be a few grams lighter. The Butterfly weighed 2.05kg, just a little lighter than the Compaq Armada 300 (with adapter) I own today. Just because the Armada 300 is only a little lighter than IBM's six-year-old machine does not mean notebook technology has advanced only a little. Until now, compromises in power, performance and features had to be made in order to have a small package. The ultra-portable laptops of today possess all the oomph of a mid-range laptop. It used to be true that these wafer-thin machines could not pack the mobile equivalent of a top-speed processor in a desktop PC because of lack of space for elaborate fans or heat sinks. Ultra-portables would overheat quickly, making working on them beyond an hour impossible. The other problem was carrying the peripherals. Notebook manufacturers, however, now largely have done away with the external ports, squeezing all the right connectors on to the case. The Armada 300, for example, has the works - serial, USB and infrared ports mounted - in the rear. The external battery, which is attached to the back of the notebook, acts as a protector for the I/O ports. The battery can be swivelled under the chassis to serve as a tilt adjustment. At 2.2cm thick and weighing just 1.5kg, the Armada 300 is easy to carry and ultra-light. It also is not stingy on features. The model I have is a year old, a Pentium II machine with an 28cm display, but the latest M300 can be configured with a PIII 800-megahertz or Intel Celeron 700MHz chip, and a 30cm or 38cm TFT display. Though the display is bigger, it is the same size and weight as my older M300. If I had been willing to part with HK$15,000, I would have bought the IBM ThinkPad X20, the latest model of the popular ThinkPad 240. IBM laptops have the best displays of Intel-based machines. The X20 weighs 1.6kg, is 2.5cm thick and slightly smaller than an A4-size sheet of paper. Like the M300, it can be configured with a Pentium III 800MHz or Celeron 700MHz chip, with choices of a 10-gigabyte or 20GB hard drive. This notebook has been rated consistently by the leading computer hardware magazines in the United States as the ultimate ultra-portable, so I cannot say much that has not been said already. Look it up in zdnet.com. One cool feature is an UltraPort connector on the top of the display that allows fitting of a video camera for video-conferencing. The X20 is available in every computer mall in Hong Kong, or can be ordered direct from IBM's Web site. At 2.2kg, Apple's iBook does not quite qualify as an ultra-portable, but if you want to have more fun than fiddling around with Excel spreadsheets, you would want it. Dressed in a gleaming, silver chassis, it could not look more different than the older iBook which was retro in design, but not a machine you want to walk into a boardroom with. The new iBook sports a brilliant TFT-XGA display with razor-sharp 1,024-by-768 pixel resolution, a 500MHz PowerPC chip, 128 megabytes of Ram, 10GB hard drive and a CD-rewriteable. The top of the keyboard flips back to reveal a slot for an Apple AirPort card for wireless networking with another iBook. The 128MB Ram might not be enough, but adding Ram is easy by unscrewing a metal shield. Of course, if you are dealing with complex graphics and Web-design work, the G4 PowerBook is more powerful, though at twice to three times the price of the iBook.