by Joel Sloss

Life on a Laptop
with Windows NT

I'm not sure just how many people out there are running Windows NT on laptops, although I've met a few brave souls (and Microsoft even ran its NT 4.0 Preview Tour on a Compaq LTE 5200). But I am sure about the trouble I had getting set up to do it. I think you'll appreciate learning what I learned, so you can avoid the problems I had in such areas as hardware brand compatibility, video drivers, and power management.

Somebody Help Me!

The first fact you need to know is that Microsoft's Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) is essential--and even this aid is no guarantee of success. NT will work with most major name-brand systems, such as NEC, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, AST, and several clones, but not without some difficulty. Under NT 3.51, certain functions still do not work well on portables. These functions include power management (to preserve battery life, as opposed to the UPS manager) and PC Card (formerly PCMCIA) drivers--you'd better not remove or insert a card while the system is running. And the installation process is far from clean.

To illustrate, let me relate my experience with an NEC Versa M/75 (75-MHz 80486DX4, 16MB of RAM, 340MB hard drive). Getting it fully functional with NT took about a week, back in August 1995. At that time, I was unable to get a release version of NT Workstation 3.51 on floppy disks, which left the obvious question of how to get it into my portable.

This question proved to be a major stumbling block. I had beta versions of NT 3.5 and NT 3.51 on floppy, but they were incompatible with the NEC hardware. So, the PC Card drivers didn't let the network card function.

A functioning network card was important because the full release of NT 3.51 was on CD on a networked server: Only if the network card worked could I access the CD. So, after about five different installations of NT and fiddling with every conceivable setting to make it work, I finally realized that a CD-ROM drive plugged into the portable might work. I hunted down a DOS-driven CD-ROM drive, installed its software, and was able to do a winnt.exe/b to boot and load directly from the CD.

Amazingly enough, the attempt worked. With the full-release versions of PC Card (formerly PCMCIA) drivers, the network card and modem (a 3Com EtherLink III and a Megahertz 28.8 XJack) finally worked, too.

Then came the problem of video drivers. Because this NEC had a true-color TFT display (16.8 million colors), obtaining proper drivers was a problem. Ultimately, I got them from NEC's bulletin board, but I had to install NT again because something got clobbered. This problem might also apply to other systems (such as AST for its Ascentia 910N) if the manufacturer has not delivered NT drivers for their displays. I learned that the only solution for the AST is to use the standard VGA display driver, which gives a resolution of only 640*480 or 800*600 pixels at 16 colors, no matter how much video RAM the laptop has.

Even after I finally got my system to work, day-to-day operation was not bug free, either. The motherboard burned out, taking my modem and network card with it. NEC took about two weeks to fix it. And, the system would periodically erase my COM port settings so that the modem wouldn't work, and Remote Access Service (RAS) couldn't do anything. (Hardware failures before the final burnout may have contributed to this glitch.) This recurrent problem wouldn't have been so annoying, but the solution was never the same twice. I had to go through different gyrations and dances each time, deleting COM settings, recreating them, reinstalling RAS and the modem drivers, and so forth. Fortunately, the problems stopped when I replaced the main board.

Some things work surprisingly well on my NEC, though. The video is great (now that I have the right software). Power-management functions appear to be fully operational up to the level of the system's BIOS (the same is not true on AST portables), allowing for a sleep mode, screen blanking, and spin up/down of the internal hard disk. NEC doesn't support more advanced features such as CPU standby, but some manufacturers, such as Canon with its PN-100 PowerPC-based notebook, have designed power management into their systems. These systems include full support for sleep and hibernation modes and disk spin-down.

The upshot of running NT on the NEC system is that I'm in big trouble if something happens to my hard drive. I don't think even a full backup would help the reinstall. And, on top of everything, NEC tech support was almost no help at all (with the exception of telling me where to find the correct video drivers, and even that was like pulling teeth). NEC says, "Yes, NT works on our portables, but we won't support it. Ask Microsoft."

Systems Without Power

Laptops are the primary system for everyone in the Windows NT Magazine Lab. So, we've had many other interesting experiences running NT on mobile computers.

Most manufacturers support power management at the hardware/BIOS level (for use under DOS or Windows 3.11). Some, such as Canon, even support power management through software under NT, and a few (such as NEC) support it by accident.

However, you'll probably want to disable power management on any other system, because each system has its own problems with power management. The Ascentia 910N suffers from spinning down the internal hard drive and turning off the floppy if you enable power management in CMOS. This situation can cause a variety of annoying results: If your main drive spins down while NT is running, the kernel can no longer access the system volume (because it doesn't know how to turn the volume back on), and your computer will crash. Likewise, if the floppy gets turned off, NT will not find it again without a reboot.

Power management creates interesting startup woes on the AST. A brief lull occurs between running the OS Loader and bringing up the logon screen (while NT is going out to autodetect your hardware). During this lull, the hard drive can go into sleep mode and spin down. If you are running from battery, the system will display a blue-screen and tell you the system drive is not ready. Another woe is that booting from battery disables the floppy drive, unless you have the AC power supply plugged into the unit. You don't even have to attach it to the wall! (Interestingly, the NEC, for all its other problems, does not suffer from these maladies.)

A further word of warning: When you consider purchasing a laptop, think about the battery it comes with. My NEC (like an old Volvo I used to own) is a fine system when it works. But it is one of the worst power eaters I have seen yet. Even with its limited power- management abilities, I can get only 45 minutes to an hour of up time running NT (the full-color active-matrix display is partly to blame). My NEC's NiMH battery pack should allow two to four hours of runtime. In the lab, other portables (such as the ASTs) have Lithium-Ion batteries and get four to five hours of runtime, without power management. The Canon PN100 runs for about two hours on a NiMH battery.

All Is Well That Ends Well

I've tested a variety of portables under NT. Some work well, and some don't. Price is a factor of ease of operation: The more expensive the box, the better it works. The best systems I've used are also the most expensive: The Canon PN-100 is an excellent system for NT, and so are others from Tadpole Technologies and Compaq. But some success stories feature the reasonably priced units: TwinHead Pentium-based portables work well, except that their Lithium-Ion batteries give only an hour to an hour and a half of runtime. Runtime slips to only 25 minutes if you have an active-matrix display.

You can count on pointing devices to work, fortunately. Among the systems I've tested, IsoPoint devices, trackballs, and touchpads all function properly.

The only other warnings I can give are about Cyrix-based computers, which are not on the HCL and don't work at all with NT. These laptops include the Epson ActionNote. Also, beware of Texas Instruments machines. They have battery life like my NEC's.

You can run NT on portables. Once you're up and running, NT will work well for you. This combination gives you power and flexibility in the field that other operating systems just can't offer, and enhancements continue to flow from Microsoft. So, happy mobile computing!

Windows NT for Laptops
System Requirements:
16MB of RAM, 340MB Hard Drive
80486DX2/50 or better
Microsoft * 206-882-8080


Joel Sloss is a technical editor for Windows NT Magazine and holds a BSEE degree. You can reach him at

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