An intrepid business owner hits the trail with a trio of rugged ultralight notebooks.
By Matthew Terranova

(FORTUNE Small Business) – As the frequent-flying owner of a graphic design and digital photo business, Blue-Sky Solutions, I need a notebook that's tough, capable, and light. I recently tried rugged ultralight notebooks just out from Dell, Lenovo, and Panasonic. These were not lab tests: I used each unit for live client presentations and photo-editing sessions where my equipment just had to work. Here's what happened.

HEAVY METAL: At 3.6 pounds, the Dell Latitude D410 was the heaviest of the machines. I liked the smooth gray-and-silver finish, and the reinforced magnesium alloy case felt properly rigid. The screen was vivid and bright. I found the keyboard easy to use, albeit slightly smaller than full size (94%). Meaty-fingered roadies may find typing awkward at first. Although it was a bit slow to power up (nearly two minutes from hibernation), the D410 opened my five-megabyte PowerPoint presentation in just a few seconds and ran an external projector without problems. But the D410 often froze or crashed Photoshop when I tried to edit my 6MB to 8MB image files. The optional extended battery lasted more than six hours but added over two pounds to the machine's weight and almost an inch to its depth. Prices start at $1,399.

STEALTH BOX: Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 weighed in at just 2.7 pounds, with a full-sized keyboard. The generic black finish and boxy design won't turn heads at Starbucks, but the titanium composite case felt reassuringly solid. During a client meeting, the X41 took less than a minute to start up and launch my PowerPoint presentation. While Photoshop was more stable on the X41 than on the D410, the X41 took longer to open image files (almost a minute each, as opposed to 30 to 40 seconds for the D410). The optional extended battery yielded just over five hours of use. Prices start at $1,499.

BELLS AND WHISTLES: Panasonic's Toughbook W4 weighed 2.8 pounds with a magnesium alloy case. The W4 handled my PowerPoint presentation with aplomb, did not crash Photoshop, and opened large image files as quickly as the bulkier Dell D410. The internal battery lasted an impressive five-plus hours. (Mercifully, there was no clunky extended battery to lug about.) Unlike its rivals, the W4 featured an integrated DVD/CD-RW optical drive. Bottom line: The W4 won on weight, performance, and battery life. It's priced accordingly. Suggested retail price: $2,149.