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This Laptop Is Big on Fun

By Stephen H. Wildstrom The new IBM ThinkPad X30 is my favorite lightweight laptop (see BW, 10/14/02, "The Laptop Has Been Liberated"). But I'm able to use it as my primary mobile computer because I've decided that I can give up a built-in optical drive -- CD or DVD -- to get a smaller, lighter notebook. If you feel you need the built-in drive, whether to install software while traveling or to watch your own DVD movie on the plane, the Actius MV10W from Sharp might be a good choice.

The new $2,199 Actius features a 1-gigahertz Pentium II-M processor, 256 megabytes of memory, a 30-gigabyte hard drive, and a 12.1-in. display with 1024 x 768 pixel resolution -- essentially the same specs as the ThinkPad X30. But at a cost of only a few ounces -- 4.1 lb. vs. 3.7 -- and a little bulk, it features a built-in drive that plays DVDs and plays or records CDs.

It's nearly 1.5 lb. lighter than a mainstream thin-and-light notebook such as the ThinkPad T30. About the only other laptop in its size and weight class is the generally similar Toshiba Portégé 4010, successor to the Portégé 4000.

DECENT, NOT GREAT. Unfortunately, the Sharp falls down in the two categories that make the X30 such a standout. Most important, it lacks the ThinkPad's extraordinary battery life. The X30 can run for more than four hours on its main battery, and adding an auxiliary battery doubles that. The Sharp gets barely three hours on a charge, and up to six hours with a second battery that, like the ThinkPad's, clamps to the notebook's bottom, forming a wedge that improves the typing angle. That's certainly decent battery life, but it leaves the Sharp well short of the ThinkPad's ability to run all day without recharging.

The other shortcoming is the keyboard. Recent models from Sharp and Toshiba have overcome the worst problem of most Japanese-designed keyboards, a tiny right shift key that is very easy to miss, with the typist generally hitting the enter or up-arrow key instead, with unfortunate results. But while this Sharp's key layout is reasonable, the keyboard itself suffers from two defects. First, the keys can travel only 2 mm when pressed, not the 3 mm standard on full-size keyboards.

Second, the keyboard isn't stiff enough, which produces a sort of trampoline effect, especially when striking the most frequently used keys in the middle of the keyboard. The combined effect takes a toll on typing accuracy.

KEEP HEADPHONES HANDY. On the other hand, Sharp's Actius can be a lot more fun than the all-work ThinkPad. A leading maker of LCD displays, Sharp went to some trouble to optimize the hardware and software in this laptop for showing DVD video. It offers a brighter display with colors much less muddy than is typical of most laptops.

You'll want to use it with headphones, though, because the sound quality, a problem in all laptops -- especially small ones -- isn't up to the standards of the video. Of course, in an airplane, headphones are the only choice anyway.

For me, the prospect of all-day battery life and that excellent keyboard seal the deal in favor of the ThinkPad X30. But if your priorities are a bit different, particularly if you feel the need for a built-in optical drive, the Actius MV10W is a worthy machine. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online

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