Subnotebook computers embody Mies Van Der Rohe's design dictum that "less is more." But while these diminutive machines have grown smaller, faster, and lighter, the human hand has resolutely refused to shrink. The frequent result: great big hands that have to fumble around tiny little keyboards.
Now, IBM, a company not noted for PC innovation in recent years, has come to the rescue with the ThinkPad 701C. True to the notebook's development code name of "Butterfly," an ingenious cam mechanism causes the two-piece keyboard to slide outward and snap together along a zigzag line as the case is opened. The result is an 111/2-inch-wide keyboard with full-sized regular keys and oversized enter, shift, and backspace. Except for the lack of a separate number pad, the keyboard is nearly a match for a desktop unit.
SHORT ON PORTS. Impressive as this is, the ThinkPad 701C is no one-trick Butterfly. At 3.7 pounds, it is light even by subnotebook standards. The unit includes built-in stereo sound, best appreciated through headphones. A 14,400-bit-per-second data and fax modem is built in, leaving two credit-card-style slots free for other accessories, even while the modem is in use.
The eraser-like TrackPoint, standard on all ThinkPads, remains my favorite laptop mouse substitute. And the computer is fast. Even though my test unit was powered by a relatively slow 50-megahertz 486DX2, the Butterfly felt like one of the quickest laptops I've ever used, which is apparently thanks to efficient software and a fast disk drive.
The perfect laptop has yet to be built, of course, and the ThinkPad 701C has its share of compromises and faults. To get maximum function into a minimal form, IBM skimped on external connectors. The unit has one external port to hook up either a 31/2-inch floppy-disk drive or, with a special cable, a printer. Getting a full complement of ports--including connectors for a printer and a standard mouse, keyboard, and monitor--requires the user to plug in a 2-inch-wide device called the MultiPort. The MultiPort also features a fold-down prop that raises the back of the unit by about 3/4 inch for more comfortable typing.
The least expensive Butterfly lists at about $3,800, with a passive-matrix color screen and a 360-megabyte hard drive. The screen is a big 52 square inches, but I found the passive-matrix acceptable--not great. The colors were a bit washed out and the adjustment options were too narrow. The top-of-the-line model, which comes with an active-matrix color display and a 540-MB hard drive, costs $5650.
To be able to claim a maximum battery life of seven hours, the ThinkPad 701C comes with power-management settings that make it extremely inconvenient to use. The screen blanks after 15 seconds of inactivity and the machine shuts down after a minute. With more reasonable settings, I found that battery life was closer to three to four hours.
IBM (800 772-2227) should have lavished as much care on the generous selection of preinstalled software as it did on design. For example, the inclusion of a copy of cc:Mail Mobile is a nice touch for anyone who uses the popular Lotus Development E-mail system. But it was set up for both the wrong communications port and the wrong modem.
These, however, are quibbles and are more than compensated for by trailblazing design. In a field that already includes such innovative subnotebooks as the Digital Equipment Corp. HiNote and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OmniBook 600C, the ThinkPad 701C has earned a place at the front of the pack.