The Little Laptop That Couldn't

NEC's new UltraLite has plenty to recommend it--and some design flaws that spoil it

For all the charms of handheld computers, the laptop still offers the mobile executive some mighty advantages: big displays, real keyboards, and, by no means least, the ability to use familiar desktop applications without compromise. If only the things weren't so heavy and bulky.

NEC (NIPNY ), which is trying to regain a foothold in the U.S. market, has come up with a little laptop with specs that would make you happy to carry a full-fledged Windows 2000 computer rather than a handheld. But it falls short of being the ultraportable of my dreams because of design flaws that, while serious, could have been easily corrected.

The new Versa UltraLite weighs in at just over 3 pounds and almost disappears into a briefcase. It's powered by a 600 megahertz Transmeta Crusoe processor. While it's the slowest new PC I've tried lately, you won't notice this doing typical mobile tasks, except that applications take a bit longer to load than on faster computers. The payoff is spectacular battery life of five hours or so. A companion model designed for brighter conditions outdoors, the DayLite, runs up to 8 hours on a charge.

THE PROBLEMS. The choice of a 1024-by-768 pixel screen for the 10.4-inch display is problematic. Increasing font sizes in applications and in Windows 2000 makes it acceptable for aging eyes, but 800-by-600 would be a nice option for those who prefer bigger text and icons.

The major difficulties are two: networking and the keyboard. The UltraLite has both a built-in modem and an Ethernet port. But while the modem uses a standard RJ-11 jack, Ethernet requires use of a special adapter piece that you can count on losing at the worst possible moment. Because this sort of laptop is designed to be ultraportable, it screams for the wireless networking that lets you carry it everywhere. But a standard Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet card sticks out of the shallow PC Card slot by a clumsy 1 1/4 inch. The first changes NEC should make: Add a standard Ethernet port and build in Wi-Fi.

Then there's the keyboard. The NEC's keyboard is 10 inches wide, about an inch narrower than on a standard notebook. Although ultraportables have been around for years, the only idea anyone has had is to shrink the standard laptop design, which in turn is a shrunken version of a desktop keyboard.

The problem is not the size of the letter keys, but some of the flaws inherent in a Japanese tradition of poor keyboard design. For example, the right shift key is the same size as the standard letter keys, and lots of typists will go crazy hitting the next-door up arrow instead. The spacebar is tiny--less than the width of three standard keys. The Compaq Presario 800, with a keyboard about the same size as the UltraLite, has a much more intelligent layout.

For ultraportables to become more productive tools, the keyboard requires some radical surgery, especially since even a cursory look shows an awful lot of wasted real estate. Start with the row of function keys across the top. These holdovers from DOS are rarely used anymore, and what little function they have is always duplicated by mouse clicks and often by other keystrokes. Get rid of them. The UltraLite dedicates keys to scroll lock, system request, and pause/break, none of which have any function in Windows, as well as to the rarely used print screen function. On laptops, which lack separate number pads, the num lock key is also of very little use.

Not all the deadwood goes back to the musty DOS era. Nearly all keyboards, including the UltraLite, have two virtually useless keys designed to perpetuate the myth that Windows can be run without a mouse--one opens the Start menu and the other duplicates a right mouse click. Of major laptop makers, only IBM has had the sense to drop them from most Thinkpads. All of this wasted space could be put to much better use: dedicated home, end, page up, page down keys; a bigger spacebar and shift, return, and backspace keys. In other words, you'd end up with a keyboard you could actually use efficiently.

Compared with the engineering challenge of getting five hours of battery life out of a 3-pound laptop, designing a functional keyboard is trivial. It's a shame NEC and others have not risen to the occasion.


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