My Trusty Laptop Just Got Better

The OmniBook's supercompact package comes at no sacrifice in power

Some laptops try to be everything for everyone. Others aim for a narrower target. The OmniBook 800C from Hewlett-Packard (800 443-1254) definitely falls into the latter category. It's not the multimedia machine of your dreams, it's not likely to replace your desktop, and it's a bit on the pricey side. But if you want a lot of power in a very small package, the new OmniBook may be the laptop for you.

My two-year-old OmniBook 600 has accompanied me faithfully on many trips, but its 486 processor and sluggish 340-megabyte hard drive leave it badly underpowered. The 800 retains the 600's diminutive package. The solid keyboard and a quirky pop-out mouse that connects to the computer with a plastic stick are also unchanged. But from the much larger display to the high-capacity disk drive, the OmniBook is all new--and vastly improved.

This computer is for the traveler whose highest priority is portability. It's small enough to tuck comfortably into a briefcase. And while big-screen lightweights such as the IBM ThinkPad 560 are neat, the OmniBook's smaller dimensions make it the only laptop I can comfortably use on an airplane tray table when the passenger in front of me leans back.

Getting the OmniBook's supercompact package no longer requires a sacrifice of performance. HP has used a lot of tricks to get maximum speed out of this machine, and the 133 megahertz version that I evaluated felt as fast as any laptop I have tried. The 10.4-inch active-matrix screen I used seems small by today's standards, but it provided very crisp resolution.

Power management is another strong plus. The OmniBook's lithium-ion battery offers up to three hours of use--not bad for a subnotebook. But the best feature is its sleep mode. Most laptops either continue to drain power while sleeping, exhausting the batteries within a couple of days, or save your current setup to disk. For the ones that save your work, waking up takes almost as long as booting up. The HP can sleep for weeks and leap back to life at the touch of a button.

AWKWARD. The compact package leaves no room for a built-in floppy drive, let alone a CD-ROM drive. The floppy attaches by a simple cable. And the external CD-ROM is extremely clever, though slightly awkward to use. Unlike most notebooks, the OmniBook 800C features a standard SCSI interface connector that is faster and more versatile than standard ports. HP offers a $420 quad-speed CD-ROM player that connects to this port with a special cable.

CD players are fairly wattage-hungry, and this unit can be powered by AA cells (which allow it to double as an audio player), by the OmniBook's lithium-ion battery, or by sharing an AC adapter with the computer. I wouldn't want to hold all this on my lap, but it's a reasonable solution for part-time multimedia, helped by surprisingly good audio on the OmniBook. The SCSI cable can also be used to hook up other devices, including Iomega Jaz and Zip drives.

One thing you won't want to do with an OmniBook 800C is use it as a desktop replacement. HP offers a $420 docking station, but it's a fragile and cranky device. Opening it up to install a network card is a chore that requires a jeweler's screwdriver and at least three hands. You'll be happier connecting to an office network using the OmniBook's 4-megabit-per-second infrared port with a desktop infrared network adapter.

But this notebook wants to be on the go, not tied to your desk. And no road warrior could ask for a more portable, or able, traveling companion.

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