Micro Laptops: Tiny But Not Trifling

Unlike palmtops, these new machines can run all your favorite software

Mitsubishi certainly is starting off small in its entry to the U.S. laptop market. In fact, its Amity CN micro-laptop is too small to be used comfortably on my lap. But the Amity is a full-featured computer, albeit with a somewhat cramped keyboard and a small display.

With its diminutive 2.4-pound package, the Amity jumps to the front of the proliferating group of computers small enough to slip easily into a briefcase. The Amity bears more than a passing resemblance to Toshiba's slightly smaller, 1.8-pound Libretto, introduced in June. The original Libretto 50CT was hobbled by a sluggish 75-megahertz Pentium processor, but a new model, the 70CT, is scheduled to ship in December with a 120-Mhz MMX Pentium. (The new Libretto was not available to me for testing, so I'm unable to compare the performance of the two models.)

ODD SENSATION. The Amity uses its bigger size to achieve several advantages over the Libretto. The keyboard is the most notable. Its 83 keys are spaced 16 millimeters apart, vs. 15 mm for the Librettos, and that one millimeter can be just enough to make real touch-typing possible. (The IBM ThinkPad, the standard of excellence for laptop keyboards, spaces keys 19 mm apart.) Where the Libretto uses a peculiar pointing device next to the screen, the Amity keyboard includes the same TrackPoint stick used in ThinkPads.

The Mitsubishi notebook has several drawbacks. In addition to being too small to rest comfortably in my lap, its fast chip makes it very warm, and heat seeping through the keyboard causes a sensation that's odd, though not really uncomfortable. The display's shiny surface is prone to distracting reflections. Fortunately, a wide range of brightness and contrast controls helps compensate. And as on many passive-matrix screens, the cursor sometimes vanishes while moving, especially on a white background.

An external floppy drive is easily connected to the Amity. But loading software off a CD-ROM requires either an external drive (a $300-plus expense) or connecting the Amity to a network.

The big question about the Amity/Libretto-class laptops is whether they will prove more useful than even smaller machines called palmtops. At the same time that laptops are getting tinier, palmtops are getting better. The second generation of handheld PCs using Microsoft's new Windows CE 2.0 software is just hitting the market. Color palmtops should be available by yearend, and at least one, from NEC Computer Systems, will have a display approaching Amity's in size.

Windows CE palmtops, despite keyboards that are far more cramped than the Libretto, have some advantages over the micro-laptops. For starters, palmtops are smaller and lighter and available at one-third the price with a monochrome display. Battery life is measured in weeks--or days for the color palmtops. Yet the Amity runs for less than 90 minutes per charge. (A $400 auxiliary battery can extend working time to several hours.) Handheld PCs start up the second you hit the power switch, with no boot-up time.

The biggest advantage of Amity and Libretto, though, is that they are real computers. The Windows CE machines run software that offers, at best, a reasonable facsimile of Microsoft Word, Excel, and--in the new version--PowerPoint. The electronic-mail program, while much improved from the original, is no match for familiar desktop E-mail, and the Web browser is a poor imitation of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The Amity and Libretto let you run software you might use on a desktop or a standard laptop.

SUITE SPACE. This is especially important if you use software such as Lotus SmartSuite or Corel WordPerfect Office. Windows CE machines are designed to swap files easily with desktop computers--but only if they are running Microsoft Office. And Amity's 1.4-gigabyte hard drive leaves plenty of room to simply load any of these office suites.

The micro-laptops don't exchange information with desktop machines nearly as easily as the palmtops do, making such chores as synchronizing your calendar a hassle. One can only hope that generic programs such as Traveling Software Laplink or Puma Tranxit will be replaced someday by smoother software.

While both Windows CE machines and micro-laptops such as Amity are works in progress, I suspect the micro-laptops will wind up as more useful devices. In the end, the ability to run all of your familiar software without modification will be an advantage that's too big to overcome.

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