Thinking Outside the Laptop Box

Sharp's mini-notebook and Apple's new PowerBook are welcome, if flawed, experiments

Laptop computers, especially those designed for peripatetic executives, are starting to look awfully similar to me. That's not surprising, given that they are all designed to meet the requirements of the same corporate bid lists. But computer makers selling outside the mainstream are still experimenting. I recently tried two interesting, albeit flawed, laptops: the Sharp Actius MM10 and the Apple Computer 12-in. PowerBook G4.

The $1,499 Actius is so different from anything on the market, at least outside Japan, that it belongs in a product class of its own. At half an inch thick and weighing just over 2 pounds, it slips into a briefcase more easily than many books. Although it is a full-fledged Windows XP computer,in both form and function it's somewhere between a laptop and a handheld.

Take the keyboard, traditionally the weakest component of ultralight notebooks. Compared with a standard laptop keyboard, it's hopeless, a touch-typist's nightmare. All of the keys are undersized, and smaller yet are the comma, period, and slash keys -- and they're all jammed together in the bottom row. But even with my fingers finding a slash where they expected a period to be, typing on the Actius is a lot more efficient than the handwriting-recognition or thumb keyboards used on handhelds. Similarly, the 10.4-inch display is tiny by conventional laptop standards, but it's a lot better for e-mail than a handheld screen, and you can easily read standard Web pages on it.

Sharp's MM10 with WiFi hub
Sharp recognizes that no one is likely to use this laptop as a primary computer. So it ships it with a PDA-style sync-charger cradle and Iomega Sync software that makes it simple to keep the same files on the Actius and on a desktop. But in a glaring oversight, the software provides no straightforward way to synchronize mail, contacts, and calendar using Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, or even Outlook Express.

Battery life is a bigger issue. The Actius' battery has about half the capacity of a typical laptop unit. The Actius uses a power-thrifty Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor, but you'll be lucky to get 2 1/2 hours on a charge -- and even less if the built-in Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet is turned on. An optional extended-life battery ($199) triples the running time, but at a cost in weight and bulk that eliminates much of what makes this ultralight so attractive. I can put up with the small display and quirky keyboard, but for this mini-notebook to truly fill the gap between handhelds and laptops, it needs longer battery life.

The small Apple PowerBook, starting at $1,799, is the antithesis of Sharp's minimalism. At a bit over an inch thick, it has nearly the same dimensions as a mainstream IBM ThinkPad X-series, though it weighs nearly a pound more. That extra weight is used to good purpose, though, as Apple has managed to cram into this small package just about everything you might want in a laptop except a big display.

No Windows laptop of this size contains a CD-ROM drive -- only the slightly larger Toshiba Portégé 4100 comes close. Yet the 12-in. PowerBook -- the odd name refers to the display size -- includes a slot-loading drive that, in the top-of-the-line $1,999 model, reads and records both CDs and DVDs. It also features a 40-gigabyte hard drive and a high-end nVIDIA graphics system. Its 256 megabytes of memory ensure zippy performance despite a relatively slow 867 megahertz G4 processor. And battery life runs better than four hours. Plus, Apple builds in both Bluetooth short-range wireless and wireless Ethernet (a $99 option on the cheapest model) that supports both the standard 802.11b Wi-Fi and the faster and not quite standardized 802.11g.

Two factors limit the PowerBook's appeal. The more important -- an insuperable problem for most businesspeople who work in a Windows environment -- is that it operates only Mac software. The other is that the PowerBook runs hot, hotter even than most Pentium 4 notebooks. In fact, the heat radiating up under your left hand as you type is downright uncomfortable, and I don't recommend trying to hold this laptop on your lap.

Both the Actius and the PowerBook represent welcome trends -- a no-compromises small notebook and a micro-notebook that trades features for extreme portability. Let's hope other laptop makers will start offering some experiments of their own.


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