Flying Machines

Business travelers are flocking to a new generation of ultralight portable computers.
Enid TsuiAugust 1, 1999

Generally speaking, CFOs don’t have time to visit computer stores. Generally speaking, when signing off on the purchase of portable computers for employees, most finance managers rely on the advice of their IT heads. And generally speaking, most IT managers tend to play it safe, recommending durable notebooks with tons of storage space, huge displays–and beefy footprints.

Generally speaking, this advice is a big mistake. While traditional, 6-to-8-pound notebooks make for sturdy desktop replacements, they also can cause serious pain in the lumbar region when lugged around an airport concourse. Indeed, when fully loaded– including extra battery, cables, and CD player- -some notebooks weigh more than 10 pounds. By any definition, that’s not exactly traveling light.

Mercifully, vendors are starting to see the light. Visit any computer retailer right now and you’ll see the future of portable computing. That future is smaller and considerably lighter. These days, almost every major computer manufacturer is pushing a full line of sleek, ultralight computers; some have made these truly portable portables the cornerstone of their notebook offerings.

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Admittedly, total sales of ultralights in the United States are almost as small as the machines themselves–less than 5 percent of the 6.4 million portable PCs sold last year. But you won’t see those kind of Lilliputian figures much longer. According to International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts, notebook sales in the United States in 1999 should jump by around 10 percent from last year’s, a sizable increase. But sales of ultralights will shoot up 75 percent, predicts IDC.

Indeed, as computer makers get better at packing more and more computer into smaller and smaller boxes, the days of the eight-pound notebook appear to be numbered. The truth is, if you travel at least once a month, and if you use your portable mostly for running spreadsheets, word processing, and retrieving E-mail, then an ultralight–not a notebook–is the only machine for you.

Featherweight Champs

In the long evolution of mobile computing– from lunchbox to laptop to notebook to subnotebook–ultralights stand out as the perfect blend of portability and power. Strictly speaking, an ultralight weighs four pounds or less, although some weigh nearly half that. (Notebooks weigh between four and eight pounds; laptops, more than eight.) But don’t let the small size of an ultralight fool you: some of these featherweights are fully featured computers.

A convertible ultralight, for example, features a standard-sized keyboard and a big display, typically 11.3 inches or larger. When connected to a docking station, convertibles provide the convenience and muscle of a stand- alone PC, replete with CD-ROM drive, stereo speakers, external video jacks, and universal serial bus (USB) port, as well as serial and parallel ports. In effect, the docking station transforms the ultralight into a viable desktop machine. Of the convertibles in the roundup, the IBM ThinkPad 570 is probably the most serious competition for your desktop PC.

Other ultralights feature port replicators instead of docking units. Port replicators are small, snap-on extensions that contain extra ports but no drives. The idea behind a port replicator is to make plugging and unplugging external devices such as mice and keyboards a one-step process.

Ultralights with port replicators are often the lightest and thinnest of all portable computers. The Sharp PC-A250, our favorite in this group, is a mere 0.83 inches thick. But such mobility comes at a price: ultralights with port replicators have no internal drives. The CD-ROM drive, for example, usually attaches to the computer via a PC-card interface. Unfortunately, attaching the drive tends to require the touch of a Larry Bird, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of a port replicator.

To eliminate this problem entirely, several manufacturers make ultralights that come fully equipped with standard ports. But here again, there’s a trade-off. While the ports make for easier computing, they also make for bulkier ultralights. For instance, the Acer TravelMate 313T, the best of the lot, is 1.5-inches thick. By comparison, most of the machines in the roundup are around 1.2-inches thick.

In fact, even though we think ultralights are truly the future of computing–and even though they look cool as all get out–these mini- marvels are still far from perfect. Battery life, for one thing, is anemic, usually in the two-hour range. For business flyers, that’s unacceptable.

What’s more, the keyboards on a few of these tiny machines are so small that only preschoolers can use them with ease. Moreover, the underbellies of ultralights tend to get very hot during operation. How hot? One machine, the Toshiba Portégé, could double as a waffle iron.

Most worrisome of all: the ultralights in the review are powered by either MMX-enabled Pentium processors or mobile Pentium IIs. Both of those chips are getting long in the tooth.

Only three models in the roundup–the Compaq Armada 3500, the IBM ThinkPad 570, and the Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 900–have clock speeds that exceed 300MHz. With Pentium III desktops now running at 500MHz, and with 1,000MHz machines on the horizon, the gap in processing power could be a problem down the road. New applications will be designed to take advantage of the faster processors, which could leave slower ultralights in the dust.

Still, these are fairly minor complaints. A finance chief looking to buy 30 or 40 portables for the company sales staff, or just one for personal use, would do well to consider any of the nine ultralights in this year’s roundup. While some are much better than others, they’re all a joy to tote around in a carrying case. In fact, as you dash madly through Terminal C, rushing to get to Gate 889 before the last flight of the month to Ulan Bator takes off, you’ll hardly even notice you’re carrying a computer. And when was the last time you could say that about your notebook?

The Checklist
Battery Life.
If you’re looking for a portable that runs forever on one charge, look elsewhere. The average battery life for an ultralight is 1.8 hours. We’ve had nosebleeds that lasted longer. Of all the computers in the roundup, only the IBM ThinkPad 570 has an acceptable battery life (3 hours). The Toshiba Portégé 3020 comes with an enhanced battery, which the company claims runs for about 2.6 hours. Many ultralight makers do offer hefty battery slices that last for about 8 hours. Of course, hefty batteries make for hefty portables.

Display. Not surprisingly, the small footprint of an ultralight limits the size of the screen. Granted, most ultralights are designed to be road machines, not multimedia entertainment centers. Nevertheless, if you plan on doing a lot of word processing and spreadsheet work on your portable, don’t settle for anything less than a 10.4-inch screen. For sending and retrieving E-mail, a machine with an 8.4-inch screen will suffice. All machines in the roundup boast active matrix (TFT) screens, which are much spiffier than dual-scan displays.

Infrared Port. An IR port is now standard equipment on almost all portables, including ultralights. That’s good news, too: when it comes to transferring files, you can’t beat an IR port. The question is, why don’t manufacturers include these little gems on desktop computers?

Keyboard. With ordinary notebooks, the layout and feel of the keyboard are the prime concerns. With ultralights, the actual size of the thing is crucial. A standard keyboard has a key pitch of 19 millimeters. If you type a lot, and if you value your sanity, don’t purchase an ultralight with a keyboard pitch that’s less than 17 millimeters. The key travel–the distance between two keys–should be at least 2 millimeters. The best advice: test before you buy.

Memory. Get as much memory as you can afford. The absolute–and we mean absolute– minimum is 32 megabytes of RAM. And be warned: To save money, some ultralight manufacturers use EDO RAM rather than SDRAM, which is significantly faster. Accept no substitutes: get SDRAM in your ultralight.

Peripherals. Cutting down on weight means forgoing internal drives. Thus, most ultralights require the user to tote external floppy and CD-ROM drives. While this isn’t necessarily the end of the world (particularly for machines with IR ports), just make sure the cords for these external devices are long enough. Cords for floppy drives tend to be about as long as a centipede.

Pointing Device. If you’re a touch typist, stay away from touchpads. Instead, look for an ultralight with a pointing stick (the eraser-type thing stuck between the G and H keys). While touchpads and glidepads have gained in popularity in recent years, this year more manufacturers seem to be switching back to pointing sticks. To us, this is incontrovertible evidence that there is a God.

Speakers. The sound quality of most ultralights is not what you would call high fidelity. Then again, who cares? It’s a computer, not a stereo. Meanwhile, many manufacturers continue to place the speakers on the bottom of their portables. Frankly, this baffles us.

The Machines
The machines in the roundup are nine of the snazziest ultralights on the market. We rank them on the smiley-face scale; five smiley faces is a perfect score. A machine’s ranking is based on a combination of features, affordability, and ease of use.

Prices. The prices listed are the recommended retail price, but you can probably find lower prices at your friendly neighborhood superstore. Of course, if you’re buying machines for the entire sales department, you can generally negotiate a decent discount for the lot.

———————————————– ——————————— ACER TRAVELMATE 314T
Acer America Corp.
San Jose, CA
(800) 733-2237

Tested Configuration: 300MHz MMX Pentium, 64MB SDRAM, 4GB HD, 8.4-inch TFT screen, 9.3 inches x 6.9 inches x 1.5 inches, 2.9 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $1,799 Bang for buck: rrrrr*

Skinny: When Acer acquired Texas Instruments’s notebookdivision a few years back, we wondered what would happen to TI’s fine TravelMate series. Here’s what happened: Acer made it better. For our money, the TravelMate 313T is one swell road machine…. This ultralight comes with ports attached–no need for a docking unit or port replicator…. The keyboard, while not gigantic, is just big enough to be functional. Unlike keyboards of some other machines in the roundup, we did not curse this one. Not once…. TravelMate 313T feels rock solid. Will probably take a real pounding on the road…. One of the few portables with a touchpad that almost makes sense. Why? Because the keyboard is quite close to the touchpad, which means you can use your thumb to move the pointer…. While the keyboard itself may look a bit small, the key travel is sufficient…. Given the 8.4-inch screen and the MMX chip under the hood, nifty TravelMate is probably not suited for your desktop. Still, it’ll look right at home on an airplane- seat tray.

———————————————– ——————————— COMPAQ ARMADA 3500
Compaq Computer Corp.
(800) 345-1518

Tested Configuration: 366MHz Pentium II, 64MB SDRAM, 6.4GB HD, 12.1-inch TFT screen, 11.8 inches x 9.3 inches x 1.3 inches, 4.8 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $2,899 Rating: rrr*

Skinny: OK, we admit it: The Armada 3500, which weighs in at 4.8 pounds, does not technically qualify as an ultralight. But the 3500 is Compaq’s lightest computer to date, and given Compaq’s past line of back-breaking portables, we thought we’d ignore the extra 0.8 pounds. Besides, everything’s bigger in Texas…. As you might expect, the heft of this machine allowed Compaq’s engineers to really pack in the features. At 366MHz, the 3500 is one of the fastest machines in the roundup. What’s more, it boasts a capacious 6.4GB hard drive, 64 megs of SDRAM–expandable to 192MB–and a beautiful 12.1-inch TFT screen…. The 3500 comes with a pointing stick. So why doesn’t Compaq do this with all its portables?… There’s plenty of room for expansion on the 3500’s docking unit. You can add a zip drive, a SuperDisk drive, and a second hard drive. Our test model had a DVD- ROM drive as well…. Big screen, big speakers, big hard drive. So why only three smiley faces? Check out the big price tag, effendi…. At press time, Compaq was close to rolling out a true ultralight.

———————————————– ——————————— HP OMNIBOOK 900
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, CA
(800) 752-0900

Tested Configuration: 366MHz Pentium II, 32MB SDRAM, 6.4GB HD, 12.1-inch TFT screen, 11.8 inches x 8.9 inches x 1.3 inches, 4 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $2,499 Rating: rrrr*

Skinny: OmniBook 900 features fast processor, big screen, built-in ports, and full-sized keyboard. Hewlett-Packard’s entry also features big footprint and high temperature…. The generous 12.1-inch screen is as sharp as can be. Also, the sound quality on this portable is excellent…. Like the Armada, OmniBook 900 feels more like a notebook than an ultralight. Throw in the external floppy drive and the bulky transformer and you’ve got one hefty ultralight…. OK, we give up: Why is the floppy drive the size of a CD-ROM drive?… After about 20 minutes, the OmniBook starts generating some serious heat. This could have something to do with the thin plastic casing, although we’re not sure…. Speaking of casing: this machine creaks like an old staircase. Durability may be suspect…. With a Pentium II, 366MHz processor, you won’t be lacking for processing punch…. Did we mention how much we liked this keyboard? It’s a joy to use. Also, it features both a pointing stick and a touchpad. In a perfect world, they’d ditch the touchpad and throw on a trackball.

———————————————– ——————————— FUJITSU LIFEBOOK B112
Fujitsu PC Corp.
Milpitas, CA
(888) 466-8434

Tested Configuration: 233MHz MMX Pentium, 32MB SDRAM, 3.2GB HD, 8.4-inch TFT screen, 9 inches x 6.7 inches x 1.2 inches, 2.4 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $1,599 Rating: rrr*

Skinny: LifeBook B112 may have been the biggest disappointment in the roundup. Usually, Fujitsu makes nifty computers, but not this time…. Fujitsu engineers didn’t exactly soup up this portable. 32 megs of memory and a 233MHz MMX processor, along with an 8.4-inch display? We’ve seen more powerful PalmPilots…. Other than the Toshiba Libretto, LifeBook is the lightest ultralight in the review. It does have a better keyboard than the Libretto, although that’s not saying much…. Really, 15- millimeter spacing is just too damn small. We couldn’t type at all on this baby…. The track point–a felt-covered circle that resembles a flattened pointing stick–also works better here than on the Libretto. Still, it takes some getting used to…. Idiotically, the speakers are placed on the wrist rest– right where your wrists can cover them up. Doesn’t matter; the sound is so tinny you want to turn the speakers off anyway…. Granted, $1,599 is a great price for a decent ultralight. Unfortunately, LifeBook B112 isn’t a decent ultralight.

———————————————– ——————————— IBM THINKPAD 570
IBM Corp.
Somers, NY
(800) 426-7255

Tested Configuration: 366MHz Pentium, 64MB SDRAM, 6.4GB HD, 13.3-inch TFT screen, 11.8 inches x 9.4 inches x 1.1 inches, 4 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $3,499 Rating: rrrr*

Skinny: The latest ThinkPad is a truly impressive machine. It’s also a truly expensive machine…. The 13.3-inch screen is the biggest display in the roundup. That’s just about the viewable area in a 15-inch monitor…. Finally, an ultralight with some staying power. The battery life on the 570 is three hours. That’s almost twice the duration of some other ultralights we know…. Can’t figure out why other manufacturers trumpet power-saving methods that actually offer little improvement in battery life. This ThinkPad, on the other hand, saves power by using the fan less often. Additional heat is led away from the CPU by a vacuum aluminum tube filled with water. Ingenious design adds a full hour of battery life…. Well-designed docking unit–so simple a three-year-old could use it, which probably explains why we had no trouble. Also, we tried detaching the docking unit when the ThinkPad was running. ThinkPad didn’t even blink. All other ultralights in roundup with docking unit failed this test…. If you’re looking for a portable to replace your desktop, think about buying the 570 and its impressive docking unit.

———————————————– ——————————— SHARP PC-A250
Sharp Electronics Corp.
Mahwah, NJ
(800) 237-4277

Tested Configuration: 300MHz Pentium IIPE, 64MB SDRAM, 6.4GB HD, 11.3-inch TFT screen, 10.4 inches x 8.3 inches x 0.83 inches, 3 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $2,499 Rating: rrrrr*

Skinny: For years, Sharp has manufactured some of the world’s best liquid-crystal displays. The screen on the PC-A250 is no exception. New antiglare technology reduces reflection by two- thirds. What’s more, Sharp’s proprietary “Black TFT” technology sharpens and intensifies colors. Truly fabulous screen…. The PC-A250 has only one speaker, and the company’s engineers chose to put that one on the bottom of the machine. From Sharp minds? We don’t think so…. Although there’s no fan in this wafer-thin (0.83-inch) ultralight, machine still doesn’t seem to overheat. That’s an impressive feat, considering the PC-A250 is one of the first portables to feature the latest Pentium II PE processor…. Magnesium case worries us a bit. Doesn’t feel nearly hard enough…. Good keyboard, with 17-millimeter key pitch and 2.5- millimeter travel. The touchpad on the ultralight is small but sensitive. Then again, so are we…. The Sharp PC-A250 is one good- looking ultralight. Lose the touchpad, and you’ve got a nearly perfect portable.

———————————————– ——————————— TOSHIBA PORTEGE 3020
Toshiba Corp.
Irvine, CA
(800) 867-4422

Tested Configuration: 300MHz MMX Pentium, 32MB EDO DRAM, 6.4GB HD, 10.4-inch TFT screen, 10 inches x 8.5 inches x 0.78 inches, 2.9 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $1,799 Rating: rrrrr*

Skinny: For our money, the Toshiba Portégé series is just about the best line of ultralights going. The 3020 is no exception. Light, well-built, user-friendly portable…. The 84-key key-board has an amazing 2- millimeter travel and an 18-millimeter key pitch. In other words, this is a real keyboard, not a toy…. Toshiba could stand to be more generous with the screen real estate, but what’s there is bright and sharp…. Battery lasts up to 2.6 hours, or about 40 percent longer than most ultralights…. All right, Toshiba, what gives with the EDO RAM? And only 32 megs? If you’re looking to buy this ultralight, make sure you purchase additional memory…. The 300MHz MMX chip, while not ideal, is sufficient for most computing tasks…. Geez, this Portégé gets remarkably hot on its underside. If you plan on putting this thing in your lap, you might want to stock up on lead-lined trousers…. If you’re looking for a state-of-the art, whiz- bang portable, the Portégé may not be for you. But if you’re looking for a solid, reliable, and truly portable portable, the 3020 is probably your best bet.

———————————————– ——————————— TOSHIBA LIBRETTO 110CT
Toshiba Corp.
Irvine, CA
(800) 867-4422

Tested Configuration: 233MHz MMX Pentium, 32MB EDO DRAM, 4.3GB HD, 7.1-inch TFT screen, 8.3 inches x 5.2 inches x 1.4 inches, 2.4 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $1,799 Rating: rrr*

Skinny: You’ve got to go way, way back to dig up a review in which we actually savaged a Toshiba portable. On the whole, we’re huge fans of Toshiba’s fine line of well-designed portables. Unfortunately, the Libretto is not a well-designed portable. It tries to be both PDA and an ultralight–and fails miserably on both counts…. Libretto’s short battery life can’t even come close to the 10 hours of operation that PDAs offer…. 110CT is about half the size of its sibling, the Toshiba Portégé. But 110CT’s tiny display and microscopic keyboard make it unsuitable for anything but the most rudimentary computing tasks…. Pointing device–a flattened pointing stick identical to the one found on the Fujitsu LifeBook–has been placed on the right edge of the screen. It’s incredibly difficult to manipulate, and downright hostile to left-handed users…. A screen this small should really be located on the back of an airplane seat…. The Libretto series may have been a real innovation when it first came out, but the novelty has worn off…. For $1,799, we’d rather buy the Fujitsu LifeBook. That should tell you something.

———————————————– ——————————— TWINHEAD POWERSLIM
Twinhead Corp.
Fremont, CA
(800) 995-8946

Tested Configuration: 300MHz MMX Pentium, 32MB SDRAM, 4.3GB HD, 12.1-inch TFT screen, 10.6 inches x 8.7 inches x 1 inch, 3.7 lbs.

Recommended Retail Price: $1,650 Rating: rrrr*

Skinny: Twinhead has been producing notebooks for more than 10 years. Unfortunately, recent offerings have not matched some of its earlier, cutting-edge products. PowerSlim continues that trend–a real mixed bag…. Chassis on PowerSlim does not exactly inspire confidence. Fairly flimsy. Then again, it does look good…. Huge speakers on Twinhead ultralight are loud as hell. Much to our disappointment, sound coming out of big speakers was little more than a din…. The screen on the Twinhead ultralight is large: 12.1 inches. Could be 32.1 inches for all we care–it’s not nearly as sharp as screens on the IBM ThinkPad or Sharp PC-A250. And resolution is only Super VGA…. A couple of nice touches: you can bump the memory up to a whopping 160 megs. And PowerSlim comes equipped with a built-in modem…. We had real trouble with the touchpad on this machine. Despite changing the sensitivity settings, it was still hard to use…. Twinhead promo claims PowerSlim “boasts tremendous processing power.” Folks, switch to decaf. It’s an MMX chip…. Good price for a middling machine. Your move.