Notebook PCs: When Less Means More

Ultra-compact notebooks promote size without surrendering functionality.

June 1, 2005

What matters most to you in mobile computing: power or portability?

If you’re willing to give up some of the former in favor of the latter, there’s a growing class of ultra-compact or mini-notebook PCs that may appeal to you. The selling point of these systems is their size. They are the thinnest, lightest, and smallest PCs available.

These ultra-compacts aren’t for everyone. They appeal to those who want full functionality and wireless connectivity in the smallest package—and are willing to pay for that convenience. Pound for pound, these systems can cost substantially more than full-feature, full-size notebooks.

Benefits of these ultra-compacts include:

  • Weight. Compacts tip the scales at 4 pounds or less.
  • Power. Compacts run on special mobile processors that require less space and less power to operate. This, too, reduces the overall size of the unit and helps boost power consumption.
  • Battery. Four hours of battery life is routine for many models. You can increase usage time—up to eight hours—with optional battery packs.

Besides price, other drawbacks to these compacts include:

  • Screen size. Screens measure 12 inches or less, sometimes much less—enough for working solo and for making one-on-one presentations, but less than adequate for group viewing.
  • Keyboard size. The smallest ultra-compacts offer a down-sized version of the QWERTY-style keyboard.
  • Lack of optical drives. Some systems don’t include a built-in optical drive for backing up data or reading from CD-ROMs and DVDs. Instead, you have to insert an auxiliary drive in a modular bay, or through USB or FireWire ports.

Since ultra-compacts are such a specialized solution, it’s especially important that you combine product research with hands-on experience before you buy. Most vendors now offer some form of ultra-compact in their lines. Here’s a sampling of currently available models:

  • Acer TravelMate 3000. Recently announced 3-pound Centrino notebook. Price starts at $1,299 for 1.7GHz Pentium M processor, 12.1-inch screen, 512MB RAM, 60GB hard drive, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth wireless, and 4-in-1 Flash memory card reader.
  • IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet. Lenovo’s version of a Tablet PC works in both notebook and tablet mode (use a keyboard or touch-screen option to enter data) and weighs just 3.5 pounds. Price starts at $1,899 for 1.5GHz Pentium M processor, 12.1-inch touch-sensitive screen, 512MB RAM, 40GB hard drive, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g, and full-size keyboard.
  • Sony VAIO T Series. Line of 3-pound compact notebooks. Price starts at $2,199 for T350/L with 1.2GHz Pentium M processor, 10.6-inch screen, 512MB RAM, 60GB hard drive, and CD/DVD-RW drive.
  • Sharp Actius MP30. Line of 2.8-pound notebooks. Price starts at $1,717 for 1.6GHz Transmeta Efficeon processor, 512MB RAM, 10.4-inch screen, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD drive, full-size keyboard, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, and PC card slot.
  • Toshiba libretto U100. The smallest in the current class of ultra-compacts weighs just 2.11 pounds. Price starts at $2,099 for 1.2 GHz Pentium M processor, 512MB RAM, 60GB hard drive, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, Bluetooth wireless, and built-in fingerprint reader, which prevents against unauthorized access.

As you shop for your next notebook, weigh the pros and cons of owning an ultra-compact against other mobile computing options. If what matters most is a functional system that you can carry all day long without weighing you down—and you’re willing to pay more for this convenience—an ultra-compact notebook could be the perfect fit.

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