Ultralights push the limits

Who was it who said you can't have your cake and eat it, too?

The current crop of ultralight notebooks clearly makes a pretty convincing case that we can have our cake and eat it, too. The ultralights we tested offer more power for lower prices and in lighter packages than the group we examined last year.

It's true that you can't totally have your cake and eat it, too. If you opt for one of these ultralights, you'll have to give up a few things, though far less than you might expect. The keyboards are a bit smaller than those you'll find on larger laptops, though we found typing to be generally easy. And displays are, of course, smaller.

But the single biggest trade-off is that, with the lightest of the ultralights, you'll have to do without built-in disk drives. After all, the weight has to be lost somewhere. Generally, vendors offer floppy drives and CD/DVD drives as external devices that connect via a high-speed USB port. And we are happy to make that trade if it means getting a device that can easily slide into a briefcase.

For this roundup, we looked at devices from five of the market leaders: IBM Corp., Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., Sharp Electronics Corp., Sony Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Officials at Fujitsu Ltd., which has an ultralight LifeBook series, are about to release a new model, and we will review that unit separately when it is available.

To a greater degree than is true with desktop computers, and even desktop-replacement notebooks, ultralight computers offer users some clear choices. In an effort to make the devices as portable as possible, designers have made decisions that will please or irritate users. One user, for example, may welcome the Panasonic Toughbook's inclusion of an integrated CD/DVD drive even though it pushes the unit's weight up to a still svelte 3.4 pounds. Other users may prefer to keep the weight under 3 pounds and are willing to throw a USB drive into the briefcase when necessary.

The units we reviewed offer a surprisingly broad choice of features in other areas as well, including security tools, diagnostics, keyboard feel and screen size.

To help users select the most appropriate ultralight, we have employed a five-star scale to rate each device in five categories: portability, performance, security, design and features, and price. In selecting the right ultralight, users will want to prioritize the categories.

To judge performance, we used the Clibench suite of benchmarks, freeware available at clibench.daemonware.ch. It's worth noting, however, that benchmarks may make some distinctions among computers that will never become apparent to users. We used the benchmarks primarily as a screening device to check each unit for any signs that something might not be functioning

appropriately.

In fact, we found CPU and display performance to be remarkably similar from the user's point of view across all devices, with a single exception. The Sharp Actius MM20P, which was the only device employing the Transmeta Corp. Efficeon TM8600 processor, had noticeably slower CPU performance ratings than the others had. Indeed, we found the MM20P to be a tad slower from the user's point of view as well. Even so, the difference in performance was not enough that we would recommend avoiding the unit.

We found that each of the units we tested has something special to offer that would make it the most appropriate selection for certain users. Nevertheless, two ultralight computers stood out from the others as especially attractive solutions for a broad range of users. The IBM ThinkPad X40 and the Toshiba Portege R100 offer strong performance and a solid set of extra features in light and portable units. The ThinkPad has especially strong security and diagnostic tools, while the Portege R100 has an especially elegant design.

IBM ThinkPad X40

Like good cooks improving a recipe, IBM officials have tweaked their ultralight notebook design to create a tasty dish indeed.

When we reviewed the X40's predecessor, the X31, last year, we raved about the security features but noted the high price and thought developers could reduce the product's size and weight.

And sure enough, the X40 delivers. For $2,074 — nearly $300 less than the price of the X31 last year — you get a lighter notebook with a smaller footprint and a bundled docking station to boot.

The docking station features a multibay that contained a CD-RW/DVD-ROM in our review unit, but it can also accept multiburner slim drives, an extra battery or a second hard drive if you purchase an adapter.

Our unit also came with an eight-cell battery that claims up to 7.5 hours of life, but the trade-off is extra weight. If you order the notebook with the four-cell battery, which claims up to 3.5 hours of life, you can shave the weight down to 2.7 pounds.

Other standout features include Gigabit Ethernet, memory expandable to 1.28G and a powered USB 2.0 port that allows you to use USB optical drives without a separate power adapter.

But the real meat of the ThinkPad X40 is its exemplary security features. Key among these is IBM's Embedded Security Subsystem, a combination hardware and software solution that provides greater security than software-only packages for storing passwords, encryption keys, digital certificates and the like.

Security Subystem features include file and folder encryption, wireless networking encryption and support for smart card readers and fingerprint scanners.

Adding even more protection, the X40 also comes loaded with Symantec Corp.'s Norton AntiVirus 2003 and PC Doctor Inc.'s diagnostics program.

This notebook isn't ruggedized like the Panasonic one is, but it does offer some protection if it is dropped. In addition to the magnesium cover, the ThinkPad X40 comes with IBM's Active Protection System.

If you drop the unit, the system kicks in and parks the hard drive, helping protect it from failure because of impact. The system uses technology similar to that in automobile air bags, in which a microchip senses a sudden acceleration.

That covers physical crashes, but what about logical ones? Have no fear. IBM's Rescue and Recovery with Rapid Restore allows you to diagnose and recover from software crashes, even if the primary operating system won't boot. You can recover the file you were working on at the time of the crash even if it's not backed up.

If you don't like trackpoint navigators, you're out of luck with the X40, but the value of this system with its tight security and standout features should outweigh that concern.

Panasonic Toughbook Y2

The Toughbook Y2 is Panasonic's first entry into the ultralight space. It falls at the upper end of the category in terms of size, weight and price. At $2,549 and 3.4 pounds, it's the heaviest and one of the most expensive units in this review. But that allows it to pack features the smaller models don't have.

Perhaps the most significant of these features is the integrated DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, something nearly unheard of in an ultralight notebook. Users access the drive via a flip-up cover, which is actually the right side of the wrist rest, instead of a tray that slides out.

Because battery life is of special concern with ultralights, users will appreciate the power-saving utility for the optical drive. The utility automatically shuts off power to the drive after a certain amount of time specified by the user. You can also manually turn off the drive's power at any time.

Another standout is the Y2's ability to withstand a little roughing up. It's the only ruggedized ultralight we know, and it's protected by a full magnesium alloy case and features a shock-mounted hard drive. Interestingly, though, only the Ethernet and modem ports are protected with a rubber cover.

Another benefit of the larger size is a larger screen. The Y2 is the only model in this roundup to feature a 14.1-inch display, and it has the highest resolution at 1,400 x 1,050.

In addition to the standard password protections, such as password on boot and a supervisor password function, the Y2 comes with some noteworthy security features.

One of these is the hard disk lock. When you enable this feature, you cannot read or write data to or from the hard drive if it is removed and inserted into another computer. You can, however, still access the data once the drive is returned to the original computer.

Another feature is the Secure Digital card security function. It allows you to insert a card in lieu of entering a password at start-up when logging on to Microsoft Corp. Windows or when resuming from standby or hibernation mode.

You'll need deep pockets to purchase the Toughbook Y2, but the extra money buys ruggedized protection, an integrated optical drive and a surprisingly large screen for such a light notebook.

Sharp Actius MM20P

If portability is your priority and you have to keep an eye on your budget, the Sharp Actius MM20P is worth a look.

The MM20P is the least expensive unit in this roundup by a significant margin, and at 2 pounds, the unit weighs in only a tad heavier than the Sony Vaio x505. The attractive brushed aluminum case is, at only .77 inches thick, the thinnest ultralight we looked at. The biggest problem with the MM20P's portability is that once you slide it into your briefcase, you may need to search to find it.

We also found the MM20P to be fairly miserly with power. Even if you don't use the provided Mobile Mode switch to save power — causing the display to lower its intensity and the frequency of the processor to drop — you should get about three hours' use when employing the standard battery. An extended nine-hour battery is also available.

As noted above, the MM20P uses a 1 GHz Transmeta Efficeon TM8600 processor. We found the MM20P to be noticeably slower than other units we tested, though we did not find it to be so slow as to be a significant problem. If you expect to perform processor-intensive work, however, you may want to select a sprightlier ultralight. That's especially true because the MM20P's 512M of system memory cannot be expanded.

In addition, note that although most of the competing ultralights offer a 40G hard drive, the MM20P sports only a 20G drive.

Back on the positive side, we liked the MM20P's sharp display and keyboard. Some might find the feel of the keyboard to be a bit mushy, but it worked well for us. We did note, however, that when you close the unit, the keyboard and the screen come in contact, which marks up the screen. You should, however, be able to wipe off the marks using an appropriate cleaner.

We also liked the cradle for connecting the MM20P to a desktop computer. The cradle allows direct access to the ultralight PC from the desktop using a USB port.

You won't, however, find a lot of extras with the MM20P. The only security features are those provided with Windows XP, and the diagnostic tools are limited. Finally, officials at federal agencies may be deterred by the device because it only has a one-year warranty.

Sony Vaio x505

The Sony Vaio x505 is definitely not for everybody. First, the price tag is relatively expensive: just 1 cent under $3,000. Also, we found the keyboard, while generously sized and intelligently arranged, to have a flat feel. We frequently made mistakes in typing, though we're sure this problem would ease if we spent more time using the unit. Finally, the unit is limited to 512M of system memory, and its hard drive is only 20G.

That said, if you need the best combination of portability and performance, you'll want to take a close look at the Vaio x505. We haven't seen a smaller, lighter computer. At a mere 1.85 pounds, you can slip the x505 into your briefcase and hardly feel the difference. We also like the x505's razor-thin form and clean design. Unlike some of the slim units, we found the x505 easy to open, even with a single hand, thanks to the two-bezel design of the front edge.

The x505 saves some space by employing a post control instead of a touchpad for cursor control. However, we can't say that we're fans of the post control for the built-in pointing device — and this one is shallow, not to mention sensitive. We were, however, able to slow down the pointer by using the provided utility.

We liked the way Sony developers designed the control buttons. The three buttons that work with the pointer are placed right on the front edge of the computer, making them easier to click.

The x505 comes with a generous assortment of software, including Microsoft Office 2003 Basic Edition, InterVideo Inc. WinDVD and Symantec Norton Internet Security. The product also includes a built-in recovery wizard. But you should back up your data before using the wizard because everything will be wiped out in the process.

We also like some other thoughtful extras Sony officials included, such as the two carrying cases — one for the x505 and another for the accessories. There's also a USB optical mouse, which includes a Memory Stick media slot.

On the down side, we were disappointed to find that wireless capabilities are not fully integrated. Instead, 802.11g support is provided via a bundled PC Card. And the x505 doesn't offer any security tools apart from those that come in Windows and the Norton Internet Security product. Finally, officials at some agencies and departments may disapprove of the x505 because of its limited one-year warranty.

Toshiba Portege R100

The Portege R100 is an elegant compromise — and we mean that as a good thing.

The R100 is not the lightest, thinnest unit in the roundup, though it is close to being so. It doesn't offer the best security tools. It isn't the most expandable when it comes to system memory.

So why consider the R100? It is one of the best ultralight compromises for most users. Along with the IBM ThinkPad X40, the R100 offers high performance, a generous keypad and a large screen. The R100 doesn't offer the ThinkPad's security features, but it is, in our view, the most elegantly designed unit of the group. And it has a reasonable price tag.

The R100's trim silver case is portable and attractive, and we liked the unit's keyboard better than that of any other notebook we tested. The sharp 12.1-inch XGA display is nicely highlighted by the matte black finish of the notebook's interior. And we found the touchpad easy to use.

Also, the R100's memory ceiling has been increased from the 512M offered by its predecessor to 1G. And the processor has also been upgraded to a 1G Intel Corp. Pentium M Centrino.

There are a few things on our wish list for Toshiba, though they seem relatively minor. We would, for example, prefer to see at least one of the USB ports on the side of the unit. Instead, both USB ports are on the back of the R100.

Back on the plus side, we liked the selection of extras Toshiba provides with the Portege R100, including an infrared port, network configuration tools and a Secure Digital slot.

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