New MetroBook packs features into tiny case

Imagine opening your daily planner, but instead of endless sheets of appointment pages, you have a keyboard, screen and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 at your fingertips. That's what you get with MetroBook Computer Corp.'s latest offering, a mini-notebook called the SLT.

For a notebook this small, the SLT has features and functionality galore. It offers all the ports available on most full-sized notebooks including two Universal Serial Bus ports and an infrared port. It operates using a touchscreen with a handy built-in stylus— a nice alternative to touchpads and track points. One of our favorite features of the SLT is the set of 16 screen icons that are pre-programmed shortcuts to common functions such as Microsoft Explorer, the Control Panel, the Program menu, games and power management. You also can program icons yourself using the handy Icon Dispatcher Program.

All notebook computers make trade-offs between size and features, and the SLT is no exception. The keyboard is somewhat difficult to use because of its small size. Also, the floppy drive and the CD-ROM are external peripherals that you'll have to bring with you if you want their functionality or if you want to use the keyboard, mouse or USB ports, which are located on the floppy drive unit. The CD-ROM unit only plugs into the floppy drive unit, so you need both peripherals if you want to run CDs. The CD-ROM requires its own AC power cord and adapter.

The good news is that even with both peripherals, both power adapters and the battery, the SLT weighs only 6 pounds, 9 ounces— less than most full-size notebooks. The unit itself with the battery weighs a mere 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

Our test unit came with a 200 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II processor with MMX technology, a 4G hard drive and 64M of SDRAM. The CD-ROM speed is 20X, and the floppy drive is 1.44M. MetroBook said a 233 MHz Pentium II processor will be available soon, along with an alternative battery that will extend past the front edge of the unit but offer longer life than the current battery's 1.5 hours. The SLT also is available with 128M of SDRAM.

The SLT features 1.1M of video memory with a 128-bit graphics accelerator, an 8.4-inch active matrix display, 16-bit stereo sound and an integrated 56 kilobits/sec fax modem.

All this comes in a package measuring only 9.8 inches long, 6.6 inches wide and 1.6 inches high— about the size of a typical daily planner.

Scoring a 67 on the Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/98 benchmark test, the SLT turned in an average performance for a 200 MHz processor. It scored a 67 for Office Productivity and a 66 for Content Creation.

The SLT's score on our Battmark battery-life test was a bit low, but that is because the battery is small enough to fit into the SLT's casing. It scored a 56.12, running one loop in just less than an hour and a half, matching its advertised life span.

Our user panel gave the SLT a satisfactory score for screen quality because the images aren't as sharp as we've seen on other notebooks, and the protective screen cover creates glare. Audio quality also received a satisfactory score because the stereo speakers sounded like mono speakers. In the keyboard/mouse area, however, we gave the SLT a very good score. We especially liked the touchscreen and built-in stylus. The keyboard is small and can be difficult to use without making mistakes, but for a notebook this size, MetroBook has done an admirable job with size and layout.

One major drawback in the SLT's system design is the fact that its memory is not user-serviceable. There also is no Kensington Microware Ltd. lock on the machine. The system earned a good score for system design because of its small size, light weight and inclusion of two USB ports.

The SLT earned a satisfactory setup/ease-of-use score. It comes with a full set of drivers but lacks application, utility and rescue disks as well as online documentation. It also does not include a quick-start guide.

We were surprised to see the SLT come with a full set of features, including separate keyboard and mouse ports, two USB ports and an IDE port on the floppy drive that can be used to connect a proprietary module, such as an extra hard disk drive or CD-ROM.

MetroBook's technical support has improved noticeably since our last notebook review. We reached a person without having to hold, but when we asked about the SLT, we were transferred to voice-mail recordings both times we called. However, our calls were returned within two hours, and technicians were friendly and knowledgeable.

MetroBook also has improved its support policies, upping the warranty to three years and adding Internet support, an in-house bulletin board system and e-mail updates.

The configuration we received is available on the General Services Administration schedule through Intergraph Federal Systems for $1,999. MetroBook also offers a configuration with a 2.1G hard drive and 32M of SDRAM for $1,899.

The MetroBook SLT earned a final score of 7.50 on our scale of 1 to 10, which is admirable considering that our rating system is designed for full-sized notebooks. (We gave the system full scores for performance and price because we didn't compare it to another system.) The SLT, however, lost points for hard drive size and screen size. Overall, we loved this little daily planner on steroids and hated to give it back.

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