Sharp's ultralight PC: A good compromise

Readers who share our quest for the perfect ultralight computer will want to take a look at Sharp Systems of America's new PC-UM20. No, perfection has not been attained. But judging from the results of our in-house "taste test," quite a few users will find this featherweight to be the most attractive compromise currently available.

The PC-UM20 weighs less than 3 pounds, and its slim, attractive silver case is just a tad more than a half-inch thick. Despite the unit's small form, it offers a generously sized keyboard and a clear, bright 15-inch LCD display. The display employs Sharp's proprietary anti-glare technology, and we found it very readable under conditions that would ordinarily have caused us to close the lid for a break.

Some of our users found the keyboard to be a bit mushy for their liking, but that's a personal thing. Although the keyboard does have a soft touch, causing more than a few typos when we first started testing the unit, we soon grew accustomed to it.

The keyboard is also unusual because it is pushed down by the display when you close the top. This means the keyboard can be comfortably raised when the display is open, allowing for a 3mm keystroke, yet the thickness of the notebook is kept to a minimum when the lid is closed.

We have no gripes with the PC-UM20's performance. It's not the fastest notebook we've seen, but Intel Corp.'s 750 MHz Pentium III Processor-M — combined with the standard 256M of memory — exceeds most on-the-road demands. Unfortunately, if that's not enough memory, you're stuck because the PC-UM20's system memory is not expandable.

Light as it is, the PC-UM20 has a battery with enough juice to last for more than two hours, a decent but not stellar performance. (The battery is rated for three hours, but in our experience, the battery lasted about 20 percent less time than that.) Sharp also offers an optional extended-life battery ($349) that is rated to provide nine hours of operation.

Overall, the PC-UM20 is well constructed and feels solid. Thanks to the unit's aluminum alloy case and solid construction, the PC-UM20 passed our impromptu — meaning accidental — 3-foot drop test with no loss of functionality and only a crumpled corner.

At first glance, the PC-UM20 seems to carry a very attractive price tag. But the "what-a-steal!" excitement soon fades when you realize that it does not include built-in Wi-Fi support, nor is a CD drive provided. Before comparing prices to other ultralight PCs, consider that Sharp's optional CD drive costs $229, and to connect to a wireless network, you also need to buy a client adapter.

What's more, the PC-UM20's lack of built-in Wi-Fi support means that you'll have to fill up the unit's single PC Card slot to make the connection.

We did, however, like Sharp's use of an optional docking "bar" instead of a docking station. Most other ultralights are docked by sliding them into a base station that is slightly larger than the notebook, but the PC-UM20 has a small port on the left side into which the docking bar — about the size of a notebook battery — is plugged. The docking bar offers a parallel port, a serial port, two USB ports and a VGA port for an external modem.

The only drawback was that the rubber plug that must be removed to access the port is not attached to the body and is easy to misplace. The same is true of the plugs that seal the modem and Ethernet ports. If all you want is to connect the optional USB CD drive or floppy drive, however, you don't have to use the docking bar because a single built-in USB port is also provided.

We also like Sharp's strategy for delivering the operating system of choice to users: When you first boot up the PC-UM20, you simply answer a prompt asking you to choose from Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000 or Windows XP Professional.

The bottom line: We really like the PC-UM20's sleek, light form, clear display and usable keyboard. The price tag is also attractive, but only if you don't need to buy a CD drive or a wireless adapter.

***

Notebook specs

CPU — Intel Corp. Pentium III Processor-M.

System memory — 256M SDRAM (not expandable).

Display — 12.1 inch active-matrix color.

Resolution — 1,024 x 768.

Graphics adapter — ATI Technologies Inc.'s Rage Mobility.

Hard drive — 20G IDE

PC Card slots — One Type II.

Weight — 2.9 pounds.

Dimensions — 11.1 inches by 9.13 inches by 0.65 inches.

REPORT CARD

Sharp PC-UM20

Score: B+

Sharp Systems of America

(800) 237-4277

www.sharp-usa.com

The Sharp PC-UM20 costs $1,699.

A well-designed ultralight notebook PC with a sharp display, the PC-UM20 is a great value if you don't need a CD drive or wireless networking. If you need to buy those options, the total price tag may be more than some of the competition's ultralights.

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