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Mighty Minis

The newest mininotebooks pack a powerful punch.

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

Caught between a rock and a hard place because your laptop's too heavy to haul around and your palmtop doesn't provide enough performance for road trips? Or maybe those airline tray tables in coach class are too small to accommodate your smart high-end notebook with its 12-inch display.

A handful of computer manufacturers are filling the gap with a new product category called "mininotebooks." Portable and lightweight, they're ideal for working on standard office applications while out of the office. Using Windows 95 or 98, they perform the same basic functions as your desktop PC and are compact and slender enough to fit into the smallest briefcase. While they by no means replace high-end notebooks, the latest mininotebooks are fully functional machines equipped with powerful multimedia technology.

In terms of design, these new additions to the computer market are both elegant and slim. Among the newest mininotebooks are Sony's colorful models, which feature a trendy purple and gray magnesium casing. And Sony's VAIO 505G and 505GX models are a mere one-inch thick.

The biggest drawback of the latest mininotebooks is their price. But when you consider that your business may require the kind of benefits they offer, and that their 2- to 3-pound weight means you can easily bring them with you to lunch, to the beach or aboard a plane, their current average prices of $2,000 to $2,500 may be worth the investment.

Low-power technology is behind the hefty prices these mobile word processors command. The Toshiba Libretto 70CT, which replaces the company's previous 50CT model, uses Intel's 120 MHz Pentium processor with MMX technology to conserve power, while an optional lithium ion battery provides an additional four hours of computing time.

"We developed our low-power chip to give users longer battery life," says Jeff McCrea, product marketing manager for Intel's mobile and handheld products group. "While standard-sized notebooks run at 233 MHz and 266 MHz, you can run minis at 120 MHz and use the same applications, while conserving battery power."

Most mininotebooks have a 1GB or 1.5GB hard drive that provides plenty of storage to run numerous applications, and their average 16MB to 24MB RAM accommodates even the most complex spreadsheets. The Hitachi VisionBook Traveler can be upgraded to 40MB RAM, and it features an 8.4-inch screen that's wide enough to view the full width of a typical word processing page. The standard version has three Type II PC card slots, or can accommodate one Type II and one Type III PC card.

The keyboards on mininotebooks are smaller than those of standard notebooks, but decidedly larger than those on palmtops. Most feature up to 84 keys (standard desktop keyboards have 104 keys). Almost all mininotebooks also have ports for connecting a desktop keyboard and monitor--a useful feature when you're back in the office.

The average built-in display measures 8 inches. At press time, the largest screen on a mininotebook was the 11.3-inch display on Sharp's Actius A100 UltraLite Notebook. Most mininotebooks also have a port for connecting a standard mouse in case you don't want to rely on the machine's built-in pointing device. The Toshiba Libretto 70CT and 100CT models offer a small pointing device built into the inside of the lid, with two clicker buttons on the side. The mouse stick on Mistubishi's AMiTY CN is located in the center of the keyboard, with clicker buttons below the space bar.

Ports expand the capabilities of mininotebooks, allowing you to connect peripherals, such as printers and digital cameras. Both Toshiba models offer an optional Enhanced Port Replicator, which is a bar-like device that contains all the ports for the mininotebook and snaps onto the back of the machine. This way you can hook your peripherals to the replicator simultaneously and remove them when necessary, instead of attaching each connector individually every time. Here's a list of the ports and standard interfaces featured on the five models in our chart:

Hitachi: Serial, parallel, infrared and video-out.

Mitsubishi: Serial, parallel, infrared, high-speed serial, video, and PS/2 mouse or keyboard.

Sharp: Serial, parallel, infrared, printer, mouse and keyboard.

Sony: Serial, parallel, infrared, monitor, and PS/2 mouse or keyboard.

Toshiba: Serial, parallel, video, and PS/2 mouse or keyboard.


Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.

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This article was originally published in the November 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Mighty Minis.

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