Slim Is In

The skinny on the latest generation of mininotebook computers
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the October 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Taking most of your office along on your travels is getting easier and more comfortable. With super-intelligent handheld PCs to organize your days on the road and ultra-thin, dual-display portable computers replacing cumbersome video equipment, mininotebooks are beginning to challenge their bigger brothers, those 6- to 8-pound full-sized notebooks, with the kind of high-performance and multimedia features you'll find in the heavier models, but without the weight.

Tipping the scales at between 2 and 4 pounds and measuring an average of 9 inches by 6 inches, the newest mininotebooks pack plenty of memory, hard-drive space and horsepower into their small frames. What's most surprising is that these little gems have audio and dual-display video capabilities, although you may not get quite the crisp quality found in larger models. They also have ports for connecting peripherals such as floppy drives, slots for PC cards and internal modems. Toshiba's Portege 3110CT has an optional external PC card and CD-ROM drive port. One model, Sony's PCG-C1X PictureBook, even has a built-in digital camera.

As for slenderness, the latest generation of mininotebooks proves skinny profiles aren't just for movie stars. The majority of the new models are barely an inch thick, so slipping them into an over-the-shoulder tote or slimline briefcase means less bulk and more room for other items. Their casings are attractive and sturdy; the casings on Toshiba's Portege 3110CT and Dell's Latitude CS are made of magnesium alloy with a gray lid.

As high-performance as some full-sized notebooks and desktops, mininotebooks run Windows 98 and are powered by conventional Intel Pentium or Pentium II processors that range from 233 MHz to 400 MHz. RAM is a very adequate 64MB, and most hard drives on mininotebooks store between 3GB and 6GB.

Like other portables, they run on multihour batteries and can plug in to an outlet. Optional equipment includes external CD-ROM drives, CD-RW drives and battery chargers. Fujitsu's LifeBook B112 options include a battery recharge adaptor that plugs in to a car's cigarette lighter or the headset outlet on an airplane. Fujitsu's other optional equipment includes a converter for TV presentations and a presentation audio system.

There's a profusion of ports in these small laptops. Sharp's Actius PC-A250 supplies two built-in USB ports, a VGA external monitor port and an IrDA infrared port. The unit comes packaged with an external port replicator and a floppy drive combo that includes a serial port, a parallel port and a PS/2 mouse/keyboard port for fast and convenient desktop connections. Toshiba's Portege 3110CT is similarly equipped, with two USB ports, a parallel port, an SVGA video port, an infrared port, an RJ-45 port, a high-speed serial port, a network adaptor port and a PC card slot.

Docking a notebook into your desktop to transfer data can save a lot of time once you're back in the office, and Dell's Latitude CS mininotebook docks directly with the company's Latitude PCs. If you have Dell's desktops in several different offices or locations, the mininotebook will be compatible with them all. Also useful is Dell's dual display for conducting video presentations using the mininotebook and projecting images on both a separate projector and the laptop's screen.

If you're one of those people who can't resist taking pictures wherever you are, or you need a visual record on the road to send back to the office, check out Sony's PCG-C1X PictureBook mininotebook. Atop the screen is a built-in, digital 360-degree swiveling camera that snaps pictures or records up to 60 seconds of video, then transfers images directly into the computer for storage, printing or e-mailing.

Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for nine years.

Better Than Ever

Mininotebooks have had their detractors because of a few serious drawbacks that inevitably come with a reduction in computer size. With these latest models, however, manufacturers are attempting to solve those problems.

Among the drawbacks in earlier mininotebooks was an undersized screen, and while a few new products still feature small displays (around 8 inches), many models today feature bright, nonglare 11.3-inch or 13.3-inch LCD screens.

Keyboards can be tricky on small computers, but mininotebook keys far outdistance the tiny keys on handheld models. Sony's PCG-C1X PictureBook mini, like many other models, has a 90 percent-sized keyboard. In fact, most have almost full-sized keys and keyboards, with dedicated keys for Windows functions. Some mininotebooks have programmable keys and provide anywhere from 81 to 87 keys. To maintain the units' slimness, many minis today feature keys that are noticably flatter than the raised keys on traditional boards--but despite that, they still feel about the same as those of a standard keyboard. You may even find your desktop keyboard clumsy after getting used to a mini's smaller size.

Pointing and mouse devices are other features some users find frustrating on small computers. Today's mininotebooks answer that complaint by providing a full-sized touchpad and/or an eraser-head or stylus pointing device.

Batteries are the lifeblood of laptops, and high-powered mininotebooks gobble up a lot of energy. Lithium ion batteries are the batteries of choice, and most are rechargeable. Depending on the model, one to four hours is the average amount of time you can use the unit without electricity, unless you add a second battery, which can increase usage up to an extra five hours.

The principal disadvantage of today's little laptops is their big price: The word "mini" definitely doesn't refer to their cost. In fact, typically the lighter the weight, the heavier the burden on your budget. The majority are well over $2,000; the exceptions are Fujitsu's LifeBook B112, at $1,599 (street), and Ricoh's Magio, at $1,299 (street).

Yet more and more entrepreneurs are deciding they can stomach mininotebooks' steep cost for the convenience and usability they provide. Wonderful little travelers, today's mininotebooks combine just about all the features you need as a mobile professional, and in the next two years, they could well usurp the heavier laptops.

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