Why I Want Apple to Make an Ultralight Notebook Computer
- 2006.06.29 - Tip Jar
I've been a laptop junky for some time now, and one type that has always been near and dear to me are the ultralights.
I started with a PowerBook 145B in 1993, but after I started traveling with my new toy, I wished that I had bought the PowerBook Duo 210 instead. The Duo 210 was only $100 more than the PowerBook 145B, and the reason I didn't buy it at the time was the inferior keyboard and smaller screen.
Those limitations are the same ones that face buyers of ultralight computers today. The simple truth is that you can't ignore physics, and there is just no way to put a large keyboard and LCD into a small enclosure, barring some mechanical trickery like IBM's butterfly keyboard on the old IBM ThinkPad 701.
I've gone back and forth over the years between full-size, compact, and ultralight laptops, and I'm at the point where I can afford more than one and thus rarely compromise. At my desk sits a nice 15" PowerBook with a large, bright screen and ample keyboard and palmrest. On the road I carry the smaller and lighter 12" PowerBook, also with an ample keyboard and palmrest, but a much smaller and less impressive screen.
At 4.6 lb., however, the 12" PowerBook belongs more to what is known as the "thin and light" rather than the ultralight class. True, the 12" PowerBook is at the small end of its class, with machines like the 15" PowerBook and MacBook Pro at the large end, but for all its virtues the 12" PowerBook is simply too heavy to be taken seriously as an ultralight.
The reason for its weight is that the 12" PowerBook is a fully equipped laptop, leaving nothing to external accessories as true ultralights do. A SuperDrive, a full array of ports, a decent size battery, and even a 3-speaker sound system make the smallest PowerBook a no-compromise machine that - but for its small screen - would even make an excellent desktop replacement.
The point of a real ultralight, however, is not to be full-featured, but to be, well, ultra-light.
Ultralight Windows Notebooks
Ultralights in the PC world range from 2 to 4 lb., with most hovering within a half pound of 3 lb.
Three pounds is also the dividing point between the truly tiny and the still-comfortable. Under 3 lb. and you are probably looking at a 10" screen, while over 3 lb. will generally get you a 12" display. There are exceptions in both directions, of course.
Many ultralights these days have built-in optical drives, while even more make due with external peripherals.
Last year I went to work at a law firm that was Windows-only, and to make matters worse, they used scheduling and billing applications that had no Mac equivalents. Since I carry my computer with me most of the time and could just use a docking station at work, I decided on an ultralight. The one I bought was an IBM ThinkPad X32, which at 3.2 lb. is somewhere on the large side of the ultralight spectrum and compensates with a large keyboard, 12" screen, and 5-hour battery.
Like all true ultralights, the X32 emphasizes light weight at the expense of comfort and convenience. The optical drive is in a media slice that attaches to the bottom of the computer.
While the keyboard is large, the palmrest is rather skimpy. The individual keys on that keyboard are full sized, but the enter, backspace, and shift keys on the right side of the keyboard are small, with backspace barely larger than a regular letter key. On a computer roughly the same physical size as the 12" PowerBook this is rather disappointing, but the design of the case does not allow the keys to extend as far to the edges as Apple's design does.
While the keyboard and palmrest suffer in comparison to Apple's smallest machine, the screen is the same size and with conventional hinges on the bottom section, the screen is positioned higher than the PowerBook's with its trick rear-mounted hinge. Apple's approach is better in the tight confines of a coach-class airplane seat, but IBM's is more comfortable on the neck and shoulders for extended typing sessions.
The rest is just detail as far as presentation and layout goes. Apple uses a touchpad, and IBM uses its eraserhead mouse. Apple's touchpad is about the best in the business with its two-finger scroll, but I prefer the IBM approach and always have. Still, Apple's touchpads are good enough that I can tolerate using them.
Apple's 'Books vs. Windows Ultralights
Using my IBM X32 as an example (new ultralights are even better), I'd like to show where Apple's laptops are superior - and where they should take a lesson from their PC competitors.
We already know that the 12" PowerBook at 4.6 lb. was too heavy for this class, and its MacBook replacement is heavier still at 5.2 lb. Looking back to that Duo 210 in 1993, Apple had the right idea, with a size and weight that beat the PC competition flat. The only problem was that it didn't sell.
The X32 reminds me of that Duo 210. By itself it's a very capable little computer, with a fast processor, lots of RAM, and a large and speedy hard drive. Wireless and wired networking are both built-in, and while limiting, the 12" screen is large enough to get the job done. Strangely, the 12" panel on my X32 is a good 15-20% brighter than the one on my 12" PowerBook.
The keyboard, like that of the old Duo, is a bit smaller, but also like the Duo, it was easy to adapt to. Unlike the old Duo, the X32 keyboard has outstanding feel, something IBM ThinkPads have long been known for.
Finally, the X32 has a handy little LED in the screen bezel at the top edge of the open display that, when activated, sheds a soft white light on the keyboard below. This was very well-integrated, as it put very little glare on the screen, which is usually dimmed when used in dark conditions requiring a keyboard light. Its not as elegant as Apple's backlit keyboards, but those lovely backlit keyboards were never available on the smallest of Apple portables.
So far we have a machine a bit more than a pound lighter than the PowerBook, but one that sacrifices its optical drive to achieve that weight. Where the X32 trumps the PowerBook, however, is in hardware versatility. With only its single battery installed, I can carry a 5-hour laptop that is the same size as the 4 hour PowerBook and weighs enough less to make a difference.
Put into perspective, the weight difference between the X32 and the 12" PowerBook is the same as the weight difference between the 12" PowerBook and the 15" MacBook Pro - and that weight savings did not require cheaper or more delicate materials. The X32 is built in a magnesium frame with a titanium top cover for the LCD. Only the optical drive was shed.
In exchange for that optical drive, I have the option of connecting either additional batteries directly or using the media slice for the optical drive and extra batteries. This flexibility allows you to configure exactly what you need for the environment, bringing only the features and capabilities you need and leaving behind those you don't. The flip side is that if you don't have something with you and find that you need it, well, it just isn't there.
As an example, I'll look at the typical business trip, which is what machines like the X32 are made for. I attended a 4-day conference in San Antonio and could configure the X32 various ways for that role. On the 2-1/2 hour flight, I could clip the X32 to the media slice (5 pounds total) and watch a DVD movie, or, to save weight, I could rip a few movies to my hard drive and leave the media slice at home (total weight 3.2 lb.). For a longer flight, the media slice has a slot to accept a second battery of the same type as the main battery, making for a 10-hour laptop with an optical drive (total weight 6 lb.).
For the conference itself, the 3.2 lb. base machine might be sufficient, but since I'll be doing all-day sessions, I would clip the auxiliary battery to the bottom, bringing my capacity up to 9 hours (total weight 4.0 lb.). Both the media slice and the auxiliary battery also make the X32 more comfortable to type on with their flip down legs, just like the ones I used to love on that old PowerBook 145B.
Another benefit is that with multiple batteries plugged into the laptop all of those batteries charge together when you plug into AC power at the end of the day.
In my tests, battery life can be stretched even more than what IBM claims, unlike Apple, where it's a struggle to reach the advertised battery life (call it corporate philosophy). My 12" PowerBook is rated at 5 hours per charge, but with the screen dim and the processor set to reduced, I can typically squeeze four hours per charge - sometimes 4.5 if my work is slow enough to allow the display to rest.
On the X32 with the screen dim and the processor at its slowest (it's a 1.8 GHz Centrino that can run as slow as 200 MHz), I've managed to squeeze 6.5 hours from the main cell alone and 11 hours from the main cell/auxiliary battery combination. That's some serious staying power in a small and light package.
The sad part is that Apple practically invented the ultralight with its Duo series, and for a few years its machines were far ahead of their competition. The 12" PowerBook again raised the bar as the smallest and lightest full-featured laptop available for a time, but the competition caught up, and Apple has abandoned that segment as well.
Here is what I would like to see: A machine of similar size to the 12" PowerBook or even the 13" MacBook, but thinner, perhaps 3/4". It can be that thin because it will not have an optical drive, placing that accessory in a 1/2" or 3/4" thick base.
This MiniBook will have a 5 hour battery (4 hours real world) and the ability to mount a second one in the media base. Of course, like the IBM it will be smart enough to drain any auxiliary battery before it starts sucking down the main cell, which makes it easy to swap out spent cells from the media bay without powering down and interrupting work in progress.
I'm sure Apple would follow their current practice and install an integrated video system with shared memory, and for this type of machine I'd buy it anyway. As it is now, there is no such machine, and as a result frequent travelers are forced to either carry a machine that is larger, heavier, more feature-laden than they want or need - or move over to the Windows world and buy an ultralight without the benefits of OS X.
Take the PowerBook
I don't use my X32 much anymore. Most of the time it sits in a drawer while I carry my 12" PowerBook with me. On a business trip, however, the temptation is always there to take it out and leave the PowerBook at home. I don't only because of OS X and how much easier it makes actually using the computer.
Yes, the X32 is better hardware for the business trip setting, but dealing with the unreliable suspend or slow hibernation in Windows, the instability that comes from some virus that my scanners missed, or plain, ordinary system crashes make me carry the extra weight of the PowerBook plus its extra batteries and chargers.
With the X32, I could just bring the computer with the auxiliary cell clipped to the bottom and get almost the same battery life as the PowerBook and all 3 of my batteries - and not have to bother with an external charger to recharge everything overnight.
IBM (now Lenovo) has been making ultralights for almost a decade now, with each new version incorporating lessons learned from travelers over time. The new X60s, for example, has a long-life main battery that extends the footprint back a half inch and gives a full 8-hour runtime on its own. Attach the small auxiliary battery and that goes up to 11 hours.
I'm still waiting for Apple to get back into the ultralight market, and I think I'll be waiting a very long time.
The rumor mill suggests that the next small Apple portable will be a tablet, which is not the direction I'm hoping for. I can't read my own handwriting, so I doubt any recognition software could. Likewise, a tablet does nothing to speed up typing, though it does make for comfortable movie viewing on those long flights.
Time will only tell what Apple brings to market next. With the company's philosophy of ignoring business users in recent years, I'm not holding my breath.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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