The Mobile Mac

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 hasalways been near and dear to me are the ultralights.

I started with a PowerBook145B in 1993, but after I started traveling with my new toy, Iwished that I had bought the PowerBook Duo 210 instead. The Duo 210was only $100 more than the PowerBook 145B, and the reason I didn't buyit at the time was the inferior keyboard and smaller screen.

Those limitations are the same ones that face buyers of ultralightcomputers today. The simple truth is that you can't ignore physics, andthere is just no way to put a large keyboard and LCD into a smallenclosure, barring some mechanical trickery like IBM's butterflykeyboard on the old IBM ThinkPad701.

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 morethan one and thus rarely compromise. At my desk sits a nice 15" PowerBook with a large, bright screen andample keyboard and palmrest. On the road I carry the smaller andlighter 12" PowerBook,also with an ample keyboard and palmrest, but a much smaller and lessimpressive screen.

At 4.6 lb., however, the 12" PowerBook belongs more to what is knownas 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 thelarge end, but for all its virtues the 12" PowerBook is simply tooheavy to be taken seriously as an ultralight.

The reason for its weight is that the 12" PowerBook is a fullyequipped laptop, leaving nothing to external accessories as trueultralights do. A SuperDrive, a full array of ports, a decent sizebattery, and even a 3-speaker sound system make the smallest PowerBooka no-compromise machine that - but for its small screen - would evenmake 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 mosthovering within a half pound of 3 lb.

Three pounds is also the dividing point between the truly tiny andthe still-comfortable. Under 3 lb. and you are probably looking at a10" 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 evenmore make due with external peripherals.

Last year I went to work at a law firm that was Windows-only, and tomake matters worse, they used scheduling and billing applications thathad no Mac equivalents. Since I carry my computer with me most of thetime and could just use a docking station at work, I decided on anultralight. The one I bought was an IBM ThinkPadX32, which at 3.2 lb. is somewhere on the large side of theultralight spectrum and compensates with a large keyboard, 12" screen,and 5-hour battery.

Like all true ultralights, the X32 emphasizes light weight at theexpense of comfort and convenience. The optical drive is in a mediaslice that attaches to the bottom of the computer.

Ergonomics

While the keyboard is large, the palmrest is rather skimpy. Theindividual 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 computerroughly the same physical size as the 12" PowerBook this is ratherdisappointing, but the design of the case does not allow the keys toextend as far to the edges as Apple's design does.

While the keyboard and palmrest suffer in comparison to Apple'ssmallest machine, the screen is the same size and with conventionalhinges on the bottom section, the screen is positioned higher than thePowerBook's with its trick rear-mounted hinge. Apple's approach isbetter in the tight confines of a coach-class airplane seat, but IBM'sis more comfortable on the neck and shoulders for extended typingsessions.

The rest is just detail as far as presentation and layout goes.Apple uses a touchpad, and IBM uses its eraserhead mouse. Apple'stouchpad is about the best in the business with its two-finger scroll,but I prefer the IBM approach and always have. Still, Apple's touchpadsare 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 theyshould take a lesson from their PC competitors.

We already know that the 12" PowerBook at 4.6 lb. was too heavy forthis 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 asize and weight that beat the PC competition flat. The only problem wasthat it didn't sell.

The X32 reminds me of that Duo 210. By itself it's a very capablelittle computer, with a fast processor, lots of RAM, and a large andspeedy hard drive. Wireless and wired networking are both built-in, andwhile 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 theone on my 12" PowerBook.

The keyboard, like that of the old Duo, is a bit smaller, but alsolike the Duo, it was easy to adapt to. Unlike the old Duo, the X32keyboard has outstanding feel, something IBM ThinkPads have long beenknown for.

Finally, the X32 has a handy little LED in the screen bezel at thetop edge of the open display that, when activated, sheds a soft whitelight on the keyboard below. This was very well-integrated, as it putvery little glare on the screen, which is usually dimmed when used indark conditions requiring a keyboard light. Its not as elegant asApple's backlit keyboards, but those lovely backlit keyboards werenever available on the smallest of Apple portables.

So far we have a machine a bit more than a pound lighter than thePowerBook, but one that sacrifices its optical drive to achieve thatweight. Where the X32 trumps the PowerBook, however, is in hardwareversatility. With only its single battery installed, I can carry a5-hour laptop that is the same size as the 4 hour PowerBook and weighsenough less to make a difference.

Put into perspective, the weight difference between the X32 and the12" PowerBook is the same as the weight difference between the 12"PowerBook and the 15" MacBook Pro - and that weight savings did notrequire cheaper or more delicate materials. The X32 is built in amagnesium frame with a titanium top cover for the LCD. Only the opticaldrive was shed.

Customize It

In exchange for that optical drive, I have the option of connectingeither additional batteries directly or using the media slice for theoptical drive and extra batteries. This flexibility allows youto configure exactly what you need for the environment, bringing onlythe features and capabilities you need and leaving behind those youdon't. The flip side is that if you don't have something with you andfind that you need it, well, it just isn't there.

As an example, I'll look at the typical business trip, which is whatmachines like the X32 are made for. I attended a 4-day conference inSan Antonio and could configure the X32 various ways for that role. Onthe 2-1/2 hour flight, I could clip the X32 to the media slice (5pounds total) and watch a DVD movie, or, to save weight, I could rip afew movies to my hard drive and leave the media slice at home (totalweight 3.2 lb.). For a longer flight, the media slice has a slot toaccept a second battery of the same type as the main battery, makingfor a 10-hour laptop with an optical drive (total weight 6 lb.).

For the conference itself, the 3.2 lb. base machine might besufficient, but since I'll be doing all-day sessions, I would clip theauxiliary battery to the bottom, bringing my capacity up to 9 hours(total weight 4.0 lb.). Both the media slice and the auxiliary batteryalso make the X32 more comfortable to type on with their flip downlegs, just like the ones I used to love on that old PowerBook 145B.

Another benefit is that with multiple batteries plugged into thelaptop all of those batteries charge together when you plug into ACpower at the end of the day.

In my tests, battery life can be stretched even more than what IBMclaims, unlike Apple, where it's a struggle to reach the advertisedbattery life (call it corporate philosophy). My 12" PowerBook is ratedat 5 hours per charge, but with the screen dim and the processor set toreduced, I can typically squeeze four hours per charge - sometimes 4.5if 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 managedto squeeze 6.5 hours from the main cell alone and 11 hours from themain cell/auxiliary battery combination. That's some serious stayingpower in a small and light package.

The sad part is that Apple practically invented the ultralight withits Duo series, and for a few years its machines were far ahead oftheir competition. The 12" PowerBook again raised the bar as thesmallest and lightest full-featured laptop available for a time, butthe competition caught up, and Apple has abandoned that segment aswell.

The MiniBook

Here is what I would like to see: A machine of similar size to the12" PowerBook or even the 13" MacBook, butthinner, perhaps 3/4". It can be that thin because it will not have anoptical 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) andthe ability to mount a second one in the media base. Of course, likethe IBM it will be smart enough to drain any auxiliary batterybefore it starts sucking down the main cell, which makes it easyto swap out spent cells from the media bay without powering down andinterrupting work in progress.

I'm sure Apple would follow their current practice and install anintegrated video system with shared memory, and for this type ofmachine I'd buy it anyway. As it is now, there is no such machine, andas a result frequent travelers are forced to either carry a machinethat is larger, heavier, more feature-laden than they want or need - ormove over to the Windows world and buy an ultralight without thebenefits of OS X.

Take the PowerBook

I don't use my X32 much anymore. Most of the time it sits in adrawer while I carry my 12" PowerBook with me. On a business trip,however, the temptation is always there to take it out and leave thePowerBook at home. I don't only because of OS X and how mucheasier it makes actually using the computer.

Yes, the X32 is better hardware for the business trip setting, butdealing with the unreliable suspend or slow hibernation in Windows, theinstability that comes from some virus that my scanners missed, orplain, ordinary system crashes make me carry the extra weight of thePowerBook plus its extra batteries and chargers.

With the X32, I could just bring the computer with the auxiliarycell clipped to the bottom and get almost the same battery life as thePowerBook and all 3 of my batteries - and not have to bother with anexternal charger to recharge everything overnight.

IBM (now Lenovo) has been making ultralights for almost a decadenow, with each new version incorporating lessons learned from travelersover time. The new X60s, for example, has a long-life main battery thatextends the footprint back a half inch and gives a full 8-hour runtimeon its own. Attach the small auxiliary battery and that goes up to 11hours.

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 atablet, which is not the direction I'm hoping for. I can't read my ownhandwriting, so I doubt any recognition software could. Likewise, atablet does nothing to speed up typing, though it does make forcomfortable movie viewing on those long flights.

Time will only tell what Apple brings to market next. With thecompany's philosophy of ignoring business users in recent years, I'mnot holding my breath. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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