1-pound PC easy to carry, but it has flaws

January 02, 1991|By Peter H. Lewis | Peter H. Lewis,New York Times News Service

This column is being written, quite delicately and precisely, on a Poqet PC, the best evidence yet to refute the saying "You can't take it with you."

The Poqet is a 1-pound, MS-DOS-compatible PC that has been miniaturized to fit into a jacket pocket. Hence the name.

It is about 9 inches wide, 4 inches deep and less than 1 inch thick. About the only thing that is not small is the price. At $1,995 it is, pound for pound, one of the most expensive PCs on the market.

The Poqet PC has been available for about a year, but officials of the Poqet Computer Corp., stunned by disappointing sales and mixed reviews, put manufacturing on hold last year.

They revamped the PC to improve its keyboard, making it more responsive to the touch.

The version we are testing is a substantial improvement over the initial keyboard, but it is still not ideal, and it probably never will be, given the size constraints.

Poqet is also planning to increase the memory capacity of the PC, up to a maximum of four megabytes from the current 512 kilobytes. That will make it more attractive to people who want to manipulate spreadsheets and other memory-hungry applications.

More changes are in the works, too. Poqet officials recently announced a strategic partnership with the Infonet Services Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

Infonet is an international communications network that provides electronic mail, facsimile, telex and online information services to its customers.

Though it was initially touted as a lightweight portable for all users, the Poqet is now being described by its developers as a "communications tool" for traveling business users.

Later this year, Poqet plans to sell a "Poqetnet" product, essentially the Poqet PC along with a 2,400-baud modem and Infonet software, for $1,995, effectively lowering the price by a few hundred dollars.

Any portable PC equipped with a modem can be used as a communications terminal, so there is nothing unusual about the recent Poqet announcement, other than the size and weight of the computer involved.

The only practical advantage we can see is that people would be more likely to carry a Poqet than a heavier computer on trips.

"If people don't take it with them, it's not useful," said Stav Prodromou, vice chairman of Poqet.

Still, the Poqet is a technological tour de force.

It is hard to imagine a computer so light and small that it can be tucked inside a sweat sock, stowed in a flight bag and forgotten, except when it is needed.

It runs for days on standard AA batteries. The power-management features shut down the 80C88 microprocessor whenever it is not needed, even between keystrokes. The battery technology is so impressive that it makes all other laptop batteries seem hopelessly archaic.

For a writer accustomed to conventional laptop and notebook computers, the experience of writing on a Poqet is a continual series of surprises, both pleasant and otherwise.

Though its size is its biggest advantage, it is also the biggest disadvantage. The unpleasant surprises are all direct byproducts of the miniaturization: The keyboard is too small and quirky to allow fluid touch-typing; the screen is tiny and difficult to read, especially in low light; and there is no room for either a floppy- or hard-disk drive. Instead, the Poqet PC uses solid-state RAM and ROM cards.

Even with the improved keyboard, the Poqet will drive touch typists crazy until they get the hang of nailing each key head on. Even after a great deal of practice, it is difficult to write a complete sentence without making at least a couple of errors.

The screen, which is not back-lighted, does not lend itself well to situations in which the user cannot control ambient light, which means most of the places where the Poqet would be most useful.

On a technological level, the Poqet is a marvel. We wanted so much to like this computer, but the trade-offs in performance and price ultimately were too great. It seems to come down to this: The strengths of the machine are most apparent when it is not being used, and the drawbacks are most apparent when it is working. If the price were substantially lower, say, under $1,000, it would be easier to recommend.

So who is the ideal Poqet user? Anyone to whom light weight and MS-DOS compatibility are more important than eyesight and typing precision. And keep in mind that when equipped with a modem, the Poquet also becomes a wonderful communications device.

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