IBM's brilliant Palm Top PC is hard to operate

Personal Computers

March 11, 1996|By STEPHEN MANES

I AM TYPING THIS sentence, not without difficulty, on the smallest full-fledged IBM personal computer around. How small? About the size of a paperback novel.

Designed for the Japanese market, this machine is so far unavailable in the United States. But since it is in many ways the equal of units four times its size, I wanted to see just how much technology can be stuffed into the space of a sandwich.

Answer: plenty. In this almost extravagant collection of cleverness, the infrared port seems downright ho-hum. A "wing jack" for phone connections pops out of the back of the machine at a 45-degree angle.

A drawing pad above the keyboard lets you draw with a standard ballpoint pen and see your scribbling appear on the screen, albeit coarsely. A slot lets you insert a so-called "smart pico flash card" -- tinier than a matchbook at per-megabyte prices that will seem as big as the cards are small.

A liquid crystal display on the front edge of the machine shows battery status and the time of day. There is even a built-in telephone.

Not much is missing here. The 4 3/4 -inch screen displays 640 by 480 pixels in 256 colors, and its tiny pixels make the image seem quite sharp. The Palm Top PC can even record and play back sounds. It does use a fairly slow processor, a 33-megahertz 486SX.

Where the unit falls short is precisely where you might expect: The keyboard is simply too small to type on with comfort and accuracy.

Above the keyboard at the left are a pointing stick and two mouse buttons. The pointing stick is imprecise to the point of being almost unusable, a major disappointment considering that IBM invented the technology. A connector for a standard keyboard and mouse is available.

In Japan, the Palm Top PC comes in three standard configurations. A basic model costs about $1,600, has only four megabytes of memory and lacks a hard drive.

The top of the line, at about $2,750, comes with a 260-megabyte hard drive that occupies the standard PC Card slots, plus an otherwise optional 13-ounce, 1.44-megabyte floppy disk drive and a 14-ounce dock offering keyboard, mouse, monitor, printer, diskette drive and serial ports. All Palm Top PCs come with DOS built in, along with Personaware as the basic software.

With the PC Card hard drive, you can run Windows 95, which I did to write much of this piece with Wordpad. Reinstalling Windows from an outboard CD-ROM drive proved impossible, since the hard drive fills both PC Card slots, leaving no room for other cards.

The five-ounce AC adapter is the tiniest I have seen. The removable lithium-ion battery works for more than two hours at a time and weighs a mere three ounces. But the modem can muster up only 2,400 bits per second, not enough to surf the Web.

Before the Palm Top PC makes its way to our shores, a few improvements would be nice. A wider, thinner machine with a "butterfly" expanding keyboard, bigger keys and a better pointing stick would make fingers happy.

An extra PC Card slot would be welcome, as would an internal hard drive and a better modem.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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