Mitsubishi portable won't go far

Personal Computers

November 17, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

WHAT comes to mind when somebody mentions "a hot computer"? Probably not a machine whose manual advises against using it "directly on your lap because it can generate heat enough to cause low-temperature burns" and notes that if you try "to use a smoking or unusually noisy computer system, this could result in a fire or electric shock to you."

According to a product manager for the Mobile Computing Division of Mitsubishi Electronics America, a unit of the Mitsubishi Electric Industrial Corp., those dire admonitions are meant to apply only to the original Japanese versions of the company's small new Amity CN.

The American model comes with the warnings, but it is designed to dissipate heat more readily. Although the unit can get fairly warm, my tests confirm that it is not much good as a heating pad, barbecue smoker or popcorn popper.

It is not all that hot as a portable computer, either.

The Amity is the latest entry in the short parade of lightweight computers that run plain old Windows 95 programs. For now, you can find them only at Egghead stores for about $2,000, but Mitsubishi plans wider distribution early next year.

At just under 2 1/2 pounds (not counting the 13-ounce AC adapter) and 9.3 inches by 6.7 inches, about the size of a trade paperback book, the Amity is bigger and heavier than the Toshiba Libretto, which costs about $500 less.

But unlike the Libretto, it comes with not one but two PC Card slots built in, along with keyboard, microphone and audio input jacks, and its serial, parallel and video ports are integral rather than on a detachable part.

And, unlike its bigger brothers, it should still be usable on an airplane coach-class tray table when the jerk in front of you decides to tilt his seat way, way back.

It is also somewhat easier to type on than the Libretto, with letter keys about 80 percent as wide as standard ones. But the arrow keys are tiny, and the regular keys are so flat that they encourage errors. The pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard feels a bit too short, and the palm rest a bit too shallow.

The 7.5-inch screen is smaller than you might expect from a unit this big, and it is a dual-scan model rather than the sharper, brighter active-matrix designs that are fast becoming standard. It is acceptable but exhibits the vapor-trail and disappearing cursor effects common among its brethren.

The Amity includes an infrared port and comes with an outboard floppy disk drive that weighs about 13 ounces with its parallel-port cable. An outboard CD-ROM player, at extra cost, will be virtually mandatory for installing programs.

Rookie mistakes

This is the first computer Mitsubishi has offered in the consumer market, and some rookie mistakes are painfully obvious.

The worst have to do with the battery, which the user is not supposed to remove. In the "maximum power saving" mode the juice is supposed to last an hour and half, but in my tests the machine ran less than an hour before turning itself off, and using a power-hungry PC Card modem will lessen that pitifully short time.

A full recharge takes an agonizing three hours, but you can at least use the machine while it is charging.

In the portable computer world, nonremovable batteries went out with the buggy whip, but the only available solution for this Amity failing is an add-on battery that attaches to the back of the machine. I was unable to test one, but the company rates it at six hours of extra life in the maximum power-saving mode.

Unfortunately, that battery costs $385 and weighs a pound and a half. Suddenly, a full-size lightweight notebook, like the IBM 560, begins to look like a much better option.

The Amity has a 133-megahertz Pentium processor, 16 megabytes of random access memory (expandable to 48 megabytes) and a 1.2-gigabyte hard drive, but it may not seem as speedy as the specifications suggest.

To baby the battery, the power-management software typically throttles back the processor speed to three-eighths or one-half the normal speed. That software lacks separate settings for battery and AC operation and can be adjusted only when you reboot the machine, so you are likely to suffer either with reduced speed on AC power or reduced life on battery power.

Another goof is the omission of even a single piece of hardware documentation on the hard drive. I am no fan of online manuals, but they make sense for portable machines that get carried far from the printed information. One more mistake: The plug from the power adapter fits neatly into the microphone and headphone jacks as well as the spot meant for it. Inserting the plug into the wrong jack seems to do no damage, but it would have been smarter to make it impossible.

Customer service?

As a newcomer on the computer scene, Mitsubishi remains an unknown quantity when it comes to customer service. It does not bode well that the toll-free number is found only online, under the Windows control panel's System icon, not in any of the manuals, which repeatedly refer to "the place where you bought your Amity CN." My one attempt to get help was not helpful. At least the box includes all 22 of the Windows 95 installation disks; competitors often include only labels.

With replaceable batteries and decent power management, a machine this size and weight might have been an interesting alternative to Windows computers both bigger and smaller.

But with lots of lightweight competition already available and machines of all sorts on the horizon, the Amity is a disappointment, at least until America gets a model that can fry eggs, pop corn and communicate through smoke signals.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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