New mininotebook computers take the ache out of lugging electronics Bantamweight: This category of PC offers Windows 98 performance in $1,500-to-$2,300 range.

August 03, 1998|By David Stein | David Stein,San Francisco Chronicle

If you've been looking for a portable computer that you can carry around without getting a hernia and buy without refinancing your house, you're in luck.

A new category of personal computer called the mininotebook offers Windows 98 performance in a package that's smaller and lighter than a conventional notebook PC but bigger and more user-friendly than hand-held PCs with their tiny keyboards.

The main contenders in this bantamweight class include the Sony 505 ($2,000), Toshiba Libretto ($1,700), Hitachi VisionBook Traveler ($1,650), Mitsubishi Amity ($1,500) and Panasonic CF-M31 ($2,300). All are Windows-based machines, which means they will run most applications that a desktop PC does.

The Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Panasonic machines measure about 9 inches by 7 inches - 60 percent of the size of a regular notebook. The Sony is bigger, but it's the thinnest of the bunch. All the units weigh less than 3 pounds.

Because you can't alter physics, some trade-offs are necessary to reduce size. The most important sacrifices are:

* The screen, which measures 7 or 8 inches diagonally (10.4 inches for the Sony), compared with 12 inches in a regular notebook.

* The keyboard, which is about 90 percent of the size of a regular notebook's.

* Mininotebooks have smaller batteries, typically offering less than two hours of use.

* A CD-ROM drive is not included. An external drive is available for about $300.

Most mininotebooks also have slower chips than full-sized models. And they don't come with modems, though you easily can add a credit-card-sized modem.

Inconveniences notwithstanding, mininotebooks are ideal for business travelers who use their PCs for correspondence, spreadsheets, e-mail and the Internet.

"The fact that they are under 3 pounds and are full Windows systems makes them very attractive to real road warriors," said Tim Bajarin, a Silicon Valley research analyst.

Whether mininotebooks will catch on in the mainstream market is debatable. "They've got a lot of people going 'ooh' and 'ah,' but whether that translates into 'Ooh, here's my credit card' remains to be seen," said Dataquest analyst Mike McGuire.

In fact, mininotebooks soon could be eclipsed by a new generation of devices bigger than hand-held computers but smaller than mininotebooks.

Called "PC companions," these under-2-pound contenders use Windows CE, the streamlined version of Windows.

Early entries in this new class include the NEC MobilePro 750C and the Phenom Ultra from LG (formerly Goldstar), both going for $899.

PC companions look like full-size notebooks that have been cut in half length-wise. The color screen is about half the height of a full-size notebook display. The keyboard also is small. But it's still large enough for touch-typing without getting instant arthritis.

Most PC companions come with built-in modems. And their batteries last for up to eight hours.

Don't expect PC companions to give you everything you get even with a mininotebook. You can't add applications.

Pub Date: 8/3/98

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