A Notebook That's Kind to Fingers
Technology writers love tiny notebook computers. In part, it's because we are fascinated to see so much computer power in a small package. It's also because many of us spend a lot of time trying to work in cramped coach seats on airplanes, and no one ever carries our bags for us. Finally, I'm convinced it's also because we tend to be wretched typists who are willing to put up with undersized and unresponsive keyboards that drive skilled touch typists to tears.
The sentiments of technology writers may explain why the history of laptops is littered with models that opened to rave reviews only to languish in the marketplace. So I've resolved to take keyboard quality much more seriously in evaluating laptops, which has tempered my enthusiasm for the new generation of ultralights, such as Sony's VAIO 505 series.
LOTS OF PLUSES. The good news is that there's finally an under-three-pound, slip-in-your-briefcase laptop that a good typist can, if not exactly love, certainly tolerate comfortably. It's no surprise that this laptop comes from IBM. ThinkPads may not always be the most powerful laptops, they don't have the biggest displays, and they aren't the cheapest. But they do set the standard for keyboards. And, for my money, the TrackPoint pointing stick is the best mouse substitute out there.
The $1,999 ThinkPad 240 isn't a head-turner like the Sony. The case is plastic, not magnesium, and it comes in dull old ThinkPad black. But it weighs just 2.9 pounds in a package smaller than a sheet of copier paper and just an inch thick (table). The 10.4-inch display is small yet crisp and bright.
Then there's the keyboard. Of course, IBM cut some corners to keep the package this small. The keyboard is nearly two inches narrower and about an inch less deep than the ThinkPad 600's. The basic letter and number keys are about 95% the size of those on a 600. The shift, enter, and backspace keys are smaller than on a full-size keyboard. The tab key is a bit odd. It has been moved down a row from its usual position, and it's the same size as the letter ''a'' next to it. (You use function-shift to lock caps, an improvement, in my opinion.) Most important, the up-and-down movement of the keys, a critical consideration for accurate typing, is the same three millimeters as on full-size laptops. My wife, a skilled typist, pronounced it ''not bad.''
The 240 is a specialized laptop. It is a supplementary computer, not a desktop replacement, for mobile people who value extreme portability over speed and multimedia features. The 300 MHz Celeron processor isn't the fastest, but it provides plenty of power for word processing, E-mail, and spreadsheets, the likeliest uses for this laptop. A floppy drive and a CD-ROM, a $279 option, have to be attached separately. There's just one Type II PC Card slot, so I couldn't use my favorite accessory, the Xircom RealPort combination modem and Ethernet card. But the built-in 56k modem eases the pain. And unlike most ultralights, the 240 features a variety of built-in ports to let you hook up to an office network, a mouse, and other devices without having to use a port- expander attachment.
It's interesting to compare the 240 with its sibling, the WorkPad Z50, which runs on the Windows CE operating system designed for handheld devices. The Z50 sells for about half the 240's price. The Z50 comes in an almost identical case and has the same keyboard.
FLEXIBILITY GAP. On the plus side, the Z50, like all CE computers, comes on instantly when you hit the power switch, and it will run for up to 16 hours on a battery charge. IBM claims 3 to 3 1/2 hours of battery life for the 240. I found that a bit optimistic, but the final product may do better than my preproduction test unit.
The Z50'S minuses are more important. It has a dinky 8.4-in. passive-matrix screen. Worse, the Z50 is stuck using Microsoft's second-rate Windows CE applications. As a result, the Z50 will be relegated mainly to cost-sensitive tasks, such as custom order-taking software for field sales forces. I suspect that anyone who has a choice will want to spend the extra $1,000 for a laptop that offers a better display and the flexibility of running regular desktop programs under Windows 95, 98, or NT.
I have been searching for a long time for a really small laptop for the road. But everything I have looked at, from Windows CE units to mini-notebooks like the Toshiba Libretto to ultralights like the Sony VAIO 505, demand too many compromises. Compromise is a fact of life in a laptop this small, but in the ThinkPad 240, IBM has made choices I can live with. I think most weary road warriors will agree.
BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM
Easy Hookups for Small Fry
Products designed to make home and small office networking cheap and simple are proliferating. If you'd like to run a network over existing phone wires in your home without installing adapter cards in computers, consider AnyPoint network from Intel (www.intel.com/anypoint). A kit with two adapters that plug into your computer's printer ports goes for $189. There's another cost for this convenience, however: Parallel port adapters aren't as reliable as the internal cards available from Intel, Linksys, Diamond Multimedia, and others. And network use can interfere with some printers.
Are you more adventurous? If you have an old PC lying around, you can turn it into a simple server for a small network for $99 with software from Network Concierge (www.nc4u.com). The software, based on the Linux operating system, installs in about 15 minutes and sets up the computer--which doesn't need a mouse, keyboard, or monitor--to handle Internet connection-sharing, shared file storage, printer sharing, and other networking chores.
If you simply want to share an Internet connection using any PC running Windows 95, 98, or NT, Nshare Internet Connection Expander from MiraLink can handle that chore for $39.95. A free trial version of the program can be downloaded from www.miralink.com. Computers sharing the connection can be PCs, Macintoshes, or anything running standard Internet software.
Q: Marc Pasturel of Palo Alto, Calif., asks: ''I'd like to input U.S. holidays in the date section of my 3Com Palm. Is there a Web site from which I can download U.S. holidays?''
A: There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. Most desktop contact managers include holiday data, and generally, this is automatically transferred to a Palm when you synchronize your calendar with your PC. I get holidays into my Palm by synching with Lotus Organizer.
Microsoft Outlook offers what may be the world's most extensive collection of holidays, with civil holidays in nations from Algeria to Yemen, plus Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious observances. But be careful: Outlook has had problems keeping dates straight. Outlook 97 thought Thanksgiving was on Wednesday, and Outlook 98 was off by a week on Memorial Day this year. I haven't found any glitches in Outlook 2000, but old ones can be carried forward when you upgrade.
If you don't use a suitable desktop-information manager, you can get holiday data in the form of freeware or shareware programs for the Palm from any of a number of Palm software repositories, such as www.palmcentral.com. Go to the site, search for ''holidays,'' and download your selection.
While most of the buzz about E-commerce has focused on consumer markets, the big bucks so far have been spent on business-to-business transactions. Small business is playing a particularly large part in the trend as all sorts of companies vie to offer specially tailored sites for goods and services.
Technology is a major draw for online business shoppers. Dell Computer (www.dell.com) and Gateway (www.gateway.com) have been selling computers and accessories to small businesses online for some time. Dell has recently begun offering a wide range of computer-related products through its Gigabuys.com service (gigabuys.us.dell.com). Other hardware manufacturers, such as IBM (www.direct.ibm.com) and Compaq Computer (www.compaq.com/smb) are scrambling to get on the E-biz bandwagon.
Naturally, there are plenty of upstarts, too. Onvia.com (www.onvia.com) provides one of the broadest one-stop-shopping experiences, with products from computers to office furniture to paper clips. It also offers such services as Web-site hosting, payroll preparation, and paging. One criticism: Its catalog listings are often so terse you have to click for more information just to find out what a product is.
Staples' online store (http://www.staples.com) is narrower in focus but offers more personalization. It lets you set up shopping lists for repetitive supply purchases and allows you to create group accounts in which different employees are given different levels of purchasing authority.
If you're having trouble figuring out how something works or what you need, you can find advice, too. At www.smallbiztechnology.com, you can get news and analysis on high-tech developments that affect smaller companies. The site is a visual mess and tends to open a new browser window every time you click on a link, but the info is lively and up to the minute.
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A Notebook That's Kind to Fingers
PHOTO: IBM ThinkPad 240
Easy Hookups for Small Fry
PHOTO: Intel AnyPoint External Adapter
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