The $1,499 Actius is so different from anything on the market, at least outside Japan, that it belongs in a product class of its own. At half an inch thick and weighing just over 2 pounds, it slips into a briefcase more easily than many books. Although it is a full-fledged Windows XP computer,in both form and function it's somewhere between a laptop and a handheld.
Take the keyboard, traditionally the weakest component of ultralight notebooks. Compared with a standard laptop keyboard, it's hopeless, a touch-typist's nightmare. All of the keys are undersized, and smaller yet are the comma, period, and slash keys -- and they're all jammed together in the bottom row. But even with my fingers finding a slash where they expected a period to be, typing on the Actius is a lot more efficient than the handwriting-recognition or thumb keyboards used on handhelds. Similarly, the 10.4-inch display is tiny by conventional laptop standards, but it's a lot better for e-mail than a handheld screen, and you can easily read standard Web pages on it.
Sharp recognizes that no one is likely to use this laptop as a primary computer. So it ships it with a PDA-style sync-charger cradle and Iomega Sync software that makes it simple to keep the same files on the Actius and on a desktop. But in a glaring oversight, the software provides no straightforward way to synchronize mail, contacts, and calendar using Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, or even Outlook Express.
Battery life is a bigger issue. The Actius' battery has about half the capacity of a typical laptop unit. The Actius uses a power-thrifty Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor, but you'll be lucky to get 2 1/2 hours on a charge -- and even less if the built-in Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet is turned on. An optional extended-life battery ($199) triples the running time, but at a cost in weight and bulk that eliminates much of what makes this ultralight so attractive. I can put up with the small display and quirky keyboard, but for this mini-notebook to truly fill the gap between handhelds and laptops, it needs longer battery life.
The small Apple PowerBook, starting at $1,799, is the antithesis of Sharp's minimalism. At a bit over an inch thick, it has nearly the same dimensions as a mainstream IBM ThinkPad X-series, though it weighs nearly a pound more. That extra weight is used to good purpose, though, as Apple has managed to cram into this small package just about everything you might want in a laptop except a big display.
No Windows laptop of this size contains a CD-ROM drive -- only the slightly larger Toshiba Port?g? 4100 comes close. Yet the 12-in. PowerBook -- the odd name refers to the display size -- includes a slot-loading drive that, in the top-of-the-line $1,999 model, reads and records both CDs and DVDs. It also features a 40-gigabyte hard drive and a high-end nVIDIA graphics system. Its 256 megabytes of memory ensure zippy performance despite a relatively slow 867 megahertz G4 processor. And battery life runs better than four hours. Plus, Apple builds in both Bluetooth short-range wireless and wireless Ethernet (a $99 option on the cheapest model) that supports both the standard 802.11b Wi-Fi and the faster and not quite standardized 802.11g.
Two factors limit the PowerBook's appeal. The more important -- an insuperable problem for most businesspeople who work in a Windows environment -- is that it operates only Mac software. The other is that the PowerBook runs hot, hotter even than most Pentium 4 notebooks. In fact, the heat radiating up under your left hand as you type is downright uncomfortable, and I don't recommend trying to hold this laptop on your lap.
Both the Actius and the PowerBook represent welcome trends -- a no-compromises small notebook and a micro-notebook that trades features for extreme portability. Let's hope other laptop makers will start offering some experiments of their own. By Stephen H. Wildstrom