Unshelved comic strip for 12/13/2003

Livin' La Vida Ultraportable, part I

Monday I’ll bid a sad farewell to the Fujitsu P5020D I’ve been evaluating for the last ten days. I had hoped this well-priced full-featured subnotebook would be the one for me, and it came incredibly close. But I have this special set of requirements – I’m a cartoonist, and I spend a lot of time either drawing or editing drawings on computers. Unfortunately those unholy marriages of laptops and graphics tablets called Tablet PCs mean I have no choice – if a tablet will make me a more efficient artist then I need to buy one. And my dabblings with friends’ units have convinced me that it will. But don’t let that stop you – the Fujitsu is not only best-of-breed in the niche ultraportable category, but a computer so well designed and built that it will challenge your notion of how big laptops need to be.

Eighteen months ago I reviewed the Toshiba Libretto L5, the machine that whet my taste for subnotebooks. As I noted then, the L5 was about as small and light as a computer can get and still have a keyboard. But the screen was a little too small and the computer a little too underpowered to be a serious work machine. When I began my laptop search last month I looked into subnotebooks again. The field has matured considerably, especially now that Intel’s Pentium M processor family has revolutionized the speed-battery life tradeoff that haunts laptops of all kinds. Portable hard drives have also grown in size and speed. Suddenly these tiny computers are real contenders.

If you like them small - really small - there are basically two choices. Sony’s TR2 series and Fujitsu’s P5000 series. As specs go they are very similar. I ended up choosing the Fujitsu even though it’s slightly bigger and heavier because the price-functionality equation is so much better, and because reports from friends and message boards convinced me that Fujitsu’s build quality was higher. Fujitsu essentially decided to build a computer with a longer lifetime. It uses a larger hard drive form-factor for which there are available larger and faster drives. It uses standard (cheaper) laptop memory. Instead of the Sony’s built-in CD-RW/DVD drive the Fujitsu’s is modular. So you can take it out for weight, replace it with a battery for long portable workdays, or upgrade it to a writable DVD drive when one becomes available. The Sony's screen is acknowledged to be the superior of the two (though the Fujitsu screen is nothing to complain about) and has a built-in lo-res digital camera, but neither they nor a little extra weight seemed worth the extra $500.

Read part II

Livin' La Vida Ultraportable, part II

Read part I

Anyone considering such a small computer should justly fear two items – the keyboard and the screen. The keyboard is a pleasant surprise. Compact but easy to type on. I used it exclusively for a days’ worth of writing and editing comic scripts and adapted quickly to the minor quirks inherent in fitting a keyboard in such a small space. Chief among these are the narrow comma, period, and slash keys. But in my opinion the more serious compromise is the navigation keys – you need to press the fn key on the left to access page down and page up keys. I spend so much time browsing with one hand (often because I have a baby in the other) that this turned out to be a real problem. The trackpad buttons surround a rocker switch which can be programmed to emulate page up/page down, but in my experience this switch had way too much resistance to be used for casual scrolling.

The screen is a bright 10.6” 1280x768 unit that I found incredibly clear and easy to read. And yes, I do wear reading glasses. Some people just like small-pixel screens, and I am one of them. Since it’s a laptop you’re not very far away from the screen anyway, and Microsoft’s ClearType technology has made small text that much easier to read. And as a programmer I loved the real estate provided by the extra 256 horizontal pixels. Once you’ve worked on a larger-than-XGA screen it’s hard to go back, and I don’t plan to. It’s one of the curiosities of the laptop world that the Fujitsu and Sony both have higher resolution screens than machines with screens twice as large. I suspect most people aren’t informed enough about resolution to understand that a large screen doesn’t necessarily provide a larger workspace. Bigger isn’t always better.

My first day with Fuji, as I affectionately termed this little wonder, was spent in bed with the stomach flu (note to retailers: always disinfect returned units). The built-in DVD drive was perfect for watching eight hours of Angel Season 2. Even the onboard speakers, while a little tinny, sufficed for my audio needs.

There are a few unusual features worth mentioning. Built in s-video means you can use any modern TV as a display device. This is a huge win for doing presentations without a projector, and it’s not bad for watching movies either. In addition to the bevy of standard ports the Fujitsu also has a PCMCIA slot, a compact flash slot and a 3-in-1 MMC/SD/MemorySticks slot. Since PCMCIA 4-in-1 readers are now available this seems like a waste of space, and it is, but it does mean you can have a high-speed cellular card, CF Bluetooth, and SD memory card all in use at once. Yes, the Fujitsu doesn’t have Bluetooth but it does have built-in 802.11g wireless along with a handy wireless on/off switch for airplane use. It also has FireWire, 2 USB ports, VGA out, and modem and Ethernet ports. A minor nit is that both video outputs require easy-to-forget-and-easier-to-lose dongles.

I have one major complaint: there is no DVI video-out. That would be a lot to ask from any laptop let alone an ultraportable, but the fact is that the onboard screen will not be enough for most people to use full-time. If this is going to be your only machine, and there are precious few reasons it couldn’t be, then you’re going to want to plug it into an external monitor. And these days that probably means an LCD display. Analog output to my 17” SGI flat panel was horrific – dim and fuzzy, and I just didn’t bother. To make matters worse the Intel Extreme 2 onboard graphics chip couldn’t drive my monitor’s (fairly obscure) resolution of 1600x1024, though it will drive the larger (and more standard) 1600x1200. This was a huge shame because the Intel chip will drive two monitors at once, and my flat-panel would have nestled perfectly above the built-in screen, allowing me to use the big screen for image editing and the little screen for email and web surfing.

Read part III

Livin' La Vida Ultraportable, part III

Read part II

Here are a few related (unpaid) plugs. Laptopsinc.com has garnered a well-earned reputation for great prices and stellar customer service. They offered me solid purchasing advice. My unit had a couple of unexpected delays getting to me, which can and does happen with every retailer, but they were quick to take responsibility and offer amends. They even allowed me to return this unit after 15 days no-questions asked – that requires great confidence in the products they sell. Speaking of confidence, an active and helpful user community is always a big plus when I’m considering a major purchase. Leog.net is a message board devoted to Fujitsu notebooks. Most of my pre- and post-purchase questions were answered just scrolling through the archives.

It’s hard for me to make broad technology recommendations because if anyone is a power user I am. I use Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign almost every day, and I do serious programming on Microsoft Visual Studio. I need a lot of horsepower. Still, this computer was almost enough for me. I mentioned the Tablet PC opportunity, which is real (and presents its own purchasing dilemma, which I’ll write about another time). But if it weren’t for the display conflict cited above I might have fought the temptation. Because this little baby packed the power of my 3-year-old desktop into a unit the size of a John Grisham hardback. And for someone who will be on the road speaking and selling books one week out of every five next year, that’s pretty darned attractive. Check it out.

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