But the question isn't "How low can you go?" At Dell, it's "How cheap can you go?" At Apple Computer, it's "How cool can you go?" And at Microsoft's Windows division, it's "How slow can you go?"
Among the Asian makers of Windows laptops, though, the game for some time has been "How small can you go?"
Turns out the answer is "smaller than you'd like it." The limiting factor isn't miniaturization technology--it's your eyes and fingers. For example, on the, just rereleased with upgraded specs, you have to type with your thumbs, BlackBerry-style. The trick is to find the sweet spot, a balance somewhere on the spectrum between miracle and torture device.
A Taiwan company called Dialogue has placed a new dot along that curve with an intriguing micro laptop called the Flybook. It's a full-blown Windows XP computer, complete with touch screen and stylus, that's not much bigger than a DVD case (9.3 inches by 6.1 inches and 2.7 pounds). Despite its size, the Flybook packs in more features per square inch than a "Where's Waldo?" poster.
If you confuse the Flybook with the , an educational toy for pre-teenagers that was also released last month, you'll come to your senses when the bill arrives. The Fly pen costs $100; the Flybook laptop goes for $2,490.
That's extremely pricey for a laptop, and it doesn't even include the $350 external module you'll need to play or record DVDs and CDs. Then again, the Flybook's makers have adopted an iPoddish marketing strategy, hoping to sell the thing as jewelry.
For example, this laptop is absolutely beautiful. Its lacquered, shiny paint job says "sports car" more than "Windows box." The buying-a-car analogy continues with a choice of color: silver, black, dark blue, dark red, yellow, orange or white. Similarly, the first authorized dealer is, of all places, Barneys New York, the high-end clothing store. (You can also buy the Flybook from flybookstore.com.)
So what does all that money buy you? Just about everything. The laptop's tidy back panel bursts with every jack known to man, sometimes in duplicate: it has a fax/modem jack; a pair of USB 2.0 connectors; Ethernet networking; a video output; a TV output; two FireWire ports for external hard drives or a camcorder, headphone and microphone jacks; a PC card slot and probably a partridge in a pear tree.
Laptop as cell phone
You can get onto the Internet or an office network using the laptop's wireless Wi-Fi antenna. You can also connect to palmtops, printers or headsets wirelessly using its Bluetooth transmitter. Strangest and most wonderful of all, you can insert the little security card from a Cingular or T-Mobile cell phone or BlackBerry (that is, the SIM card, which stands for Subscriber Identity Module). This ingenious feature means, first of all, that your laptop can get online anywhere there's a cell phone signal. No longer must you desperately hunt for a coffee shop that offers a wireless "hot spot."
Second, it means that you can actually make voice calls with the Flybook. When you click a taskbar icon, a weird little two-dimensional cell phone appears on the screen. You can click its number buttons to dial, and presto: You're chatting on your laptop-turned-speakerphone.
Three aspects of this ritual may strike you as a bit clumsy: the parts about taking the SIM card out of your cell phone; clicking number buttons; and making calls over a speakerphone for all to hear.
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Fortunately, you can work around all three. For example, you can dial directly from your address book (which, conveniently enough, is also stored on the SIM card); you can make calls using a headset--ideally, a wireless Bluetooth one; and you can sign up for a second cellular account (and SIM card) just for your laptop. Adding a second line costs a lot less than, say, Verizon's $60-a-month high-speed laptop Internet plan. Then again, you might feel a little weird telling the Cingular agent that the "family member" you want to add to your account is actually your laptop.
The Flybook offers all the traditional, but its bright, touch-sensitive wide-screen display (1,024 by 600 pixels) does something that your laptop probably doesn't: It rotates and folds back against the keyboard, . It's great for scrawling notes, making sketches, checking off boxes in a database or tapping links on Web pages. (You can rotate the image 90 degrees, as the goofily translated manual puts it, "clockwise or anti-clockwise.")
That's not to say the Flybook runs Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system; it doesn't (yet, says the company). But it duplicates most of the functions of an official Microsoft Tablet PC, and in the case of the At first glance, then, the Flybook almost seems to justify its nosebleed-inducing price. It's tiny and one-handable, loaded with features and highly fashionable. Heck, you could collect all six colors, so you'll always have one that goes with your outfit.--printing or script--far surpasses it.
Then reality sets in.
The Flybook's shrunken keyboard isn't a BlackBerry-style thumb keyboard by any means. Still, typing on it requires scrunching up your fingers and keeping your eyes on what you're doing. You can certainly forgive a certain amount of keyboard shrinkage--hey, what do you expect on a computer the size of a clutch purse?--but it's too bad the designers wasted a full inch of width by leaving plastic margins on either side. Why not let the keyboard stretch to the edges of the laptop?
The mouse presents another "you have to get used to it" situation. Instead of a trackpad, you get arubber nubbin that pokes up, in this case above and to the right of the keyboard. You get one pair of clickers (corresponding to the right and left mouse buttons) next to the rubber nubbin, and another set at the left edge of the keyboard. For most purposes, these are awfully awkward placements. They do, however, permit a trick that's not easy on regular laptops: You can point and click while standing up, holding the Flybook with both hands.
You should also be aware that although some of the Flybook's details are perfectly adequate (512MB of memory, a 40GB or 80GB hard drive), others are heartbreaking. The processor is a sluggish Transmeta Crusoe 1GHz chip, and the battery's two- to three-hour life is, by today's laptop standards, a little embarrassing. Its user manual is sadly incomplete--you can download it from the Flybook's Web site if you'd like a look--and neither it nor the online help even mentions the cell phone feature.
When it comes to miniaturization, compromise is the name of the game. Maybe, for you, the Flybook's wireless smarts, good looks and jaw-dropping size are adequate compensation for the Munchkin keyboard, awkward pointing device, low power and short battery life.
The Flybook is not, however, the only micro laptop game in town. Fujitsu's Lifebook P1510D, for example, is about the same size and also has the rotating touch screen--but it weighs even less (2.2 pounds), has a bigger keyboard, and has proper right click/left click buttons below the keyboard. Its available hard drives (30GB and 60GB) are smaller than the Flybook's, and it lacks Bluetooth, that cool cell phone feature, and any chance of fitting in at Barneys--but it costs $800 less.
Even if you don't buy a Flybook, though, you should smile at its arrival. Adding cell phone features to a laptop is a welcome idea, and so is the Apple-inspired notion that physical beauty can add tremendous pleasure to using a machine. For the Flybook, the question isn't just how small can you go, but how small and gorgeous.
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