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MacBook Air rivals, past and present

Thin notebooks are out there--and have been out there for years, if not decades. They haven't had the cachet of the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air focused global attention--for the first time with prolonged intensity--on a small, thin notebook. Until now, this kind of design simply wasn't on many users' shopping lists. (Particularly Americans who choose performance over portability.) Here's a brief look at this notebook category, both past and present.

Sharp Actius MM20P in dock
Sharp Actius MM20P in dock Sharp

A few prefatory notes: Because I use a MacBook Air, the topic of ultraportables has taken on more importance for me. But the impact of this category of notebooks goes much further than personal interest. Ultraportables now contain fast Core 2 Duo processors, snappy solid state drives (SSDs), and better screens, which makes them more usable and mainstream than ever before. Price is still the limiting factor. This will change, however, as SSD prices fall and more ultraportable competition creeps in at the low end from the likes of Asus and Everex.

NOTE: This is not an official CNET review. Official CNET product reviews are here.

At the top of the blast-from-the-past utrathin notebook list is the Sharp Actius MM20P. This model is listed with a height of 0.62-inch. That's thin--though it doesn't taper to 0.16-inch like the Air. It comes with the Transmeta Efficeon TM8600 (Intel-compatible) 1GHz processor, a 10.4-inch screen, a 20GB hard disk drive (no solid state drive option), and 512MB of memory.

The problem--as the specifications indicate--is that it's dated (and discontinued). Sharp did show, however, that thin notebook designs were viable long before the Air. A progenitor of the Actius is the Sharp Muramasa. This measured 0.54 inches thick. Here's the CNET review of the Actius MM20P.

Mitsubishi Pedion
Mitsubishi Pedion Mitsubishi

The Mitsubishi Pedion, announced in 1997 (reincarnated as the Hewlett-Packard OmniBook Sojourn), is even more dated--and a milestone design too. It was 0.7 inches thick, 3.1 pounds (about the same as the Air) had a 12.1-inch screen, and came with a 233-MHz Pentium MMX processor. It retailed for a whopping $6,000. But the notebook never seemed to be a finished product and was plagued by user complaints. One of the biggest problems--with the initial version--was the Chiclet keyboard.

Digital Equipment HiNote Ultra CS475, announced 1994
Digital Equipment HiNote Ultra CS475, announced 1994 ume-y

Next up: the HP 2510p. Unbeknownst to many, Compaq (which HP purchased in 2001) has a long history of delivering excellent ultraportables. These designs emerged after Compaq bought Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in 1998. At that time, DEC was shipping the HiNote Ultra line, which was a sensation when hit the market in 1994. The HiNote didn't hit with the impact of the MacBook Air, but it was close. Only one-inch thick (again, this is 1994) and weighing four pounds, it seemed absolutely razor thin at that time. The CS475 model also came with a cutting-edge floppy-drive slice--that snapped on the bottom--and a multimedia docking station. Back in my early days at CNET, I wrote about the HiNote.

HP 2510p
HP 2510p Hewlett-Packard

The current HP 2510p comes from this bloodline. It's slightly thicker (at 0.97 inches) than some of the others but there's a reason for the extra plastic: an integrated optical drive. It also packs an Intel "Santa Rosa" GM965 chipset with X3100 graphics. (The Toshiba R500--see below--uses an older 945GMS chipset and 950 graphics.) The 2510p weighs 2.8 pounds, more than the R500 but less than the Air. Otherwise, it outclasses the Air in almost exactly the same areas as the R500. More ports, an integrated 10/100/1000 gigabit network adapter, and built-in DVD rewritable drive. The 2510p starts at $1,499. CNET review here.

Toshiba R500
Toshiba R500 Toshiba

Another contemporary thin subnotebook is the Toshiba Portege R500, which boasts dimensions (WxDxH Front/H Rear) of 11.1" x 8.5" x .77"(front)/1.0"(rear) and comes with a 12.1-inch screen, an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.20GHz U7600 processor, a 64GB SSD, 2GB of memory, and a fixed DVD rewritable drive. The weight is 2.4 pounds, beating the Air (though with a smaller screen). It also trumps the Air with extra ports, including 3 USB, one 1394, and an Ethernet jack. It starts at $1,999. The CNET review (July 2007) is here.

Asus U1E
Asus U1E Asus

The Lenovo X300 has received so much press already that it is almost redundant to mention it here. Suffice to say, it has a large 13.3-inch screen like the Air, is slightly thicker at 0.73 inches, packs Intel X3100 graphics, and uses a 64GB SSD. CNET review here.

Other notable entries in this category include the Asus (maker of the Eee PC) U1E which has an 11-inch screen and gets as slim as 0.7 inches and the LG X series with a 10.6-inch display.