Small Is Big in Notebooks--but Not Too Small

Ultralight computers add back a few more ounces and a lot more usability

A lot of road warriors have learned, much to their chagrin, that a notebook computer can indeed be too light or too thin. Shrink one much below 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds)—the class known as ultralight—and it gets maddeningly hard to use for much more than e-mail or Web browsing.

That’s why manufacturers have recently begun reemphasizing a slightly larger breed—call them not''quite-ultralights. These machines sport displays of at least 13 inches; fuller, if not full-size, keyboards; built-in optical drives; Ethernet and other ports; and more processing power than their rail-thin predecessors.

Panasonic Toughbook Y7

”You can use a 13.3-inch screen full time,” says John Jacobs, a research director at DisplaySearch, a display market research and consulting company based in Austin, Texas. ”I don’t see people with smaller ones at their desk unless they have an external monitor.”

But an ample monitor isn’t enough. Apple’s elegant MacBook Air, with its 13.3-inch screen and full-size keyboard, might win ”best biggish screen and full''size keyboard in its class”—if you don’t mind the lack of a removable battery, Ethernet jack, or optical drive.

Dell Latitude E4300

The belle of the ultraportable ball is, arguably, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X300/X301 line, with a weight starting at just under 1.4 kg, a built-in optical drive, a full array of ports, and the same 13.3''inch screen that larger ThinkPads have. The 140-gram (5-ounce) increase in size and bulk over a comparable ThinkPad X61s is more than made up for by the increased usability, which translates to greater productivity. Ditto for the Panasonic Toughbook Y7, with its 14.1-inch screen, versus its smaller sibling, the Toughbook W7. Other noteworthy contenders in this weight and screen-size class include Fujitsu’s LifeBook S6510/6520, Dell’s Latitude E4300, and Sony’s VAIO VGN-SZ650N/C.

Lenovo ThinkPad X300

The new category of ultralights stems partly from some new technologies and partly from some existing ones that have matured—plus some hard design work to minimize the productivity compromises. Howard Locker, director of new technology, desktop and mobile systems at Lenovo, says, ”There’s no perfect answer. It’s what’s the best compromise between thinness and lightness, battery life and functionality that gives the best experience.”

Here are some of the new technologies:

Displays now get their backlighting from LEDs rather than thicker fluorescent tubes. Jacobs says that slimming a display can reduce power consumption by up to 20 percent, extending a typical 4-hour battery’s life to almost 5 hours.

Solid-state drives weigh less and use less power than hard disks, adding, to be sure, several hundred dollars to the purchase price. ”The affordable SSD is still a few years away,” says Jacobs. ”But if performance is more important than cost, customers will pay for it today.”

Lower-power microprocessors, which incorporate a panoply of power-management features and sometimes integrate graphics, also bring size down and battery life up.

Wi-Fi based on the new IEEE 802.11n standard uses power more efficiently than 802.11a/b/g. And manufacturers can now embed 3G and other broadband chips and antennas, yielding better performance and consuming less power.

Since ultralights are meant for travel, durability counts. New ”drip channels” protect key components from spilled liquids. Some makers are replacing plastic chassis with magnesium alloys, while Lenovo’s X300 includes a carbon fiber ”roll cage” case.

Even power supplies have gotten smaller and lighter, such as Lenovo’s card-deck-thin Slim AC/DC Combo Adapter, half the size of its predecessor. Also, many manufacturers offer featherweight three''cell batteries as an alternative to longer-lasting six''cell ones.

So what’s next?

Expect more storage capacity and more solid-state drives as memory prices continue to fall, predicts Jacobs. On the other hand, don’t get your hopes up yet for those nice, bright, thin organic LED screens. ”It will be a year and a half to two years before we see an OLED display in a notebook platform,” says Jacobs. And don’t expect a notebook in this class with flexible roll-out screens. ”They’re great for mobile phones or e-books,” he says. ”The problem is that the response time is slow.” Lastly, look for further design improvements that go toward reliability and usability—for example, how the display opens when you’re in a cramped airplane seat in coach.

So consider buying a slightly bigger machine. Its extra ounces won’t send you screaming to the chiropractor, and it sure will be easier on your eyes, fingertips, and temper.