The Race for the Ultra-Lightest

Toshiba's Portege R500 laptop by some measures looks better than Apple's ultra-light computer.
Toshiba's Portege R500 laptop by some measures looks better than Apple's ultra-light computer. (Photo: Toshiba Via Associated Press)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 31, 2008

The race to build the world's most portable laptop can get ridiculous. Companies will build computers that fit on one knee, with screens little bigger than an iPhone's -- all for the sake of having the "world's smallest laptop."

For most users, the contest can seem irrelevant. They don't lug laptops through airports for a living; why not focus on simpler criteria, like price and screen size?

But even people who rarely roam with their laptops have reason to follow developments at the ultra-light end of the scale. That's where you can spot the future of computing.

Want to see what features might vanish from next year's laptops? Take note of what designers leave out to shave a few ounces. Curious about what new technologies will show up in bigger computers? See what high-performance components manufacturers include to stretch out battery life.

With the new MacBook Air, Apple has sketched out a sleek, stark vision of tomorrow's computer.

This $1,799, three-pound machine, which is only about three-quarters of an inch at its thickest point, leaves out many of the standard ingredients of a portable computer.

The DVD drive, the Ethernet port that links to wired networks, the card slot for a wireless modem -- they're all gone.

The usual lineup of ports and plugs has been pruned to a headphone jack, a USB port and a digital-video connector.

(The Air does, however, feature two extras absent from many competitors: Bluetooth wireless and a built-in webcam.)

Although add-on parts such as Apple's $29 Ethernet adapter and $99 CD/DVD burner can replace some of these missing ingredients, it's clear that Apple built this Mac to live wirelessly.

If you have WiFi at home, at work and in between, the MacBook Air can make for a good second computer that you can tote anywhere. (It's not the best primary computer because its 80 gigabyte hard drive fills up quickly.) The Air supports the fastest version WiFi available, 802.11n, and carrying it causes no strain.

But unlike other ultra-lights, the MacBook Air includes a full-size keyboard and 13.3-inch screen to match those on Apple's mainstream MacBook. The Air's keys also include the clever backlighting of the high-end MacBook Pro. Its iPhone-like touchpad allows "multi-touch" gestures, such as spreading two fingers apart to magnify text on a Web page

The Air's battery won't make it through a cross-country flight, but should suffice for most uses. In playing a loop of digital music in iTunes while reloading a Web page every few minutes, the battery ran for just over 4 1/2 hours.

Apple says a battery replacement costs $129 and can be done at one of its stores while you wait.

Most laptop users, however, regularly fall back to wired networking. And on the Air, Ethernet access will tie up the USB port and force awkward choices such as: "Do I stay online or sync my iPod?"

The Air's lack of a DVD drive can be limiting. Apple provides Remote Disc software that, when installed on nearby Mac or PC, should let the Air borrow that other machine's drive. But it often served up errors instead of CDs or DVDs.

Software discs usually worked, allowing me to install Microsoft Office 2008. But DVD movies wouldn't run, owing to their copyright controls. Attempts to play music CDs prompted a response that "the original item for 'Audio CD' cannot be found."

That's not to say that finding the optimum balance of cost, features, weight and size in an ultra-light laptop is easy. I've yet to find a Windows portable that nails this formula either, despite a lot of clever work by such manufacturers as Fujitsu, Lenovo, Panasonic and Sony.

Consider one of the latest contenders in this area, Toshiba's $2,149 Portege R500-S5002. By some measures, it looks better than the Air. It packs a DVD burner, 50 percent more hard drive space, two more USB ports, SD Card and PC Card slots, wireless and wired networking -- but still weighs less than the Air, at only 2.4 pounds.

The R500 also feels flimsier than the Air. The DVD drive's tray looks like it will snap off -- and, in fact, didn't work on one of the two units I tested. Its screen and keyboard are smaller. With half as much memory as the Air's two gigabytes, it ran sluggishly. It also got notably hotter than the barely lukewarm Air.

The R500 fares worse because of its operating system: Windows Vista can't match Mac OS X's simplicity and reliability. Combining Apple's software with Toshiba's hardware might work, but such a hybrid won't arrive in stores anytime soon. So what will happen first? Will Apple craft a more capable Air, even if it must yield on its goal of building the world's thinnest laptop? Or will Microsoft ship an easier, sturdier Windows?

We may still be waiting for the "perfect" little laptop a year from now. But at least our regular laptops may get a little smarter, if not lighter, from this experimentation.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro Read more at

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