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New Notebook Computers Offer More Memory

Tech Talk

By Kevin S. Davis

In most areas, notebook computers have improved tremendously since the early models of the late 1980s. Red-hot Pentium processors and brilliant 14-inch VGA displays have replaced plodding 386sx chips and the notorious plasma gas displays. The day of the powerless portable is over and today's laptops do everything their bulkier desktop cousins can.

Some things still haven't changed in the life of a laptop user. Today's notebooks still weigh six or seven pounds and still get only two hours of battery life at most, just like the old Zenith and Grid models of '89 and '90.

And anyone who has tried to use a notebook computer on an airplane has probably faced this problem: boot up your notebook over Cape Cod, run out of juice by Philadelphia.

Notebook makers have managed to make their machines lighter and more energy-frugal, only to find their gains undone by the need to include the latest and greatest in their models. As soon as manufacturers perfected light and plastic cases and long-running lithium ion batteries, for instance, the coming of Pentium chips and bulky CD-ROM drives negated any winds for portability.

Ultimately, whenever you get moving parts inside a notebook, battery life is going to be poor. Hard disks spin at thousands of revolutions per minute, killing the life of even the most durable battery.

A few ultraportable subnotebooks, including the Compaq Contura Aero and the Toshiba Portege, had some limited success. But most of these models had to make too many compromises in order to fit into a small, efficient package.

Enter Apple and its revolutionary eMate 3000. On the outside, the eMate looks like a notebook from the 23rd century, with a striking translucent-green case and built-in handle. The case, built out of ABS plastic, is designed to survive a drop onto a concrete floor from six feet-while running.

Open up the case, and you'll notice a responsive, comfortable keyboard perfect for typing notes in class or short papers. Need to add a drawing or sketch to your word processing document? No problem: just pick up the built-in pen and draw it directly on the screen.

Best of all, the four-pound eMate can run for an unprecedented 24 hours without recharging. Forget wondering whether your Toshiba will make it through Justice on batteries alone; you may only need to recharge the eMate once a week, even with heavy use.

Apple was able to manage to squeeze so much functionality into such a small package because, if anything, the eMate is a perfect example of addition by subtraction. The eMate is a purely solid computer, with no motors like hard drives or CD-ROMs to drain its power. Instead, data (like that Ec problem set or Core term paper) are stored in non-volatile flash memory that doesn't get erased when the power gets turned off.

The eMate was a perfect opportunity for Apple to salvage its tired old Newton handheld operating system, a surprisingly powerful technology for word processing and Web browsing. But Apple has made two mistakes: it never managed to make Newtons' handwriting recognition anything less than laughable, and it couldn't fit the OS into a box as small as 3Com's wildly successful PalmPilot.

Apple's solution? Take the brisk Newton software, put it in a notebook sized package with a full-sized keyboard, and market it to K-12 and collegiate education markets. Less technically demanding to assemble than most notebooks, the eMate retails for just under $800. In fact, the new Apple chair Steven P. Jobs decided recently to nix the spinning of Newton from Apple, bringing the subsidiary back into the fold-largely to develop new eMate products.

Of course there are compromises in using a portable that's based on neither Macintosh nor Microsoft technology. While you can transfer data between your computer and the eMate, you can't install your desktop applications like Word-Perfect or Netscape onto the eMate; instead, you're stuck with perfectly serviceable Newton software from Apple and other vendors.

In other words, there's no way the eMate could suffices as one's only computer at college. But if you already own a desktop and are looking for a machine to take to classes, the library and home on vacations, it's hard to find a better solution for word processing and e-mail.

As for me, I've already sold my Compaq and moved up to an eMate. Look for me in class sometime, still typing even as your batteries have run dry.

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