New Kneetop PCs

4 minute read
Josh Quittner

When I got my svelte, 4-lb. IBM Thinkpad last year, it made my old Mac PowerBook look obese. At 7 lbs., the Mac was a laptop in the same way that a bull mastiff is a lapdog. You need a pretty big lap. But my ThinkPad was so small and powerful, I figured I’d take it everywhere. On the train, Mr. Productivity would write his columns, answer his e-mail and even “test” a game or two.

But I soon became jaded. The computer was too cumbersome to throw into my briefcase and haul back and forth daily. I found it irritating to sit through the tedious Windows start-up process when my supposedly intelligent machine s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y discovered that it was no longer on a network; it was on my lap. And the two-hour battery just wasn’t enough to sustain my two-way commute.

That’s why I’ve been dying to try the new class of ultralight computers–most are less than an inch thick and weigh less than 3 lbs.–that began shipping to retail stores at year’s end. These machines run on the slimmed-down operating system known as Windows CE–the same one used on personal digital assistants like the PalmPilot. While the machines are technically laptops, my editor at TIME, a brilliant phrase turner, has a better name for them: kneetops.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been knocking knees with two such machines made by Sharp Electronics of Mahwah, N.J.: the Mobilon Pro ($899) and the Mobilon Tripad ($999). They are unique in the CE laptop category because they have touch-sensitive color VGA screens that make it easier to do everything from word processing to opening and closing programs.

At 2.7 lbs., the Pro is lighter than its 3.2-lb. cousin, as well as $100 cheaper. But I’d buy the Tripad, which has a larger (9.4-in.) screen and an easier-to-use keyboard. The Tripad’s screen pivots on two arms, so you can flip it down over the keyboard and use it for, say, data entry. This feature is less useful to me than to a UPS guy perhaps or a tax accountant. Still, I enjoyed the flexibility of positioning the screen just where I wanted it.

Each of the Sharp machines comes with a built-in 33.6K data-fax modem and a serial-port cable so you can attach the kneetop to your PC and swap files; or synchronize your kneetop to your desktop’s calendar, spreadsheet and e-mail; or copy files to a floppy disc. Because there are no moving parts like a hard drive (everything is stored in RAM and ROM chips), the batteries seem to stay charged forever; the Pro goes for eight hours straight, and the Tripad for 12. Best of all, there’s no boot-up: push a button, and the machine goes on or off instantly.

I did not pay much attention to Windows CE when the first digital assistants using the software started shipping last spring. I should have. CE is perfect for lazy guys like me who are willing to trade off full functionality for a specialized, ultralight tool. But be warned that CE will run only its own applications, and they’re “lite” versions. Microsoft is so worried that consumers will be confused–and buy a CE machine expecting it to run full Windows programs–that it will launch an “awareness” ad campaign next month. Pocket Word, for instance, is a dumbed-down Word that’s little more than a text editor. It doesn’t even have a word counter–which is why, when Mr. Productivity wrote this column, he had to count words with his fingers. And knees.

For more on kneetop computers, see our website at Questions for Quittner? E-mail him at

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