In search of the ultimate ultraportable laptop

— 2:50 PM on November 25, 2005

I bought my first laptop a couple of years ago because I needed something to tote with me when I visit trade shows and press events. It's a decent Centrino-based system from Compaq (in the X1000 series), but the thing weighs 6.5 lbs, and the 15.4-inch screen makes for a rather large chassis. It's nice, but a little too big and heavy. I think it's time to look for a new system, something like what I told myself I wanted the first time around, before I got hooked by the siren song of a killer rebate deal and a big, wide screen.

In other words, I want an ultraportable laptop: one that's under four pounds and has at least four hours of battery life. I'd also like a system with a decent screen resolution (at least 1280x768 or so) and a solid feature set (good mobile CPU, 802.11g, etc.) I am willing to pay a little more in order to get the right thing. I've already gone the bargain route, and I can see the value in paying for a better option.

So far, my search for the ultimate ultraportable has led me all over the map, but I keep coming back to one choice: the Sharp M4000 Widenote. This thing has it all: Pentium M 1.73GHz, 533MHz bus, 915 chipset, 802.11g, 80GB hard drive, room for 1.5GB of DDR2 RAM, battery life in excess of five hours, and a weight of only 3.8 lbs. The WideNote’s aluminum chassis is a little bit larger than most other laptops in its class, thanks to its big, bright 13.3" LCD, but I can't help but salivate over the prospect of a glossy Sharp LCD. I've not seen the WideNote in person, but the other Sharps I've seen on retail have some of the best LCD displays anywhere.

Laptop Magazine loved the M4000, and PC Mag liked it, too, although they complained about things like the lack of FireWire and a DVD writer that I just don't mind. CNET also thought it was very good, but whined about the FireWire and the lack of "business features" like Trusted Platform Module. I consider the absence of a TPM a bonus. My only feature complaint is that it has no built-in Bluetooth, forcing one to use a USB-based wireless mouse with a wart sticking out of the port. This puppy isn't cheap, but at about $1600 at the cheapest vendors, it's very reasonable for an ultraportable with this feature set.

My attention is pulled away from the WideNote by only one or two other options, most prominently the low end of the Sony TX series. The TX may well be the ultimate ultraportable, with the entire feature set of my current laptop, plus Bluetooth, crammed into a space the size of a thin hardcover book. At 2.8 lbs, it's a full pound lighter than the featherweight Sharp. The TX series' battery life rivals the Sharp's, but the spec is lower overall: 1.2GHz Pentium M, 400MHz bus, 60GB hard drive.

The Sony's drawbacks stem from its size: the keyboard is about 90% of "full size," and the screen—despite being an ultra-crisp display with 1366x768 resolution—is only 11.1" from corner to corner. This display works wonderfully for short-term use, but I worry that I would grow weary of the teensy pixels in extended, everyday use (and I do use my laptop constantly.) Also, the itty bitty Sony costs more: about $2K at Newegg. Honestly, I would pony up the extra cash for this thing if I could get over my worries that the screen would actually be too small for comfortable regular use.

I've looked at other options like the Dell Latitude X1, but the Dell and most other ultraportables make you give up the optical drive (no DVD playback!) and can't match the five-hour battery life window of the Sharp and Sony models. (The Dell requires a larger battery for longer life, one that sticks out of the side of the case.) Those compromises aren't required on the Sharp M4000 and Sony TX, and I'm not compelled to accept them. But perhaps I've missed some great choice. Have any of you guys seen a better ultraportable for the price?

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