A Look At Laptop Alternatives

Laptops are all the rage these days, Just about everyone seems to want computing mobility, and with good reason. Seldom do ideas wait until you are comfortably seated in front of your desktop computer, and show-n-tell, complete with photos, movies, and music, is better when your audience is not crowded into that corner of your home you humorously call your office.

For some time Iive been eyeballing a black MacBook. My current desktop -- an 800MHz? desk lamp iMac -- is so old and over used that its starting to? get senile. (Or maybe thatis me)

I want a laptop because I see them as liberators of mind and body. Iim more creative when Iim at a park than in some darkened air conditioned closet, and Iive a feeling that the quality of my work improves when Iim outdoors. Itis true that I have to put up with a different set of distractions when Iim away from home, but I would argue that those distractions may actually enhance my ability to be productive.?(Itis a good story and Iim sticking with it.)

Besides, thereis a certain convenience laptops offer that no desktop can. The problem is that todayis laptops arenit convenient enough.

Laptops have to be booted, just like any desktop, so there goes the spontaneity normally associated with good ideas. Most of todayis laptops try to give you as much power -- more CPU horsepower, more memory, more hard drive space -- as possible with the notion that by doing so you become a more productive person, and thatis just not true for everyone. And even the lightest Apple MacBook tips the scales at just over 5 pounds. Hardly a back breaker, but also not something you canit just toss in a bag like you might a pen and notebook.

If fact, it is my belief that laptop makers, Apple especially, should be concentrating their design efforts on creating a device that literally replaces the pen and notebook and stop trying to cram a desktop computer into an inch-thick sliver of metal and plastic.

There have been attempts in the past. PIMs (Personal Information Manager) like Palmis TX and Appleis ageless Newton approach what I think is needed, but these device only come part way. To get data into these machines I need to either use inefficient handwriting recognition software, use the even more inefficient virtual keyboard, or attach an external keyboard, which only adds to the bulk and mess Iim trying to avoid. Also, the screen on the TX and devices like it are OK for some applications, but I wouldnit want to type anything longer than a few paragraphs on them.

We need a paradigm shift, we need to tackle this problem from another angle. Most of us really donit need the power of a desktop when we are out in the wild. We do need to be able to work on some things; documents, emails, web browsing and so on. Sure, we can do that with the iPhone or even the Nokia N800 if we add a keyboard and applications to handle documents, but I donit think Iid want to type out this article, for instance, on the little 3-inch screens those devices sport.

There are, however, some innovative ideas about that might do the trick. For instance, Iive mentioned Logitechis Io Digital Pen System in other articles, but in case you donit recall: The Io Digital Pen records what you write on special paper and then downloads your scribblings to your computer (currently PC only) when you dock your pen. Whatis more, the Io system remembers the type of writing youive created -- an address, a note, or a drawing for instance -- and sends those writings to the appropriate application on your computer; email to your email program, notes to a sticky-note application, addresses to your address book, and so on. Itis a smart system and I see no reason why it isnit available on Macs yet other than Logitechis unwillingness to port it.

Io 2 Digital Pen (Photo courtesy of Logitech)

Thereis another digital pen system being advertised by a company called EPOS. Its system does not require special paper to work, but it also does not have the sophisticated back-end system the Io Pen does. What the EPOS system does offer, however, is a means to input data into any device that either has an EPOS system embedded or has a USB port. The EPOS pen can double as a wireless mouse as well, which suddenly adds convenience and an input method to a whole host of devices including Appleis new iPhone. Unfortunately the EPOS Pen System canit be purchased yet. Logitechis Io Digital Pen System can be.

Pegasus Technologies also makes a pen system that does not require special paper and their system is available today, but, again, only on PCs running Windows 2000 or XP (Vista not supported. No surprise there.).

EPOS Digital Pen and Flash Drive

Pegasusi pen system is similar to the EPOSi, they both have a USB "station" that the pen talks to to record positioning info and to store data. Data is then transferred when you plug in the station to your computer.

While digital pen is certainly one way of looking at the problem of portable computing, it is not the only way. Another approach is to redesign the laptop into something a bit more portable and convenient.

Earlier this year Palm announced a device that initially had many people scratching their heads. Palm is billing the Foleo as a smart phone companion, providing a 10-inch screen and a full size keyboard to Treos and other capable phones. The Foleo runs a version of Linux, has about 512MB of internal memory, has 802.11b WiFi, Bluetooth, and can read flash memory cards for extra storage. Palm will be selling the Foleo for US$499 after a $100 rebate.

Palmis Foleo (Photo courtesy of Palm)

Also announced earlier this year is the EEEPC 701 from Asus. Iim personally excited about this little Linux based jewel. It sports a 7-inch SVGA LCD screen, a full, if a bit small keyboard, a choice of an internal 4, 8 or 16 GB flash drive and 512 MB of memory, 802.11b/g WiFi, built in camera, mic, and speaker all for prices starting at around $200. The EEEPC 701 is expected to ship sometime in September.

Asus EEEPC 70

Then thereis the NanoBook from Via Technologies. This $600 tiny notebook runs Windows XP, has a 30 GB hard drive, can handle up to 1GB of RAM, includes a 7-inch WVGA touch-screen, and has a full size keyboard. Whatis interesting about the NanoBook is its modular communication setup. The USB port gives the NanoBook Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities, as well as a laundry list of other connectivity options.

NanoBook (Photo courtesy of Via Technologies)

Back in March, analyst Shaw Wu claimed that Apple will offer the NanoBook sometime this year. Wuis version swapped the hard drives for flash drives and had it running the iPhoneis version of OS X instead of Windows XP.? Wuis version sounds odd to me, but odder things have happened.

So, thatis the current state of laptop alternative technology and it looks promising. I donit hold out much hope to see an EEEPC-like offering from Apple, the price points are too low and Apple will likely do nothing to to drain any MacBook sales. It seems more likely that Logitech and EPOS will adapt their digital pen technologies to be used on Macs, and maybe even the iPhone, which would be a killer combination in my opinion.

As for replacing my iMac with a MacBook; I donit think thatis going to happen. Iive decided to go with a new 20-inch iMac. Iim waiting until Leopard is released to make my purchase. In the meantime I need to decide what to do about my mobile computing needs, and right now, at about US$300 for the 8GB model, the EEEPC 701 is looking very good to me. So, for about $1500 I can satisfy my need for desktop power and gratify my desire to have computing convenience while out and about.

Life is good.