Hewlett-Packard (HP) sent me an interesting notebook this month—its business-oriented OmniBook 500, which is an ultra-light model with a twist: It features a removable "slice" (i.e., expansion base, in HP speak) that holds removable storage (e.g., CD-ROM) and a second battery. When the slice is removed, the unit is similar to last month's Gateway Solo 3350, weighing in at a scant 3.5 pounds. But add the slice, and you've got expansion and better battery life in a package that weighs a reasonable 5.1 pounds. This design negates the need for bulky external removable storage, which the Gateway requires, while providing all of the benefits of the Gateway when the slice is removed. In this way, the HP is an interesting hybrid worth considering. Another similar model is IBM's ThinkPad X series, although the ThinkPads are considerably more expensive.
The review unit arrived with a 600MHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of RAM, a hefty 20GB hard disk, a 12" 1024 x 768 (XGA) display, and an expansion base with a battery and CD-ROM drive. I found the expansion base to be a wonderful addition, although I personally would have chosen a DVD or CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) module over the included CD-ROM. The CD-ROM drive features CD-ROM controls that work when the computer is off, pleasant blue LCDs, and motorized operation. Another nice side effect of the expansion base is its powerful speakers, which really make a difference for DVD movies, a nicety on the road. The laptop's built-in speakers are adequate, however, and similar to those in most laptops I've tested (although better than the weaker-than-usual Dell Inspiron 4000 speakers). The unit's screen is crisp and clear, although fairly susceptible to that LCD "waterfall" effect that I complain about so much. The screen panel was also rather loose, probably from previous reviewers banging it about. Everything held up well during my brief time with the laptop, however. (I did find the screen latch difficult to open, with or without the slice installed.)
The OmniBook 500 sports built-in network and modem connections, which is perfect, given that the device's form factor precludes a second PC card slot (the expansion base doesn't include a second PC card slot, as I would have expected). The OmniBook also includes two USB ports, which I consider a must for any laptop. Curious that such a small unit is the first one with such a feature to cross my path; kudos to HP for the second USB port. The rear of the unit is fairly barren, with the two USB ports, VGA out, network and modem ports, and power. But add the expansion port, and you have a virtual cornucopia of ports: The previously mentioned USB ports, S-video out, serial, parallel, VGA out, modem and network, two PS/2s, and power.
The HP keyboard is almost identical to the one on the small Gateway, with decent play and a size that's just barely big enough for my large hands (the keyboard should be fine for most people). The Page Up and Page Down keys are annoyingly placed near the arrow keys, as they were on the Gateway, and I once again found myself hitting them inadvertently, which can be problematic when you work on a document in Word, for example. The OmniBook features an interesting take on the pointing stick, with a third button you can use to scroll in Internet Explorer (IE) and other programs, similar to how you might use the wheel on a Microsoft mouse. I found using the pointing stick a bit awkward but would probably get used to it over time (you hold down the middle button and use the pointing stick to scroll up or down).
March was the first month in a long, long time that I didn't hop on a plane at least once. Although I stayed at home by design because I've been traveling so much recently, I therefore couldn't really give the HP a typical "on the road" workout. However, I emulated the way I'd work if I had been away, setting up modem accounts for AOL and MSN and testing battery life both with and without the slice. Without the slice, the HP averages uptimes similar to the Gateway's—about 2 and 1/4 to 2 and 1/2 hours of usable time. This total isn't so great, in my opinion, but PC makers can't achieve much more with such a small enclosure. Adding the slice makes a huge difference: I more than doubled my uptime, and the combined unit's weight is certainly an acceptable trade-off: I'd bring the slice on the road but carry the device around slice-less at tradeshows.
As configured, the HP runs about $2800, which is similar to last month's Gateway. Choosing one over the other is a matter of preference regarding storage: The Gateway's storage is all external, and the HP offers an expansion base. Each has its trade-offs, but I think I'd go with the expansion base. A similar IBM ThinkPad X series laptop, incidentally, costs more than $3000.
Coming Soon in Windows 2000 UPDATE
Regarding last week's release of Windows XP Beta 2, Microsoft discovered a Priority-1 bug in build 2462 approximately 70 percent of the way into Wednesday's Beta 2 sign-off process. The company was forced to bump the build number to 2462a and delay the release of Beta 2 until Friday. And, although Beta 2 was indeed declared final Friday, the company didn't release it to testers until noon Pacific time on Sunday. The delay was rather confusing—and certainly unanticipated—and those members of the technical press that had signed nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) for Windows XP were forced to hold off until then to post any reviews or other information about the release.
Thus, the SuperSite for Windows wasn't officially updated with Windows XP Beta 2 information until Sunday (we inadvertently posted our information on Wednesday but quickly pulled it when it became clear that Beta 2 had been delayed). So—if you were checking the site last week, I apologize: We have to work within Microsoft's ground rules—although I can't even begin to understand the logic behind the 2-day hold. Anyway, the SuperSite is now up and running with Windows XP Beta 2 coverage, so please check it out.
I'm also working on some personal information manager (PIM) reviews that might be of interest, both in the desktop arena (e.g., Outlook, Act!2000) and in handheld Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), such as the Palm OS/Handspring devices and Microsoft's Pocket PCs. I'll have more about my experiences with personal information management in the coming weeks, but if you have preferences, recommendations, or other comments, please send them along.
Finally, I have a wireless networking follow-up (or two) coming soon as well. I've talked to people from Proxim, 3Com, Ricochet, and other companies about the future of wireless, and I should have something interesting along those lines.