So, I’m writing this entry on my Fujitsu Lifebook while waiting for my car’s oil to be changed. I’ve always been fascinated by miniature PCs; the idea of using something both powerful and portable has been a goal of mine for a while now. And by portable, I’m not talking about laptops. Laptops are great, but how long can you walk around while carrying one? There’s a reason a lot of early models were called “luggables.” My laptop stays in its bag until there’s a table (or lap) I can put it on. I can’t imagine walking around while using it, though that’s not outside the realm of possibility. It just isn’t that portable.
The problem with portability is, what do you sacrifice to achieve it? Keep in mind that a device has to be useful, not just portable. At what point does portability interfere with usefulness? The more you expect a device to do, the less portability is possible.
My needs are relatively simple; I want something that will allow word processing, some graphics work, and wireless internet access.
Writing requires a good keyboard. You can’t skimp on that. The best portable writing machine that I’ve owned–and still own–is the Psion Series 5mx. It has well-spaced, almost full-size keys–quite a trick, considering that in its folded state, it’s only a little larger than a standard iPod. You held it like a kalimba and typed with your thumbs. When I was doing a lot of writing, I carried it around easily in my front pants pocket. If I wasn’t in the middle of a huge Writer’s Block, I’d be carrying it now. As for graphics, not really; it had a nice, crisp grey-scale touch-screen, but the size available for working was awkward. Like Cinerama, it was good for snakes and funerals. Internet access? Heh, when the Psion was made, internet access was still a novelty. You could buy a little modem (and I did) but your options were limited and I could never get it to work.
Sadly, Psion was never very successful in the consumer world and after introducing the Series 7 (somewhat larger but with color), they dropped out of the market and turned their attention to industrial devices. They were the odd man out; while all the other handhelds were running PalmOS or WinCE, they were using EPOC (you can get conversion software for Windows, though). You can still find the Series 5 on eBay, and if you do a lot of writing I recommend it
Well, my oil has been changed, and now I’m at the Craggy Gardens picnic grounds on the Blue Ridge Parkway. So where was I?
As far as wireless internet access goes, that’s really a non-issue nowadays. I bet you couldn’t buy something (new) that doesn’t include it. After all, the hardware requirements are minimal and, best of all, don’t require any sacrifices from either screen or keyboard. It does pull a lot from battery life, but you’re not going to get away from that anyway. The first interfering issue would be page size–while desktop monitors have been getting larger and larger, screens on portable devices have a limited amount of real estate to work with. WinCE devices solve this by reformatting the screen into a single column, which can be awkward to navigate. You can always change the screen to mimic a desktop, though you have legibility issues then. Since my internet needs are pretty modest (check email, browse forums, read news, visit blogs), none of this is much of an issue for me. I don’t go YouTubin’ while on the road.
What has been an issue with the WinCE devices I’ve owned are certain web services (Java, I suspect) that just don’t function. For example, if I’m in a fast food place and want to use their free wireless, when I try to click to accept the user agreement, nothing happens. Ordinary surfing is fine, though.
I currently own an iPaq Travel Companion, which is nice for internet and storing contacts, and has a neat GPS built in as well. But typing? Urgh. There’s no keyboard except an onscreen one, which you type on with a stylus a letter at a time. It’s hard enough to enter in a name and phone number this way–you can forget writing your novel on an iPaq. It’s true that the iPaq and other screen-typers have some kind of “guess ahead” system, wherein if you type “tho” it’ll suggest “thoroughly” or the like, but given my writing tendencies it’s seldom all that helpful.
Some of you might be thinking of BlackBerries or other multi-function phones. It’s true that some of the screens are getting bigger and sharper; they also include a keyboard, with the same “guess ahead” system. I’ve never found them easy to use, though. I have fairly large hands and those little key buttons are very hard to hit with any accuracy. As for the twelve key models, with several letters on each key, trying to type anything with those is torturous.
Next, graphics. Here, screen real estate is your biggest pal. If you’re going to do CGI, you need to see what you’re doing, and unless you’re just sketching out some ideas, you’ll need color. I’ve mentioned the Psion, how does the iPaq stack up? Well, somewhat better, though far from ideal. Again, as in web surfing, the size of the screen is the biggest limiting factor. You can’t easily do graphics if you’re bouncing all over the screen, trying to try one corner in with the others; you really need to see the whole canvas to work effectively. Software publishers seem to be aware of the limitations of WinCE for graphics, because I’m unaware of any paint programs for the platform other than what comes with the unit.
So, an iPaq is okay for surfing, and a Psion is great for writing. Neither is very good for drawing, though the iPaq has a slight edge. Why not carry both, then? Well, that’s a possibility, of course, but to my mind it makes more sense to just carry one. Why does that seem like such a difficult goal? We’ve seen that a very usable keyboard is possible, and that wireless internet is possible, and with a bit of a size adjustment, graphics might be possible, too. We’ve got devices for an astounding array of uses; am I the only one who would find the device I want useful?
Maybe, maybe not. As I noted at the start of this, I’m using a Fujitsu Lifebook to write this entry. How does it compare with what I want?
Well, it’s very, very close. It’s got wireless internet (duh), a good sized touchscreen (with a stylus) for graphics, and it has actual keys–keys you’d find on a laptop, not push-button things. Sounds perfect. So what’s wrong with it?
Let’s play the good, the bad, and the ugly. Good: the screen is excellent, bright and clear. I’ve created some good graphics on this, and since it runs full-blown Vista (could be worse), I can use whatever program I want. Because it’s running standard Windows resolution on a screen that’s about 3″ x 6″, I have to hold it pretty close to my face, but that’s not an issue. Internet access is great, without Java or Flash issues.
Bad: it’s not the most portable thing. Unless I start wearing pants with huge pockets, this isn’t going to fit in one. It’s not heavy or wearying to carry it, but it’s not set-and-forget. It “only” has one gig of RAM, non-upgradable, which means Vista takes forever to finish loading. It may just be lack of familiarity with Vista, but I’m not liking it as an operating system. It seems designed to be impressive-looking, rather than impressive–but that’s not Fujitsu’s fault.
Finally, we got the ugly, which in terms of the movie I’m going to interpret as “good but flawed.” First and foremost here is…the keyboard. Yeah, the keys are good, themselves, but the use of doubled-keys–necessitated by the small area available for these large keys–is amazingly bad. Such commonly used (by me) keys as Tab and the cursor-movement keys can only be accessed through a function key–meaning two key strokes to do one thing. I’m sure Page Up and Down keys are around somewhere, but they’re not labeled. (Yeah, yeah, I should RTFM. What fun is that? Besides, if I can get the rest through playing around…) I use the Down Arrow key way more than I use the Square Bracket key, and wouldn’t mind accessing the latter through a Function key. Accessing the former this way is a pain. (When I write, I tend to keep my hands on the keyboard, using the mouse only when unavoidable.)
The second ugly bit is the overall “handedness” of the unit. I mentioned above that the Psion was a two-hand unit; you held it in both palms and typed with your thumbs. The iPaq is a one-hand unit–one hand holds, the other operates.
The Fuji seems to want it both ways. The built-in mouse is a rubbery thing on the upper right; while you can thump it for clicking, the actual buttons are on the upper left. This would seem to indicate two-hand use. Typing can be done two-handed, though one-hand feels more natural and leads to more accuracy. Also, there’s only one Shift key (and one Function key) on the extreme left; this would necessitate one-hand operation if you want a capital “a” or “s.” Conversely, getting a Question Mark or Double Quote makes the fingers stretch quite a bit with one-hand operation. A second Shift (and Function) key over on the right would solve this. Yes, one could just type everything up raw and let auto-correct or spell-check clean up after, but that seems lazy and isn’t the way I work (though I am lazy). Or you could switch between one- and two-handedness as the need arose; since this requires stopping and reorienting, it’s something of an inconvenience.
Of course, I wrote, formatted and posted this entire entry using the Lifebook, so typing isn’t so difficult that it’s painful. It may just be a matter of practice. And I like the unit well enough that I’m willing to give it the practice it deserves.
What I’d really like is for Psion to come back with a Series 9. Think they will if I ask nicely? Here’s hoping they’re in a good mood. And thank you for visiting!