Mon, 23 Oct 2000

New notebook has built-in support for wireless connection

By Zatni Arbi

SINGAPORE (JP): For some time, we have been waiting for real breakthroughs in mobile computers. One would be the foldable screen. It would allow us to view a large, flexible screen without having to carry a bulky notebook such as the current ones that boast 15" displays.

However, when I asked someone from IBM about the possibility of having this technology on a ThinkPad in the foreseeable future, he jokingly said to me, "Unfortunately, at the moment you can only fold it once".

It seems that we still have a long way to go until foldable screens become really feasible.

Another hoped for breakthrough would be, of course, batteries with more juice. Third party solutions have been available, but so far the best that notebook vendors can come up with is about three and a half hours of battery power.

Crusoe, Transmeta's low power chip that promised a whole day of computing on a single battery charge, seems to be unable to deliver the promise.

"We were asked by Transmeta to test the chip, but so far it has not given us a really significant improvement in battery life, while computing power is far below our current requirements," said Jeff Wu during my interview with him last week. Jeff is the Acer director for product management.

"So for the near future we still won't see Crusoe processors being used on any of our notebooks, although we are certainly going to use them on our PDAs," he added.

Acer has been aggressively moving into Web-enabled devices as part of its e-Life initiative, and the PDA is one of the products it has been pushing ahead.

Jeff's story about Transmeta's inability to deliver the many promised hours of computing on a single battery charge coincided with the report by Stephen Wildstrom, the writer of Business Week's "Technology & You" column.

He tested the latest version of Sony VAIO PictureBook mini notebook and was able to squeeze two and a half to four hours of battery life out of the new Crusoe-based machine.

In the past, he said, he could get one and a half hours with the original Pentium II-based PictureBook.

Interestingly, however, a PC article last week also reported that NEC was launching their Crusoe-based notebook for the Japanese market, which will give users 11 hours of computing time per battery charge.

We certainly are curious to find out whether the claim is justifiable and what the tradeoffs are. Meanwhile, the interim conclusion is that the days of being able to attend a one-day seminar without having to stay tethered to an electrical outlet may not be that close yet.

The industry never stands still. Last Tuesday I was in Singapore to attend the press launch of Acer's latest high-end ultra-portable notebook, the TravelMate 350. That was when I had the opportunity to interview Jeff.

New features

The TravelMate 350 is surely the first ultra-portable notebook with a built-in smart card reader, although definitely not the first one for "any size" notebooks. Some three years ago Siemens Nixdorf rolled out its SCENIC Mobile 800 Series, and I reviewed it in this column during the Habibie days. I still remember it because, at that time, I was also informed that he wanted to have that very expensive, powerful, heavy, bulky and "very German" notebook on his presidential desk.

Since then I have not encountered any other notebook with a built-in smart card reader--until Acer launched this new slim notebook.

There is no doubt that a smart card reader is something that would be useful in the future, especially when we are ready to use cash cards or electronic wallets to make online purchases. Currently, it is used mainly for security protection. Each time the smart card is taken out, TravelMate 350 will become totally unusable. The user will have to insert the card again and type in his name and password to get back to his applications.

Up to five smart cards can be used with a single TravelMate 350 notebook, which means that five users can share one unit.

Unfortunately, if one of the smart cards is lost, the unit has to be brought back to Acer's service center before a new card can be used.

In the meantime, a rescue diskette which was created the first time the smart card was initialized can be used as a card replacement.

Another important feature that I like about the notebook is the new keyboard design. Acer has long been making ergonomic keyboards through its Acer peripherals division. While the keyboard's feel may not be as great as a ThinkPad's, it has a five-degree curve -- as you can see in the accompanying picture.

The curved keyboard is more user-friendly to our wrists. It reminds me of the notebook keyboard designed by Samsung some years ago, which could be expanded to the sides to simulate ergonomic keyboards, such as Microsoft's Natural Keyboard or Logitech's Cordless Desktop Pro.

TravelMate 350 uses Mobile Pentium III processors with speeds of 650 up to 850 MHz. It comes with 64 MB of RAM and a 33.8 cm (13.3 inches) TFT display. The notebook's lid cover, as you would guess, is made of magnesium alloy to protect the screen.

The unit is only about 2 cm thick and the weight is only 1.8 kg. The design is quite attractive, too. At the back you will find two USB ports in addition to the Ethernet and modem ports, but there is no parallel or serial port.

To connect your old printer, you will need a special connector to the 100-pin expansion port. This connector, called I/O Port Replicator, has both the serial and parallel ports and does not take much space.

Like Acer's older model, the TravelMate 340T, the floppy diskette and CD-ROM drives come in an external combo unit. There is an optional floppy diskette and DVD-ROM Combo drive, too.

Another nice option is the InviLink cordless pointing device. It helps the user control the pointer and other features from a distance while he is making his presentation.


The notebook is one of the most complete that I have ever seen in terms of support for networking. In addition to the built-in V.90 56Kbps modem and the 10/100 Ethernet port, it has a built-in IEEE 1394 module for high-speed data transfer.

It allows you to capture and record high-quality videos off your video camera, for example.

The notebook also comes with an 802.11b wireless LAN support, which will connect the notebook to a LAN access point at a speed of 11 Mbps without a cable. As long as you are within a radius of 50 meters of the LAN access point, you can connect to the LAN without having to plug in anything.

The front side has a hidden 802.11b antenna that can also function as a Bluetooth transmitter. Bluetooth is still an option, though, and will become a standard on this notebook by the end of the year.

Acer became the fifth largest notebookmaker worldwide in 1997.

For many years it was an original equipment manufacturer, which means that other notebook vendors may come and ask it to manufacture notebooks for them.

Being such a manufacturer, Acer has enjoyed the advantage of learning from the mistakes of others, including flaws in design and choice of processors.

For example, while making notebooks for other vendors, Acer found out that the AMD mobile processor had problems with heat, and therefore we have not seen an AMD-based TravelMate.

"However, AMD is making a lot of progress in its next generation mobile processors, and we're looking closely at this development," explained Jeff.

Despite the advantages of being able to learn from other people's mistakes, however, Acer has not been able to reap a truly convincing number of prestigious awards from computer publications for its notebooks. So let us see how well the new TravelMate 350 Series will fare. (