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Comdex Laptop Bonanza

Yeah, they're cool and they're fun to own and they let you show off how hard you work by making it look like you are working absolutely all the time, even in the bathroom. But now it seems that everyone is joining the laptop/notebook party and you can't tell the players apart without a scorecard, or at least a spec sheet.

That's the main problem with the big news from Comdex this time. There are so many new laptops and notebooks, and almost without exception they are 286- and 386SX-based DOS computers. Humph. Few of them are even all that interesting, so I'll only mention the ones that caught my eye in the many reports I've heard from varied sources.

Toshiba is introducing a 20 MHz 386SX laptop whose claim to fame is that it employs a color, active-matrix LCD screen that is supposed to be just wonderful. Of course the laptop makes you pay through the nose for feeding your eyes - the list price is $8999. That can't even compete with Sharp's color laptop, which lists for a cool ten grand. Color is nice as we've found out recently, having added a Micron Xceed card and an Apple 13" color monitor to our computer hardware fold, but we're not sure who will pay that kind of money for a color laptop. If the laptop is used as a main computer, maybe, but then is a 386SX enough processor power to drive a color screen and still run Windows? Good question and one which we don't know the answer to.

A laptop from a company called Astarte will feature the J-key mouse pointing device that we talked about many months ago in TidBITS. Essentially, one of the keys is mounted such that it can serve as a pointing device as well as for entering its letter - originally it was mounted under the J key, but we don't know if Astarte has kept it in the same place. This type of pointing device is intriguing because with all the hubbub about Windows, few people have talked about how easy it is to use the keyboard commands instead of the mouse. That's because it isn't easy - it's pretty nasty and not too many people will run Windows on laptops until some sort of decent pointing device is built in. Apple's trackball is a good start, but it does increase the size somewhat. The Isopoint device used by Outbound in their Mac-compatible laptop is interesting, but I had trouble adjusting to it since my hands are fairly large. Apparently the Isopoint that Outbound uses is not the latest in the Isopoint design, though, but another DOS laptop, the GRiDCase (I'm sure I've destroyed their capitalization somewhere in that name.) does use the latest Isopoint and with the Astarte Quest may be one of the few laptops that can actually run Windows happily. Oh, in the new-features-we-hadn't-realized-we-needed department, Astarte's Quest also comes with a built-in microphone and speaker phone (a headset connector is provided for those confidential conversations). All this gadgetry allows you to carry on a conversation while sending a fax or using a modem (neither of which were mentioned as options). Of course the part they ignore is that you have to have two phone lines for this, but hey, that's a detail.

The portable-overkill award goes to, you guessed it, IBM. This is the company which has never done a portable computer right. IBM's portables are always heavy and awkward and seldom have made much of a splash in the market. This one will make a splash, at least, if only because it weighs in at 22 pounds and uses a 33 MHz 486 chip. Don't even ask if it has a battery. I guess that IBM is targeting the behemoth at the bodybuilder power users among us. Oh, make that wealthy bodybuilder power users. The PS/2 Model P75 will run anywhere between $16,000 and $19,000, depending on what sort of hard disk it has installed (that's more than our house, and we've got a nice hard drive!). Now if only they had put retractable wheels on it so it could be wheeled through airports like luggage. Any bigger and IBM better start talking to the American Tourister R&D department for case design ideas.

Of course there were no portables announced by Apple at Comdex. They might have been the only hardware company without one from the sounds of it. Well, maybe something will happen with their rumored negotiations with various Japanese companies such as Toshiba and Sony. Sony is interesting in that respect, because of all the major electronic manufacturers in Japan, only Sony (as far as I know) doesn't have a computer line. "Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

Astarte -- 303/449-9970

Information from:
Adam C. Engst -- TidBITS Editor

Related articles:
PC WEEK -- 19-Nov-90, Vol. 7, #46, pg. 19, 29
InfoWorld -- 19-Nov-90, Vol. 12, #47, pg. 1
PC WEEK -- 12-Nov-90, Vol. 7, #45, pg. 16, 17
InfoWorld -- 12-Nov-90, Vol. 12, #46, pg. 1, 27