In Search Of The Perfect Notebook


Way ahead of where it began, there's still room for improvement


His name doesn't come up as much as it did when he was CEO of Netscape, but Jim Barksdale deserves to be credited, if nothing else, for his unforgettable wit. Take the problem with embedding an Internet browser deeply into an operating system--one of his favorite laments about Microsoft. Too many compromises, he concluded.

"It's like a houseboat: it ain't a great house, and it ain't a great boat," he told me once.

Remind you of anything? How about the great compromise known as the laptop computer, the ubiquitous tool of choice from corporate road warriors to wayward collegiate kids everywhere? The laptop, and its notebook brethren, used to be the sum total of bad compromises. Cramped, chicklet keyboards, crummy screens with limited viewing areas, and overheating, under-powered processors. No more. No wonder IDC and others note that a sizable number of notebooks sold each year into commercial settings are actually desktop replacements.

Today's notebooks are light years ahead of the days when many notebooks were incomplete without a "handy" docking station. I haven't done the anagram, but I am absolutely convinced that the correct word jumble of "docking station" is "houseboat." The mere thought that someplace other than where you are currently is better for creating, capturing and communicating original ideas is antithetical to the idea of computing on-the-go.

But I think the only thing more annoying than a desktop-bound docking station is the one that's supposed to hit the road. Not to pick on Sony, but some of its past designs have committed this sin. I was on a flight a while back marveling at a seatmate's ultra-light Sony Vaio notebook. Sleek, streamlined and refined, it was an absolute dream. At least that was my impression. But then the owner showed me all the things that were inside my notebook that were outside his. In the name of portability and Žlan, Sony stripped the device down to its core: no CD drive or burner, no extra USB or video ports or printer ports on-board natively. Nope, this device was basically a motherboard, keyboard and screen. When he hit the road, he usually brought along the "handy" mini-doc that he had to pay more for. That had the ports and other things that made the device useful. All told, he toted more gear and more weight than I did.

Future notebook designs seem so promising. Few moving parts. Voice and biometric recognition built in, batteries that last 'til dawn and wireless connectivity without the fuss. Way cool.

Somewhere out there is the perfect notebook, the one that combines the right ergonomics, features, performance, reliability, weight and durability. What should it have? Well, let's start with a processor fast enough to provide instant-on and enough horsepower to burn a DVD while simultaneously opening any legitimate e-mail attachment you might need.

What else? How about instant-online? As entire cities, such as Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, become one giant hotzone, how about a device smart enough to grab any signal from a Wi-Fi provider within a reasonable radius, say 500 yards? My 12-inch Apple iBook has the right idea, albeit in a limited sort of way. With the iBook, all you need to do to get online is scroll up to the top right of your screen and click on a little icon that looks like a broadcast signal from a radio tower.

Now, let me push the boundary a bit more. Why can't my screen double as a scanner? Someday it will. And why do I need a keyboard built in? Shouldn't the device be able to project a virtual keyboard onto flat surfaces or even itself? With that type of design, I might even be able to rearrange the keys in the manner that I want, or at least get them in a size I prefer. What else? How about solid-state memory, a built-in phone and software smart enough to create a virtual dashboard of the four or five applications I use most? And shouldn't I be able to choose the color? Even Ford lets me do that.

Does this dream machine exist? Perhaps. But what comes to mind is the joke about heaven and hell. You know the one: Heaven is where the cooks are French, the policemen English, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and the bankers Swiss. In hell, the cooks are English, the policemen German, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss and the bankers Italian.

In notebook nirvana, the exteriors are from Apple, the interiors from IBM, the screens from Toshiba, and the fit and finish from Sony. In hell...well, I should stop in case you're already carrying that device. Hey, there's always an upgrade someday.