The Lure of Laptops

Portability is often a siren song, but the Panasonic eLite W5 still offers a decent entry into the laptop fray.
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Laptops just ain't my bag. Too clunky and heavy, or too small and finicky.

I know millions swear by them, but to me they combine priciness and flimsiness into one package.

And forget the strain on the hands and eyes. Most laptops deserve a spot in the carpel tunnel/ophthalmological hall of infamy.

But just in time for spring travel, that may be changing.

Sony

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,

Panasonic

,

Dell

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,

Hewlett-Packard

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and

Apple

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, to name just a few, are taking increased interest in the ultralight laptop.

Ultralights are smaller than most portable machines: roughly 12-inch diagonal screens, diminutive keyboards, operating weights less than three pounds and prices that start solidly in the four figures.

I spent the last few months testing one such upscale ultralight, the

Panasonic eLite W5 ($2,300). My verdict? The eLite, like all ultralights, is far from perfect. You will definitely miss your spacious desktop. But on balance, this machine is worth considering. It is tough, frugal with power and generally well done.

Particularly if you are lugging around an insidious, monstrous "desktop replacement" laptop, the eLite is a sensible upgrade.

The Illusion of Portability

Laptops remain the great puzzle of the consumer computer market.

Strictly speaking, there is little reason to buy one. Laptops cost roughly double a comparable desktop. They are slower. The displays are smaller and less responsive. There are fewer features.

And they are not really that portable. Counting transformers and the other nonsense you have to lug around, 8 or 10 pounds is really what you must struggle with when carrying a laptop. And battery lives are really just a few hours, during which already feeble displays are dimmed; small and slow hard drives and processors operate in reduced performance modes to save juice; and most of the limited features of notebooks, such wireless capability and media functions, must be rationed to save power.

And truly portable e-mail devices -- the BlackBerry, the Treo, the PocketPC -- work just fine for days on end. So why do we let laptops turn us into digital beggars, poor souls flopped on a floor, poaching power and connectivity from a dim wall socket at an air terminal?

Maybe it's just me. Because despite these issues, laptops remain the most popular personal computer, by far.

During last year's holiday shopping season, for example, notebook computers dominated the market: 64% of computers sold late in 2006 were notebooks, vs. desktops' 36%.

The gap is widening -- in 2005, notebooks held only 52% of the market, according to Current Analysis, a market research firm in Washington, D.C.

To capture a bigger piece of that growing market, vendors are working to hard to fix the issues with notebooks. Modern laptops get more powerful, lighter and more ergonomically flexible with each passing iteration.

Take the Panasonic eLite. The machine sports a decent, 12.1-inch display, a reasonably large keyboard, and enough memory and power to handle the full suite of office software tasks.

Battery life is good, at about eight hours in power-saving mode; I burned out the machine in about half that time by keeping the display and drives running full-on.

And the unit was genuinely portable. Mine weighed about 3½ pounds with all its cables, and it fit easily inside my bag.

I was particularly impressed with the finish and certain features. The eLite is the cousin of the Panasonic ToughBook, the military-grade computer used in our armed forces and on the world's best TV show,

The Wire

. The eLite is done in a very durable magnesium alloy. The unit has not a scratch after about two months of dragging it around, including on some bumpy road trips.

The mouse interface is a clever circular design. And the wireless Web connection was automatic and trouble-free. Best of all, the machine comes in some decent colors -- green, red and even purple -- which should spruce up even the fiercest road warrior's techno-attire.

Laptop and Bottom

Now to the issues: The eLite is still very much a laptop.

Though the keyboard and mouse are well done for a portable machine, I had real hand pain after about two hours of use. The screen is still small. And particularly in battery-saving mode, it is like watching an original '80s Nintendo game display -- dark, flat and drab.

Processing power is definitely less than top-notch. I tested this machine running Windows XP and found myself wondering how it would manage the increased processing load of Window's new operating system, Vista. (Panasonic says the machine is fully Vista-compliant and that users will experience no problems.) And I still had to drag around the stupid plug, transformer and wee sack of peripherals to make this unit run. So don't expect the eLite to be revolutionary.

Also, Panasonic does not have much direct on-the-ground retail support. The company emulates the Dell model, but without the market share, so repairs may be an issue.

But if you must travel with your entire virtual self stored on a portable computer -- and I know that is often the only way to manage this crazy world of ours -- you should consider the eLite.

It won't replace your desktop. But it will give you a reasonably comfortable, elegant computer environment for the road ahead.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.