Sharp's Actius ultralight is a flawed jewel

Sharp's Actius MM10 has a USB docking cradle into which it fits vertically.

Ultraportable notebook PC offers many conveniences for travelers, but its software and hardware quirks are annoying

The ultraportable Sharp Actius MM10 notebook PC sounds like a traveler's dream come true, with its 1-GHz processor, onboard Ethernet plus IEEE 802.11b networking and bright, sharp display. And at 2.1 pounds and about a half-inch thick, it's made to travel light.

I have flown 2 million miles over the last couple of decades, and I hate lugging my company-issue notebook. It's heavy and requires a separate, also-heavy briefcase.

The Sharp, though capable of the role for which I envisioned it, was a somewhat flawed piece of work. Each user will have to decide whether the nearly miraculous weight and space savings are worth a few hassles.

More than a notebook, the MM10 is a subsystem with a docking cradle that hooks into a host PC's Universal Serial Bus port. To the PC, it looks like a USB mass storage device. That was where my first problem arose. Its bundled file synchronization software from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, was hopelessly confusing and, I suspect, nonfunctional.

My solution was to throw out the Iomega CD-ROM and simply use Windows Explorer to move files back and forth and track versions the old-fashioned way.

Keyboard problems

As you'd expect with such a small PC, the keyboard was less than full-sized. I could type effectively, except that the right-hand Shift key was inboard and below the larger Return key. Result: Constant, inadvertent carriage returns.

Similarly, the navigation pad just below the keyboard seemed to have a life of its own'as it admittedly does on many notebooks.

Wireless networking was slightly flawed as well. Activating it involved pressing a key combination to turn on the antenna, which had a green LED indicator. Once I figured that out, the machine detected two 802.11b connections with no problems. A handy configuration utility was built in.

Trouble arose, however, from conflicts with the MM10's dial-up accessory in Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition. While I was visiting Web sites, the modem constantly tried to start dialing without any phone connection. Error messages popped up repeatedly until I wiped out my shortcut to GCN's dial-up server to make them stop.

A third flaw, depending on your point of view, was the MM10's relatively small 15G hard drive. For my purposes, it was adequate as a satellite drive for word processing, e-mail, Web access and presentations. I carry most of my traveling data on a USB keychain device anyhow.

The GCN Lab staff loaded the MM10 with Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint plus Adobe Photoshop'Internet Explorer was already there'which left plenty of room for data files. But the MM10 was designed to be a satellite, not a primary computer.

One other nitpick: The cradle had an on-off switch. In the off position, the MM10 became invisible to the host. But turning it off wrongly invoked Windows' warning about yanking USB devices, yet the Unplug or Eject Hardware utility didn't work if the system was turned on.

Finally, because the MM10 was so light, its battery was also lightweight. Even with a tiny hard drive and no optical spindle, the battery lasted no longer than 90 minutes. Sharp has claimed 9-hour life'maybe in hibernate mode. Luckily, the included power brick was small, and charging took only a couple of hours.

Despite these problems, the MM10 proved to be a handy traveling companion. Its Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor and 256M of memory made for fast processing. Unlike other notebooks I've used, repeatedly cycling the MM10 through standby or hibernate status didn't make the application software wobble.

The 10.4-inch, 1,024- by 768-pixel LCD was exceptionally bright and sharp. A single PC Card slot supported a modem, and there were two USB ports, a headphone jack and, under a rubber cover, an Ethernet plug.

Travel conveniences

On a two-day trip, I found the annoyances were outweighed by the convenience of leaving a separate PC carrying case behind. I never thought airline travel could get worse than during the days of the Eastern Airlines and Pan American World Airways bankruptcies. But it has. Being able to whip a PC out of my briefcase and onto the ubiquitous gray tray was a joy.

Besides being a huge aid to travel or weekend work, think of the security benefits of leaving your desktop-replacement notebook in its docking station. And let's face it: Handheld computers, even the super-duper ones with Microsoft Office and all the bells and whistles, can't substitute for a real PC.

The MM10's file synchronization should work, but it's not strictly necessary. If Sharp can tighten up the software flaws, it should have a winner.

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