Sharp’s Skinny Laptop Can Act Like a PDA, But Design Is Flawed

c_Mossberg.jpg (9864 bytes)As lightweight laptops shrink more and more, and personal digital assistants gain greater functionality, the two are slowly merging in some respects. For instance, some PDAs now sport keyboards and can be used to edit documents. And the thinnest laptops are as slim as the larger PDAs.

Now, one company, Sharp, has taken this merger of the laptop and PDA to a new level. It has introduced an ultrathin laptop that can synchronize its data with a larger PC via a desktop cradle, in the manner of a Palm or Pocket PC.

This new laptop, the Actius MM10, takes up less desktop space than an issue of Time magazine, and might even be thinner than Time one day, if the advertising market ever rebounds. Its tapered form is between 0.54 and 0.78 inch thick, and it weighs only 2.1 pounds.

That diminutive size accommodates a small but sharp 10.4-inch screen and a cramped keyboard, but not an internal CD-ROM drive or even a modem. Both are add-on units. There’s an adequate 15 gigabyte hard disk, a decent 256 megabytes of memory and built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. The processor is a one-gigahertz Transmeta Crusoe, which is Intel-compatible but supposedly saves battery life.

This whole package, including the external CD drive and modem, costs a relatively affordable $1,499 at Sharp’s Web site.

What sets the MM10 apart, however, is that it comes with a large cradle that connects to a desktop PC. When you drop the laptop vertically into the cradle, the batteries get recharged and the laptop shows up on the desktop PC’s screen as just another hard disk. Using your desktop PC, you can manually move or copy files on or off the MM10, or run programs installed on its hard disk.

The two computers can be automatically synchronized if you install the program Sharp supplies. For example, if you’ve had the laptop on the road and created or changed various documents on it, the new or changed documents will be copied to your desktop PC the minute you place the laptop in the cradle.

I’ve been testing the MM10, and have found that the cradle and synchronization features work as advertised. But I’ve also found that the little laptop has some serious drawbacks that make it less attractive than it seems.

The worst problem with the MM10 is that it is sluggish. Common operations like saving and opening files, and rebooting, are much slower than on other new laptops.

Almost as bad is the keyboard layout. Little laptops always risk cramped keyboards, but the MM10 keyboard is just awful. The frequently used comma, period, apostrophe and question-mark keys are even narrower than the reduced-size letter keys, and the right-hand Shift key is small as well. The Delete key is just a speck in the upper-right-hand corner. This keyboard design is a disaster for touch typists.

The feedback is lousy, too. There’s no Caps Lock light, and when you use the function keys to adjust screen brightness or speaker volume, there’s no on-screen indicator to confirm your actions and show the levels.

Battery life is also a problem. The battery lasted less than two hours in my harsh test, where I turn off all power-saving software and play an endless loop of music. That suggests that, in normal use with the power-saving software on, you’d barely get three hours. Sharp does sell a higher-capacity battery, but it costs $199 and adds weight.

The cradle and synchronization features do work, though. To use them, you have to install special software on your desktop PC first, then plug the cradle into a power outlet and attach it to the desktop PC via a USB cable. Before you place the MM10 in the cradle, you have to shut down the laptop, not merely put it into sleep mode. This is a pain. Once you shove the laptop into the cradle, its batteries start recharging.

There’s a switch on the front of the cradle that turns on the laptop’s hard disk, even though the computer itself is off. Once you flip this switch, the laptop’s hard disk shows up in the My Computer window of your desktop as two extra hard disks, with the physical hard disk in the laptop split into two virtual sections. In my tests, I was able to copy files back and forth between the two computers and open files on the laptop using software on the desktop and vice versa.

If you install the synchronization software, you can select the folders on the desktop and laptop you wish to keep in sync. You can either synchronize manually, or set it up to compare and synchronize the files in the matching sets of folders whenever the laptop is in its cradle.

The synchronization is pretty basic, however. It doesn’t actually coordinate individual address-book and calendar entries, or specific e-mail messages. It just replaces older versions of entire files with newer versions from the other machine.

All in all, the Sharp Actius MM10 is a clever concept that is marred by some design compromises. However, if you don’t mind sluggish performance and a weird keyboard, it may be a better solution than carrying a PDA.

E-mail me at mossberg@wsj.com.