The best mobile computer yet

Ever since Toshiba created the first successful notebook computer in 1985, companies have been striving, and mobile users have been longing, for the perfect portable computer -- something capable of doing everything they would do on a desktop, but small enough to take everywhere.

Every few years, one company or another has made a quantum leap in coming closer. Compaq did it with its LTE series, and then Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) with its Powerbook Duo notebook. A few companies over the years introduced subcompact notebooks with undersized keyboards that never were successful because it was difficult to type on their tiny keys.

Currently, the most popular mobile notebooks are very thin units about the size of a large magazine, sporting a 12-inch diagonal screen and available from most of the PC manufacturers. However, they have no built-in CD drives and generally suffer from a short battery life. Until recently these ultra-thins represented the best choice for a lightweight (about 3 pounds) computer with a normal-sized keyboard.

But now Sony (NYSE: SNE, has done the seemingly impossible with its new Vaio TR2a computer. Sony, to its credit, has tried many new designs and form factors for its notebooks and desktops, some successful and some not, but they have not been shy about taking risks. (Check the Web site to see some of the products offered in Japan, and you'll see a variety of models that never reach our shores.) The new TR2a, the latest version in its TR line, represents a real breakthrough in mobile notebooks. I think it's the best mobile PC notebook yet and the first without any significant compromises.

This is the first notebook small and light enough for real portability equipped to do everything you might want to with your computer. At just over 3 pounds with a 10 1/2 inch by 7 1/2 inch footprint -- about 75 percent the size of the typical 12-inch portable -- its power belies its size. It uses Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC) new ultra-low-voltage 1.0 GHz Centrino Pentium processor. Lower voltage means a longer battery life, and the TR2a averages about four to five hours in real life use.

Amazingly, the TR2a also has a built-in CD-RW/DVD combo drive (for playing and writing CDs and playing DVDs). So this diminutive notebook is a full-featured DVD player with battery life long enough to watch two movies.

The most significant breakthrough is a Sony developed XBRITE LCD screen that puts more information in a smaller area, yet is easier to read than a conventional screen. It has to be seen to be appreciated. While this screen is 10.6 inches diagonally, smaller in size than the ultra-thins' 12-inch screens, it has 20 percent more pixels along its width (1280 x 768 as compared with 1024 x 768). This increased horizontal resolution is especially useful for viewing Web pages, Outlook's multipane views, Word documents, spreadsheets and particularly DVD movies that use the letterbox format. The screen is glass-smooth like a glossy photograph, rather than the matte finish on conventional screens, and is brighter and clearer. After using this screen for a month it is difficult for me to go back to a normal one.

The TR2a has a 40GB hard drive, 512 MB of RAM, as well as all the necessary connectors and slots including two USB 2.0 and Fire Wire connectors, a Memory Stick slot, headphone jack, microphone, 56K modem and Ethernet connections and a Type II PC Card slot. There's an on/off switch for the internal 802.11b wireless modem (Wi-Fi) to save power. And there is a 1/3 megapixel camera and stereo speakers built into the lid.

If there is a compromise it's the keyboard; key spacing is 17mm, 1 mm less than standard. However, I found it to be satisfactory and better than Sony's earlier attempts at squeezing small keyboards into small computers. It has good key travel and all the keys in the right places.

But a list of specifications cannot do justice to convey the usability of this machine. The smaller size and brilliant screen make it a joy to use anywhere. It truly is a major breakthrough.

I've been using the TR2a with the new Verizon 1x EVDO high-speed (300-500Kbps) PC card. This is the new Qualcomm-developed high-speed CDMA 3G service available in San Diego and Washington, D.C., with 10 times the speed of a standard modem. In other cities its speed is similar to a modem. My experience with this new card has been positive. I've used it in both San Diego and this past week in Washington, D.C. The connection was quick and the speeds were as advertised. I did get an occasional dropped connection and I found the software a little unwieldy. I'd like to see a one-click connection, rather than the need to first power on the card, wait, and then connect, using a menu for one and a popup window for the other. You also need to disconnect and power down the card to allow the computer to go into sleep or hibernate modes. For high-speed access from anywhere in San Diego, this card is a good option. The combination of the Sony TR2a and the EVDO card make a great mobile wireless computing solution.

Cost of the Verizon PC-5220 card is $249 plus $80 per month for unlimited data. A $100 rebate is being offered at The Sony Vaio TR2a is now in most computer stores as well as available from Sony direct for $2,199. While most stores have a 15 percent restocking fee for returns, Sony offers a free 30-day trial with no return penalty. That's how I got hooked.

Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at

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