Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 9th August 2008 in The Guardian “MacBook Air spawns digital anagrams” – The Guardian headline
Stephen Fry ponders the preposterous twist of circumstance that made ‘laptop machines’ an anagram of ‘Apple Macintosh’
‘Laptop machines”, by one of those preposterous twists of circumstance that make you wonder who is running things and why they haven’t got anything better to do, just happens to be an anagram of “Apple Macintosh”. If an anagram is a derivative rearrangement of essential elements, then one might be disposed to argue that such has been their rise in influence and prestige that almost every new digital product seems to be an anagram of Apple.
The MacBook Air, a superlight machine with solid-state hard disk, no CD/DVD drive and only one USB port, caused something of a splash when it landed in the laptop lake a few months ago. Designed as a travelling wireless subnotebook, Apple seems to have timed its emergence better than poor Palm, whose ill-fated Foleo now looks to have been a great idea just six months (which is one and a half digital years) ahead of its time. In February, I wrote enthusiastically about the Asus Eee, like the Foleo an Open Source, solid-state machine weighing less than a kilo. As the misguided fad for PC Tablets fades into memory, subnotebooks seem to have become the Next Big Thing.
Toshiba joins the fray with the Portégé R500 (£1,599, toshiba.co.uk/computers). The version I was sent for review weighed 1.7lb, being the most cut-down model, lacking the optical single-layer CD/DVD drive included in other lines. All variants come bundled with Windows Vista Business edition and the usual slew of proprietary wizards, assistants and guides. Somehow, the geniuses at Toshiba have found room for a fingerprint scanner, three USB ports, an SD card reader, an iLink (FireWire) connection, microphone and headphone sockets, and what I took be an ethernet port but turns out to be for an RJ-45 phone jack. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless come as standard, and there is in option for 3G WWAN wireless, too. The killer blow is the availability of a massive 128GB of solid-state storage. Toshiba’s doubling of capacity (Apple’s very expensive SSD is only 64GB), quintupling of connection sockets and inclusion of a CD drive make the Portégé a very attractive alternative to the Air. The keyboard feels rattly and cheap, the 12-inch display, despite also being a 1280 by 800 backlit LCD, seems less crisp than the Air’s, and the whole package lacks Apple’s trademark beauty and feel, but this is certainly not an ugly object, and the business community has every reason to welcome such a relatively cheap, truly light and powerful machine.
I am also impressed by Lenovo’s entry into the ultraportable market, the ThinkPad X300 (about £1,800, lenovo.com/uk). You may be aware that IBM, once the colossus of computing (unfortunate epithet, I apologise to the ghosts of Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers), was humbled into selling its PC division to the Chinese company Lenovo in 2005, along with brand names ThinkPad, ThinkVision and Aptiva. The IBM ThinkPad had been one of the most popular business notebooks in history, especially prized for its security features and black solidity. The Lenovo X300 is so closely allied in look and feel to a “proper” ThinkPad that one soon forgets that we are in the ultra-lightweight arena. The display, keyboard and chassis are all as solid as a rock, the bright, clear LED screen is 13.3 inches, like the Air, but at a functionally higher resolution than the Apple or Toshiba. There are three USBs, a fingerprint reader and a Gigabit Ethernet, but no SD card or FireWire capabilities. The 64GB SSD can be doubled, I believe, but at a price.
Toshiba has produced the lighter, cheaper, higher memory machine, but for those who value build quality and durability, the Lenovo will probably be preferred.
Acronym of the week
SSD Solid-State Drive. A hard ‘disk drive’ that isn’t a drive at all. Without platters, styli, heads and other moving parts, SSDs use less power, read and write data more quickly, and generate less heat than conventional hard drives. At the moment they’re dearer, but look out for future generations of ‘Nand’ and ‘Dram’ flash memory that will supersede the HD as surely as it superseded Winchester drives and floppies.