Undead Tech: the Ultra-Thin Notebook

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Since time immemorial, gadget buyers have been discarding their most prized gizmos for newer, thinner, sleeker gizmos, often at the expense of practicality, durability, and stupendous amounts of money. But in the last few years, emaciated machines have also become economical. The latest company to get it right is Dell.

The new Vostro laptop accomplishes the trifecta: thin, competent and rationally priced. Dell proved it had the chops to go super-thin when it released the premium Adamo notebook earlier this year, but only with the Vostro have they proven they're serious about making gaunt devices be practical. The Vostro starts at just $450 and goes up to $650, and while the speed won't melt your face off--chips top out at 1.3GHz--these things are admirably equipped with Intel Core Solo and Core Duo chips, and are blazing fast compared to their anemic, Atom-powered competition, cheapo netbooks.

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We have Motorola to thank for the recent rash of thin-rage: their 0.54-inch-thick RAZR proved in 2004 that you can make a laughably bad product and still achieve meteoric sales as long as the gizmo strikes an under-fed pose. It may have taken 15 button-pushes just to get to a new text message, but the RAZR sold 110 million units in four years.

Other companies rushed to imitate the formula with their own rangy, barely-usable devices, like the Samsung SGH-XH20, pictured next to its forebear. (For a while, the XH20 held the record as the world's thinnest phone at just 0.3 inches.) Other companies like CARD Mobile Phone are still sacrificing function for form, as evidenced by this thing: a phone that is the thickness of three credit cards stacked together, and which relies on a presumably awful on-screen keyboard for data entry.

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The Vostro's atavistically blocky profile is perhaps most akin to the Xircom REX, a super-thin electronic Rolodex produced about 10 years ago that cleverly fit into the PCMCIA slot on laptop computers. The REX was a minimalist's take on the PDA: it held a calendar, contacts, tasks, memos, and could even run basic software (called "add-ins") on its 4.3MHz processor, and yet it was no bigger than a few business cards put together. Like the Vostro, it actually worked damn well.

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The REX wasn't the first gizmo to do thin right; that honor probably belongs to a now-defunct company called Poqet Computer Corporation, which produced this thing: the Poqet PC.

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Sure, your Eee PC is roughly that size--what's the big deal? Well, this 1.5-pound machine came out in 1989, at roughly the same time that Apple was producing its first laptop: the comparatively enormous Macintosh Portable (below). The 1989 Poqet ran straight-up MS-DOS and was powered by two AA batteries, which lasted for several weeks under regular use. How? The Poqet's miserly power-management software actually shut the CPU down between keystrokes. Sure, it only had 2MB of memory and cost $2,000, but the Poqet was a hot property before it was bought out by Fujitsu--just check out this InfoWeek article from 1989 comparing the Poqet to the Mac Portable as they duked it out in the brand-new portable market.

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Before PC makers, Kodak was one of the first companies to figure out that compact devices were hot commodities. Their best-selling device to date was the indomitable Kodak Instamatic 104 (above, at left), a small, squarish camera launched in 1965 that ultimately sold over 60 million units thanks to its durability, easy-loading 126-format film, and, of course, it's size. Prior to the Instamatic, Kodak's most popular camera had been the big, bulbous Brownie (pictured above at right); the Instamatic outsold it by a factor of ten.

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So why we do we want thin, anyway? Is it because the angular, skeletal MiniDisc player smacks of a Lamborghini Countach? Is it because we all have an ancestral fascination with the waif-like capacity of magnetic tapes, vinyl records and floppy discs?

Why are thin devices like the original iPhone popular despite being heavy? Why are lanky machines like the Titanium PowerBook still selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay despite being slower than Congress? We may never know, and I don't have time to postulate; I have an unopened Sony Vaio X demo unit (1.6 pounds, 0.5 inches thin, $1300) that I'm dying to drool on.

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1 Comments

  • -jt Thompson

    Despite its other shortcomings, the RAZR still remains as the most reliable phone I have ever used. It worked consistently well for calls and the battery lasted a really long time. I wish I could find a reliable phone like it today!