Traveling Companion — Sharp's Actius MM20P

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 09, 2004
The Sharp $1,599 Actius MM20P (with XP Professional) houses your favorite desktop applications in a remarkably slim laptop package. The notebook weighs just two pounds and measures 8.2 by 9.9 by 0.8 inches; it's like a feather in your lap and no burden in your briefcase.

In addition to being small, light and silent (with no cooling fan), the MM20P comes with a clever desktop docking cradle. When plugged into your desktop PC's USB port, the cradle recharges the Sharp's battery while making its 20GB hard disk available as an external hard drive; simply drag-and-drop files between the laptop and the desktop PC. The MM20P includes an Iomega software utility that synchronizes folders or file versions.

Despite the Actius' explicit positioning as a traveling companion instead of primary PC, you'll want to install some programs or perhaps watch DVD movies on it. The cradle can't help you there (unless you're installing applications from downloaded setup files instead of discs), so Sharp offers an optional LiteOn external DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive that uses its own AC adapter and one of the notebook's USB ports.

Sharp normally sells the combo drive as a $249 option, but you can get it bundled with Ahead Software's Nero Burning ROM and CyberLink's PowerDVD player now for only $99 (until the end of 2004) through a deal at Sharp's online store. The only programs that come preinstalled on the MM20P include Norton AntiVirus 2004 and Adobe Reader 6.

Downplaying Dial-Up
Sharp's made relatively few sacrifices to squeeze a Windows XP notebook into such a flyweight form factor. You won't find old-fashioned parallel or PS/2 ports, but rather two USB 2.0 ports, one on either side of the system (you won't find a FireWire port, either, but the Actius is hardly likely to see duty as a video-editing workstation).

There's no internal modem, but the MM20P comes with a 56Kbps PC Card modem for its Type II PC Card slot. Business and broadband users will be more interested in the 10/100Mbps Ethernet port at the right side, to say nothing of the built-in 802.11b/g wireless networking; pressing a Fn key and F1 toggles the Wi-Fi radio if you're conserving battery power.

A conventional VGA port wouldn't fit, but a mini connector with a short VGA adapter cable lets you hook up an external monitor. Finally, you'll find a headphone jack at the left side, although the skinny Sharp's mono audio is about as lo-fi as it gets.

The unit's 10.4-inch XGA (1,024 by 768) display proved crisp and clear, with no bad pixels, although our middle-aged eyes could tolerate only the top two of the eight brightness settings. The display doesn't have the widest viewing angle — images turn into photographic negatives if you take a few steps to the side.

Mild-Mannered Sharp's MM20P is clearly more about ultra-mobile convenience than ultra-high performance. That said, the MM20P includes a 1.0GHz, 256-bit processor, 512MB of memory (not expandable) as well as a 20GB 4,200-rpm hard disk and an ATI Mobility Radeon graphics chip.

The result is decent, but far from barn-burning, performance. The MM20P feels perky enough while using a word processor or spreadsheet, and perkier when loading it; but don't expect this type of road-worthy notebook to handle video editing or graphics-intensive 3-D gaming.

Oddly enough, we also noticed that the Windows XP plug-and-play process that recognizes a newly connected USB storage device, like the LiteOn combo drive or our USB flash drive, took more than the usual 20 or 30 seconds — a full two and a half minutes. Still, though leisurely, the MM20P is perfectly adequate for everyday applications.

Typographical Errors
We find the Sharp's keyboard somewhat less than adequate. Its 17mm (versus your desktop keyboard's 19mm) pitch or spacing requires conscious care or precise typing. Sharp also positions the cursor arrows at the bottom right corner, and pairing them with the Fn key to double as Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn, results in cramped, clumsy maneuvering. At least the typing feel is comfortable, as is the smooth operation of the touch pad and its twin mouse buttons.


Sharp's Actius MM20P
A fine on-the-road notebook, the Sharp Actius MM20P weighs a scant two pounds.

This small and light PC comes with a small and light battery, which is bad news for anyone hoping the Actius might set longevity records: With the toggle switch above the keyboard set to "normal" mode, we averaged an OK-but-not-great one hour and 40 minutes or one hour and 50 minutes of work before the lithium-ion pack gave up the ghost.

Flipping the switch to "mobile" mode slows the CPU and dims the screen (which, as mentioned, we were obliged to turn back up at least partway in order to be readable); this helped us eke out two hours and five minutes in another work session. Sharp offers a triple-capacity add-on battery for $199.

The Bottom Line
If you want a super-sexy, wafer-thin, two-pound notebook, you want Sony's new status symbol Vaio X505 — but that system costs a painful $3,000. For $1,700 (counting the external combo drive), the Actius MM20P offers a reasonable alternative: It's one of the slowest PCs on the market, but it's perfectly fine for checking e-mails and writing reports, and the docking cradle reduces the chore of carrying a USB flash drive and synchronizing your briefcase and desktop systems manually.

Still, the keyboard is awkward enough that we'd lean toward the ThinkPad X40 or a three- rather than two-pound sub-notebook with built-in optical drive, such as Sony's Vaio TR series or Fujitsu's LifeBook P7000.

Pros

  • Amazingly thin and light, with decent keyboard feel and 10.4-inch display Why can't every notebook work as a handy USB external hard drive for your desktop?
Cons
  • Keyboard layout guaranteed to cause typos
  • Sluggish performance; unimpressive battery life

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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