JVC's Mini Note Carries a Maxi Price

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted September 22, 2004
Business travel, whether you work in a small business or a big one, has grown very tedious and time consuming since 9/11. More hours in airports, more time shuffling in various lines with a briefcase or carry-on tugging at your shoulder.

Perhaps these new business-travel realities inspired Japanese electronics maker JVC, a company not previously known in North America for building computers, to develop its $2,400 Mobile Mini Note PC. The Mini Note is a tiny, but powerful portable PC that sets itself apart from other travel-friendly notebooks by including a built-in DVD-CDR/W drive.

In fact, this unit is almost as much a portable DVD player as it is a PC, boasting a remarkable three-hour battery life when playing DVDs — and almost seven when used for PC functions. This is great if you have a long lay-over or don't like the movies offered on your flight.

Sizing It Up
The physical design is also reminiscent of portable DVD players. At a time when 17-inch LCD screens and ultra-thin form factors are the coolest features going, the JVC Mini Note features a seemingly undersized 8.9-inch (1024 x 600) widescreen LCD and a stubby body.

It weighs about the same as mobile notebooks that don't have DVD drives — 3lbs 4oz with the standard clip-on battery. Overall dimensions are 9-1/4 x 1-1/4 x 8-7/16 inches, which means it fits neatly in a purse, briefcase or portfolio.

JVC chose to use IBM's pointing stick — the little rubbery nubbin that sits in the middle of the keyboard — as the pointing device. Most notebook designers have gone away from this technology in favor of touchpads, which I prefer. Given its diminutive dimensions, however, this unit may not have been able to accommodate a touchpad.

The biggest irritation is the keyboard. Given the 9-1/4-inch width, there just isn't room for a full-size array of keys. The Mini Note's keyboard includes all the QWERTY keys but they're about the size of Chiclets, with even tinier function keys. You can touch type on this machine — even with fat fingers like mine — but you'll make more mistakes. That said, it's still infinitely easier than typing on a Blackberry or any other handheld computer.

This may have been part of the thinking behind the JVC design. The Mini Note makes an interesting alternative to handhelds for people who need to do more input- and processor-intensive work while mobile — beyond just collecting and responding to e-mails. It is a much more expensive alternative, of course.

Portable Processing Power
As a PC, the Mini Note, which runs Windows XP, stacks up reasonably well against other mobile notebooks and goes way beyond handhelds. It features a 1GHz ultra low-voltage Intel Pentium M processor with a 400MHz system bus, 256MB of memory, a 40GB Ultra ATA/100 hard drive and Intel's Centrino Mobile Technology, including built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless networking — which worked flawlessly on my home office network on initial start-up.

Given the screen size, this is not a computer you want to use for hours at a time. Text is just too small, and if you enlarge it using the Zoom function — which is easy to do in Word, for example — you won't get much of it on the screen. Still, for light word processing, editing documents or working with small spreadsheets, I found it perfectly adequate. Certainly the processing power, memory and storage are equal to standard productivity applications.


JVC's Mobile Mini Note PC
JVC's Mobile Mini Note — a small, powerful PC with a hefty price tag.

Sufferin' Software
The Mini Note comes loaded with software related to its multimedia functions — programs for playing DVDs (even HDTV content) and editing digital video — but it's a little light on business software, you don't even get Microsoft Works. Most of the non-multimedia software is the standard free material case — Outlook Express, Internet Explorer etc. The Mini Note does come loaded with Norton Antivirus, but you'll have to subscribe to get updates.

Most of the premium hardware features on the Mini Note also relate more to its multimedia functions — a Firewire (IEEE 1394) connection for copying digital video from a camcorder (as well as two more general-use USB 2.0 ports); an SD (Secure Digital) card slot for transferring pictures from a digital camera flash memory card; the Stop, Play, Pause, Forward, Back buttons that control DVD play and the tiny, tinny-sounding stereo speakers.

We're not quite sure why JVC places so much emphasis on video editing — the Firewire port along with Pinnacle's video editing and special effects software. Video production is more the realm of very powerful desktop media PCs, one would think.

Still, if you use video in your business presentations, you could use the Mini Note to do last minute edits to customize existing videos for a particular presentation. You could not easily handle full-screen, full-motion DVD-quality video on a computer with this kind of processing power, but it would support MPEG4 video (highly compressed, hence smaller file sizes.)

I am not a connoisseur of high-quality video, but the DVD movies I played on the Mini Note looked very good. The LCD is small but very sharp and clear with good color. And when it's as close to your eyes as it is when you have the unit sitting on your lap, it's big enough. I encountered none of the image flaws or hiccups in play-back sometimes associated with using computers, especially underpowered computers, to play DVDs.

The Bottom Line
The Mini Note isn't very practical as a first computer, although you could buy a full-size keyboard and mouse and a bigger screen and use it at the office. It has Bluetooth capabilities built in, so you could use one of the new Bluetooth keyboard-mouse sets from Microsoft at the office. That way, there's only the external screen to disconnect when you need to take it on the road.

The Mini Note's wired Ethernet port and the wireless network interface let you connect to the office network without a problem. It also comes with software that simplifies changing your network connection — useful when you're visiting a branch office or customer's office, or using a Wi-Fi hotspot.

It's an attractive, but expensive, product. Unless you really need the features the Mini Note offers, you can spend a lot less money. I recently purchased a traveling computer about the same weight as this one but without a CD or DVD drive and paid about $1,000. It has similar processing power and memory and a 20GB drive. I just can't watch movies on the plane.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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