Sharp Actius MM10 Review

You’ve heard of traveling light? Sharp Systems of America’s Actius MM10 is traveling anorexic: It’s a Windows XP notebook that weighs just 2.1 pounds and is wafer-thin at 8.2 by 9.9 by 0.8 inches. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, you can forget you’re carrying it (though you’ll notice by the time you put the 0.6-pound AC adapter and 1.3-pound external DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive and its AC adapter in your briefcase as well).

Though light, the MM10 is well-connected — 802.11b wireless networking is built-in, as is a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port (though no dial-up modem; our test system came with a V.92 PC Card modem). And though it runs desktop software, the skinny Sharp borrows a neat idea from handheld PDAs or digital cameras: a standard docking cradle that both recharges the notebook’s battery and plugs into your desktop PC’s USB port, whereupon the Actius’s 15GB Toshiba hard disk appears as another storage device so you can copy files and folders to and from it using Windows Explorer on the desktop. Sharp throws in a file-synchronization utility to keep documents up to date.

On the other hand, though owners of the old Windows CE HP Jornada or NEC MobilePro might think it a dream come true to have an almost-as-featherweight system that runs full-sized software, anyone comparing the Actius MM10 to thicker and heavier notebooks will be dismayed.

Its 1.0GHz Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor makes this the slowest PC we’ve tested since a 900MHz Duron desktop in June 2001; neither its 15GB hard disk nor 256MB of memory (actually 232MB after subtracting the Crusoe’s firmware overhead) is expandable; and the keyboard, while usable, is a bit cramped for comfort. None of that would stop us from giving the Sharp a thumbs-up if it cost $800 or $1,000, but it makes us think twice at $1,499.

Word-Processing-Worthy Performance
We don’t want to belabor the benchmarks (a BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 59, with 66 in Internet Content Creation and 53 in Office Productivity; FutureMark PCMark 2002 numbers of 1,447 CPU, 1,374 memory, and 230 hard disk) … suffice it to say the MM10 is leisurely when launching applications, but performs adequately while you’re answering an e-mail or editing a spreadsheet. If you’re thinking about image editing or games, well, the SMI Lynx 3DM+ graphics controller managed 5 frames per second in the old Quake III Arena 1,024 by 768 High Quality test.

We got similarly OK-but-hardly-outstanding results when measuring the slimline’s battery life — doing mostly low-octane word processing with the LCD screen at seven-eighths brightness, we regularly got an hour and 45 minutes to just under two hours of work done before the lithium-ion cell called it quits. A triple-capacity battery is a $199 option.

Taking a Page from the PDA Playbook

Perhaps the coolest thing about the Actius MM10 is the docking cradle, which holds the skinny system vertically; a USB cable at the rear plugs into your Windows Me, 2000, or XP primary PC, while another plug accommodates the AC adapter (which you can also connect to the Actius directly).

When you’ve put the slimline in the slot and flipped a switch on the front of the cradle, the former’s hard disk appears as a USB storage device or additional drive letter for the big PC, making drag-and-drop file transfer a snap. It took about 8 minutes to copy half a gigabyte of files from our USB 1.1-equipped desktop to the Actius.

You can’t install new applications on the Sharp via the dock (unless you got them as downloaded setup files, in which case you can copy them onto the MM10 and run them the next time the latter’s out of the cradle). So Sharp provides — technically as a free limited-time offer from its online store — a LiteOn LSC-24081M external optical combo, rated as an 8X DVD-ROM and 24/12/24X CD-RW drive. The latter requires its own AC adapter (included) and plugs into one of the USB 2.0 ports on either side of the Actius; we found the supplied USB cable needed a forceful push at the LiteOn end in order to connect properly, but both CD reading and writing and DVD-watching went smoothly (Nero Burning Rom and CyberLink PowerDVD are included, along with Windows XP Home Edition). The onboard audio is tinny and weak, but we appreciated the silence of a notebook without a cooling fan.

Here’s Looking at You

Besides two USB 2.0 ports and one Type II PC Card slot, the Actius offers a headphone jack at the left, 10/100Mbps Ethernet port at the right, and tiny external-monitor connector — there’s a short VGA adapter cable or dongle in the box — at the rear.

If there’s no monitor handy, the Lynx graphics controller does have one clever trick up its sleeve — after opening the MM10 so it’s unfolded completely flat, you can flip the screen image upside down so someone sitting across a desk or table from you can see a presentation.

Sharp is, of course, in the LCD as well as notebook business, and the Actius MM10’s 1,024 by 768-pixel display — though small at 10.4 inches diagonally and better viewed in 16- rather than 24-bit color due to the Lynx’s limitations — is crisp and clear, as long as you stick to the top couple of brightness settings.

Somewhat less crisp is the typing feel of the MM10’s keyboard, which (like the recently tested Sony Vaio TR1A’s) squeezes its keys into 17mm rather than a desktop system’s 19mm pitch or placement. As we said with the Sony, this is manageable if you type with a bit more conscious care than normal, but Sharp’s layout hampers things further — it follows many other small notebooks in pairing a special Fn key with the cursor arrows for a two-finger Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn, but it’s the first we’ve seen that puts the Fn key on the right instead of left side, making the combinations awfully tight.

The right Shift key is not only tiny but directly underneath instead of diagonally below the apostrophe/quotation mark key; indeed, we found ourselves repeatedly hitting the up arrow when we meant to type a capital letter. There’s a small but smooth touchpad with two mouse buttons at the bottom center; Fn-key combinations serve to raise or lower screen brightness and audio volume and turn the WiFi radio on and off.

Overall, we found our enjoyment of the Actius MM10’s ultra-convenient, ultralight weight and nifty use-it-like-an-oversized-USB-flash-drive file transfer just about evenly balanced by our grumbling about its tight keyboard and sluggish performance. What tips this review from neutral into negative territory is the $1,499 price — yes, the Sharp runs real Windows XP software instead of downsized PDA programs, but when excellently equipped, conventionally sized laptops cost $1,000 and Sony’s mini-keyboard, Bluetooth-WiFi-digital-camera-gadget Clie UX50 handheld is $700, it’s just too costly.

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