A Portable Computer for The Photographer on the Go
By Ron Eggers
Small computers are nothing new. Palm tops and PDAs (basically computers without keyboards) have been around for years. In one way or another, their functionality was limited, though, with marginal screens, proprietary or stripped down versions of operating systems, or an inability to run conventional software. Even models like the sub-compacts from Sony and OQO that use full versions of Windows Vista are limited by keyboards that required thumb typing and screens that are just too small.
But the Fujitsu Lifebook U800 series computers hit just the right combination of size, weight, functionality and viewability. Fujitsu has been on the cutting edge of compact computing with its extra slim, extra light, Lifebooks. The U800 series takes the technology to the next level. The newest model in that line is the U810, a full-functioning Vista palm top that easily transforms into a tablet PC. (The logo on the system says it's Vista Basic, but it's actually Vista Business.)
Not much larger than a day planner, it's designed around an Intel A110 800 MHz microprocessor with 1GB of memory and a 40GB shock-mounted hard drive. It also comes equipped with WiFi and Bluetooth for wireless Internet access and device communications.
I like numerous aspects and features of the U810. It has the look and feel of a regular laptop, not a flip phone or pocket communicator. Its standard QWERTY keyboard is large enough to actually type on. If you have large hands, 10-finger touch-typing might be difficult, but it’s easy to attach either a Bluetooth or USB keyboard and mouse for heavy-duty work.
You can also attach an external monitor. The Port Replicator, which comes with the unit, provides a monitor adapter port and an Ethernet port for network access. But it attaches to the front of the unit, making it awkward to type on the built-in keyboard. If your setup includes a desktop monitor, plus external keyboard and mouse, then the position of the monitor adapter doesn't pose a problem.
It's not just a strong laptop, it's also a good portable storage option. Most commercial photographers who do a lot of shooting on the road now carry a portable hard drive for image storage. Newer devices have audio and video entertainment capabilities. Some can even be used to display text files. One of the things I suggested when reviewing some of the portable storage units was a USB or Bluetooth keyboard, so that it would be possible to edit image metadata, write e-mails and complete other text-oriented work without having to bring a computer along.
The U810 does all that and a lot more. There's really nothing that competes with it in functionality. With its CompactFlash and SecureData slots, the ability to run image editing, asset management and page layout software, and its 5.6-inch screen, it's a much better alternative as a portable image storage solution than battery powered hard drives and multimedia entertainment devices, which generally only have 3- or 3.5-inch screens.
Despite its limited real estate, there are only a few things missing. For one thing, there's no FireWire port. It would have been real nice to have one, but most devices that attach via FireWire also support USB 2.0 connectivity, so that's not a major limitation, though USB 2.0 transfer rates can be slower than FireWire. There's also only one USB port. Understandable, considering the size, but some devices have problems with USB hubs, so you'll be limited in what you can attach at any one time.
The trackpoint controller is to the right back of the keyboard while the left and right mouse buttons are in the same position on the left, which I found awkward. You have to use two hands to fully use the trackpoint. The buttons are positioned that way so that they are accessible when you configure the unit as a tablet PC, but they really don't need to be there, because in the tablet PC mode, you can use a stylus to access the virtual keyboard and mouse directly on screen.
For WiFi operations, I ran it through my wireless router without any problem. It's not quite as sensitive as my larger Compaq laptop. It wouldn't pick up available close-by networks with low signal strength that the Compaq was able to access. There's a small web camera above the screen for video input and an onboard microphone for audio input.
To put it through its paces, I compiled the rough notes for this review using the built-in keyboard and wrote the final draft in WordPad with an external USB keyboard attached.
I used the U810 extensively, taking it on the road with me instead of a portable hard drive. Though the storage capacity is half that of my 80GB primary portable storage device, 40 gigs of space was more than enough for most of my travels. You can bump up the storage somewhat by plugging in a high-capacity CompactFlash or SD card into the appropriate slots. Since there's no internal CD/DVD drive, stored images cannot be written to disk directly, but you can always attach an external CD/DVD unit.
Besides password protection, the Fujitsu U810 uses an integrated biometric fingerprint sensor device to verify user identity.
To convert to a tablet PC, just rotate the screen and close it over the keyboard. The protruding battery doubles as a handle. A small button above the keyboard rotates the screen orientation 90 degrees each time it’s pressed, so it’s comfortable for left-handed or right-handed users. It was relatively good at recognizing handwritten (print) stylus input without first going through a learning process. You can automatically insert text written in a pop-up window into typed copy. Generally, I'm not a big tablet PC fan, but because of its size, weight and ease of use, the U810 is one unit that I might use in that mode.
There are some operational limitations and design trade-offs with the U810. It's a little sluggish when first booting up and launching software. Once programs or operating system modules were loaded, speed wasn't a problem. Operating speed dropped significantly when transferring images from a CompactFlash card loaded inserted into the CF slot. It's best to transfer images as the primary operation, rather than in the background.
Even though it has a good-sized screen, icons and menu commands can be tiny. A built-in zoom utility changes the screen resolution from 1,024 x 600 to 800 x 600 pixels, and you can change magnification in most programs to make viewing easier.
The internal speakers are fine for speech but a little tinny for music. If you're going to listen to online or MP3 music content, invest in a good pair of headphones. There's also a small built-in mono microphone, and a stereo-in microphone jack. Small lights on both sides of the keyboard help when working in dark environments.
Power management is good. I used it all day, putting it into the sleep mode between periods of active use, and there was still power left at the end of the day.
The Fujitsu Lifebook U810 is a portable computer that many photographers have been wishing for. It easily fits into a camera bag and, at $999, it fits as easily into a photographer's budget.