Jetbook Notebook

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, February 19, 1993

As long as there've been personal computers, people have been wanting to take it all with them.

Back in the days of the CPM standard, even before the IBM-PC standard, there were KayPro and other machines sporting 64k, and real picture tubes, in a package that was portable, as long as you didn't have to go too far. Then there was the classic Tandy Model 100... a handheld computer beloved (and still used) by many reporters. Unfortunately, it was compatible with nothing much else.

Ten years ago, with the emergence of the PC, Compaq started its climb to fame and fortune with a portable PC-compatible that, legend has it, was designed on a napkin in a restaurant late one night.

And for every successful design, there were then, as now, the clones. I still think fondly of a Coredata portable PC, from about 1985, a clone of the original Compaq. It sported 512k RAM, a 5 1/4" floppy, a 9" monochrome CRT, and a 20 meg hard drive, and ran at the same speed as the original IBM PC. Weighed in at about 40 lbs, and didn't use batteries. You can't use it on an airplane, and don't try to put it on your lap!

Slowly, over the last ten years, portable computers have become smaller, and more powerful, but have always lagged behind the best desktop models in features, while carrying a price penalty.

We've left behind the big old luggables, the 14-17 lb. laptops, for the under 7 lb. notebooks, and the under 4 lb sub-notebooks. Gone are the days of double-scan CGA screens, replaced by 64 grey-scale VGA and even (gasp!) colour.

With the performance and price both coming closer to desktop levels, notebook sales continue to rise. And the last couple of years has seen a new phenomena-- a wide range of inexpensive clones. The availablity of cloners to market inexpensive, powerful desktop systems knocked down prices on those systems, but state-of-the-art laptops were for a long time, only available from a few manufacturers. Now, a number of factories, mostly in Taiwan, have started producing portable computers to order, under a variety of brand-names.

Richmond distributor, Pacific Royal, is marketing a range of notebooks that are available in a number of local computer stores: the JETBook, has five models ranging from a 386SL-25 to a powerful 486DX-33. They loaned me a 386DX-33 JetBook. (Much to my children's disappointment, I don't get to keep the systems I review. Too bad!)

The system came with 4 mb of memory, 80 meg 2.5 inch hard drives, and grey-scale VGA screen. There's also a colour 486DX-33 model currently available in the US that will be out here as well, soon. The JETBook carried a higher list of $2525, with one local store discounting it to $2400. There is a one-year warranty.

The JETBook weighs in at a convenient 6 1/2 lbs, including battery, and feature about 3 hrs of battery life. A handy switch lets you put the computer to 'sleep' to conserve on battery power without losing your work. An AC power supply is included, which can be used to recharge the battery while you work. As well, it comes with a nice carrying case.

I installed Windows 3.1, which ran quite happily on this machine. This was attributable a number of positive features, not available on many of their name brand competitors, such as a real DX chip, rather than the SX chip found in many others, along with enough memory to work comfortably in WIndows. The 32k memory cache for an additional speed boost also helped!

If desired, it can be upgraded to 8 meg RAM. If you want even more power, the 386DX-33 chip in the JETBook is user exchangeable... for $230 it can be swapped for a 486SX-25, or for $695, you can change it into a 486 DX-33. Until quite recently, the only way to get portable 486 power, was in 'lunch-box' sized and shaped luggables, such as the Dolch. Ironically, the list price of buying a JETBook 386DX-33, and swapping the processor for a 486DX-33 is $150 less than simply buying the 486 model from the start!

The JETBook features a docking station port. This allows you to buy an expansion base for $395 into which you slip your laptop, effectively turning it into a desktop unit, with real monitor, keyboard, and peripherals. Even without that, it includes ports for external VGA monitor and keyboard (though the keyboards need to have the small PS2 sized plugs) so that you can use it on your desktop.

This unit features a 64 grey-scale VGA screens, which is far superior to the screens of many other products on the market. It includes brightness and contrast switches, and can be viewed clearly in a wide range of conditions.

I do have a gripe about these 64 colour or grey-scale VGA screens that seem standard or portables. This is not aimed at the JETBook, but at virtually all the grey-scale portables. Where're the video drivers? They all boast of 64 colours, but show me an application that can actually support 64 colours. 16 colours as standard VGA, sure. But does anything actually make use of the 64 colour capablity?

Windows is difficult to use with just a keyboard. The review model JETBook that I had, however, was installed with a built in track-ball, a $110 option. This consisted on a marble-sized ball, with two buttons, positioned above the keyboard, just below the screen. This option (pioneered on Apple's PowerBooks), certainly makes Windows much easier to use.

One of the inevitable losses by shrinking computer size is a full-scale keyboard. These two models try to get around that by having a large number of multiple function keys. Both include the inverted-T arrow keys or the numeric keypads found on full-sized enhanced keyboards, keys often missing on portable keyboards. As well, there is an FN key... holding this down lets you use some of the letter keys in their alternative roles.

The JETBook's manual was quite detailed, especially in regards to the CMOS setup. That computer's AMI bios includes some nice features, such as the ability to low-level format, change the interleave, or scan the hard drive for bad sectors. Unfortunately, unlike software such as Spinrite which performs the same functions, it will destroy your data at the same time. All this, including the dangers, is spelled out in the comprehensive manual.

There is a problem that seems built into the whole idea of portable computing... by shrinking the size of everything, you end up with non-standard expansion capabilities, which means higher prices. $210 for a fax/modem with the same capabilities that you can get for under $100 for a dektop. $240 to upgrade from the 80 mb hard drive to a 120 mb model. $430 to upgrade the JETBook from 4 megs to 8 megs RAM. (And here I have to woder why-- surely a portable motherboard could be designed to take standard SIMM units!) Currently, this unit doesn't offer a PCMIA port, either built-in or as an option. This is an up and coming standard that will permit add-ons like memory, modems, software, almost anything, it seems, to be added to portables by sliding a credit-card sized card into the port.

Many stores are advertising 'name brand' models from AST, Zenith, even Compaq and IBM, in the same price range. As the big companies cut prices to boost their sales, there's a lot of pressure on the lesser-known brands. Should you buy a clone? Most of the name brand models that I've seen for comparable prices have been older models, 386SX-20s, with 60 meg (or smaller) hard drives, or 2 meg of memory, or both. No way to add the real convenience of a built-in trackball. Upgrading their memory and drives to the level of the JETBook will push their prices way up, while still saddling the user with a slower processor. Pacific Royal's portable provides more power for less than the well-known brand names. If you need a notebook-sized computer right now, you wouldn't go wrong buying this product.

Review of JETBOOK 386DX-33
from: Pacific Royal Ent. Ltd.
383-13988 Cambie Road
Richmond, BC
V6V 2K4
tel(604) 279-8731
fax(604) 2798739

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan