For those ready to wean themselves away from the bigger-is-always-better world of widescreen laptops, the Sony VAIO TR2A and Fujitsu Lifebook-P5010 are the class of the sub notebook market. But a combination of lower price and more removable-media options give the Lifebook an edge that ensures you get the portability you need without sacrificing flexibility. The Fujtisu Lifebook-P5010 is the BMW Cooper Mini of the laptop world. It’s tiny frame and attractive looks hide the fact that it is feature-packed, easy to own, and for most exactly what is needed out on the road.
Fujitsu’s P5020 is an option-packed Mini
The sleek, diminutive Fujitsu Lifebook P5020 is one of the most feature-rich laptops in the sub-notebook market. If you prize the portability and uniqueness of a sub-notebook laptop but have hesitated to give up on features, the 3.7lb Lifebook P5020 might be what you are looking for. It is a tiny laptop that still packs in Wi-Fi, a CDRW/DVD combo drive and five hours of battery life. Priced starting at $1,549, this is one laptop built for the road, similar to the Sony VAIO TR2A.
The fact that the P5000 series has been able to fit a CD-RW/DVD drive, 2 USB ports, Firewire, CompactFlash, SD/MemoryStick slots, and an impressive five hour battery all in a laptop not much larger than a hardcover book is no small feat (see more in Specs). And indeed when first shown to some fellow technophiles it was easy to see the awe in their faces. Perhaps just as predictably, the awe was also quickly followed by skepticism that something as small as the P5020 is usable.
There is no surprise this little laptop is often greeted with a little wariness. The laptop market is going through a stratification that bears close resemblance to what has happened to the automobile industry. Just as car companies create ever-larger SUVs trying to recreate the safety, comfort, and amenities they find while they are at home, laptop owners have been entranced by ever-larger widescreen laptops such as the Apple Powerbooks and Dell Inspiron 8600.
Although the P5020 has a screen built more for travel than everyday use, it is hard not to be a little smug with a gadget crowd defensively clutching their Humvee-sized widescreen laptops to their chests. As long as you use an external monitor for everyday use, the P5000 makes for a nearly perfect companion on the road. With a 1GHz processor that feels even better than it scores (see Performance) and better battery life than the Inspiron 8600, this tiny little laptop packs a lot of punch.
The sub notebook comes of age
Sub notebooks have a long history in Japan, where Fujitsu has built a sizeable reputation in the laptop market. With the exception of Sony, there has been little success for sub-notebooks in the U.S. market due to the taste for ever-larger laptops. It didn’t help that the first generation of sub-notebooks, dominated by the Toshiba Libretto and Sony Picturebook, sacrificed a lot of usability in the name of portability. Typically these laptops required plenty of compromises: no CD-Rom, small, low resolution screens, cramped keyboards with little travel, and horrible battery life. A laptop is hardly portable if it barely lasts an hour away from a plug, or if it needs an octopus-like arrangement of port replicators and external drives to be useful.
A few years ago Fujitsu changed the sub-notebook game with the versatile Fujitsu Loox-T. The first sub notebook with a built in CD/DVD drive, the Loox also included a high-res widescreen aspect ratio and a lithium polymer battery for six to eight hours of battery life. The Loox was a massive success in Japan and was eventually brought to the States as the Lifebook-P2000. Although it had some first-generation flaws such as the lack of a VGA-out port, it was truly the first road-worthy sub notebook.
If you’ve seen the Sony VAIO TR1A then you’ve experienced the direct lineage of that first Look. In fact the VAIO TR2A matches the P5010 specifications almost identically, and thanks to Sony’s brand power has received much more acclaim. But by having slightly better battery life, more removeable media options, and better price, the Fujitsu Lifebook P5020 manages to stay ahead of the game.
The added 1Ghz helped the P5020 jump up to a mobile mark score of 142 from it’s previous 132 for the 900 Mhz model. Although lacking the screaming performance of most desktop systems it’s one of the fastest sub notebooks around, and in all but the most taxing of applications it is speedy.
Panasonic Toughbook W20
Sony VAIO TR1A
Windows XP Home; 900MHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM; Intel 855GM Chipset Integrated Graphics 64MB; 30GB Hard Drive
Compared head-to-head with the Sony VAIO TR2A the Fujitsu Lifebook P5020 has a sleek if not showy design. The light metal exterior is adequate but in no way groundbreaking and there is a more functional than style oriented approach to most of the finishing. Simply put, the P-5000’s understated and more businesslike look won’t win any design awards, but in just over an hour at a local Starbucks, four people approached to ask about who made this incredible looking laptop. The combination of its tiny size, industrial metal barrel speakers, and bright wide format screen give it a distinct look that will turn a few heads.
One odd design feature was Fujitsu’s choice to not to include a latch for the screen. Although skeptical that the added joint tension would be enough to hold the screen closed, it did stay firmly shut even after significant shaking. Eventually, we came to favor the removal of a cheap and easily broken plastic latch, even if it does turn the opening of the screen into a two-handed operation.
Great handling on the road
Perhaps the best place to show off the P5020 is on an airplane. Slide into a coach seat and cackle loudly as other laptop owners’ twist into uncomfortable positions trying in vain to get a good look at their downward tilted screens. A slick 10.6″ 1280×768 glossy screen with a wide-aspect ratio is nearly perfect for watching DVDs in flight. This high-res screen renders type clear and crisp but will likely leave those with less than perfect vision wanting to increase the font size. The downside to such a bright glossy screen is that shine also makes the screen prone to glare.
Once you’ve settled in for a long flight, slide out the removable CD-RW/DVD drive and slide in a second battery to get close to eight hours of battery life. The dual-batteries are a generally unheard of feature for a laptop this size, and highly recommended for cross-country travel or a full day away from plugs. Unfortunately by utilizing a removable drive Fujitsu gave customers the unenviable choice of extra battery life or DVD watching, when they would seem to go together. Thankfully, you only the need the primary battery to make it through most full-length films.
Once the movie is done and the serious work begins, the keyboard is surprisingly comfortable for all but the largest of hands. It is certainly not a full-size keyboard and does take getting used to, but the key travel was admirable and stood up well under moderate usage. Unlike the earlier Lifebook-P2000 and Loox, Fujitsu seems to have foregone the nub-style pointer for a trackpad. One unfortunate fact is that the scroll-button is a small enough piece of plastic that it is actually painful to use repetitively.
The flexibility of an SUV in a compact
Despite the lack of legacy ports, and an unfortunate requirement for a VGA-dongle, it is expansion options where the P5020 really shines. Built-in WiFi with either Intel Centrino 802.11b or a Aether 802.11b/g, Ethernet, modem, S-video, and VGA-out means that there is little need to lug around a port replicator.
The P5020 is built to accommodate just about any portable consumer electronics standard you could think of: CompactFlash, SD/MMC/MemoryStick Pro, Firewire, and two USB 2.0 ports are all built-in. In this category it outshines even most laptops twice the size, and is a welcome open-standards approach to Sony’s lamentable decision to continue supporting only their MemoryStick format on the VAIO TR2A. Rest assured that while the industry battles for a standard removeable media format, you will have your bases covered.
For those ready to wean themselves away from the bigger-is-always-better world of widescreen laptops, the Sony VAIO TR2A and Fujitsu Lifebook-P5020 are the class of the sub notebook market. But a combination of lower price and more removable-media options give the Lifebook an edge that ensures you get the portability you need without sacrificing flexibility. The Fujtisu Lifebook-P5020 is the BMW Cooper Mini of the laptop world. It’s tiny frame and attractive looks hide the fact that it is feature-packed, easy to own, and for most exactly what is needed out on the road.