Fujitsu LifeBook P1510D Review

A Subcompact Convertible

As Microsoft’s Tablet PC portable push enters its fourth year, legal-pad-style “slate” designs have mostly given way to “convertible” notebook PCs whose screens lift to reveal, then swivel and fold down to conceal, the keyboard … and neither has made much of a dent in the overall laptop market.

But even before Bill Gates started beating the drum for pen input and handwriting recognition, Fujitsu was serving specialized markets with touch-screen slates and notebooks that, usually running custom in-house software, replaced clipboards and checklists for data-entry jobs such as hospital rounds or accident-scene reports.

Now Fujitsu’s done a neat job of creating a convertible subnotebook or ultraportable — although it isn’t a Tablet PC. While the company says a Win XP Tablet PC Edition edition will ship soon, the LifeBook P1510D runs Windows XP Professional and has a relatively old-fashioned, stylus-or-finger-or-pen-or-whatever touch screen instead of a Tablet PC’s active digitizer that works only with its special stylus.

The result is a PC with a split personality: Note-jotters and vertical-market types will take advantage of its pen-input versatility, while we suspect most users will simply enjoy the P1510D as a capable, attractive ultralight.

 

The Right Size for Coach Class

The LifeBook P1510D has Intel inside, with a low-voltage Pentium M 753 — a 1.2GHz processor with 400MHz front-side bus and 2MB of Level 2 cache — and 915GMS integrated-graphics chipset. (It doesn’t complete the Centrino-brand trifecta by using an Intel WiFi adapter, however; an Atheros 802.11a/b/g controller takes care of wireless networking.)

A model like the one we tested, with 512MB of DDR-2/400 memory and a 30GB, 4,200 rpm Toshiba hard disk, starts at $1,649. Stepping up to 1GB of RAM — ordered at purchase rather than upgraded, since there’s only one memory slot — adds $800, while a 60GB hard disk adds $150. Two other options, a double-sized battery pack ($45) and a battery- or AC-powered external DVD±RW drive, also made by Toshiba ($206), brought our system to $1,900. (The DVD drive worked fine, but practically had to be slammed shut to keep it from ejecting discs as soon as we loaded them.)

That’s not cheap, but it compares favorably to several rivals in the featherweight, forget-it’s-in-your-briefcase class. The trade-paperback-sized P1510D measures 6.6 by 9.3 by 1.5 inches; even with the bigger battery (which protrudes from the front edge of the system to add half an inch of palm rest), it weighs just 2.6 pounds, with the compact AC adapter adding a mere 10 ounces.

For software installers or DVD movie fans, the LifeBook is less convenient than a slightly heavier compact such as Sony’s Vaio T350 or Fujitsu’s own P7010D, which makes room for a built-in optical as well as hard drive. But for tablet users, its low weight makes it much more comfortable to hold than larger-screened, 4- to 6-pound convertibles or slates.

The World’s Biggest Blackberry?

As a tablet, the LifeBook works in either horizontal or vertical (landscape or portrait) orientation, with a screen-image-rotation button adjacent to the display switching between the two. The display does its 90-degree flip automatically when you switch from notebook to tablet mode or vice versa.

As mentioned, the 8.9-inch-diagonal display responds to the touch of a finger or the inkless end of a pen as well as to the plastic stylus that pops out from a storage hole on the right edge of the system. The stylus is kind of short, but its fine point offers extra accuracy (though not until you’ve run the supplied calibration utility). The flaw with all passive touch screens is that you must be careful not to let your hand rest on or touch the display while you write, lest the screen register a large smear instead of the stylus input.

In lieu of Windows Tablet PC Edition and Microsoft OneNote 2003, Fujitsu preinstalls EverNote Corp.’s RitePen handwriting-recognition software and EverNote notekeeping program. The former is more flexible than Tablet PC Edition in that you can write almost anywhere on screen instead of only in a special input area, though its recognition is no better — i.e., fair at best unless you have exceptionally neat handwriting. EverNote’s scrolling-notepad interface takes some getting used to, but offers an intriguing way to store both handwritten and typed thoughts as well as images and Web-site clippings.

To push the boundaries of touch-screen input, Fujitsu also provides a program called DialKeys from Fortune Fountain Ltd. that shows a virtual keyboard for handheld- or smart-phone-style thumb typing in the bottom corners of the display. It’s a funky idea, but doesn’t work very well without lots of practice. A Tablet PC-style pop-up, on-screen QWERTY keyboard is available for pen-based hunt-and-pecking.

 

Less Squinting, More Scrolling

In this day and age, when notebook manufacturers seem eager to cram way-beyond-XGA resolution into the smallest LCDs, we’re happy that Fujitsu kept this sub-notebook’s wide-aspect-ratio, 8.9-inch display to a sensible 1,024 by 600 pixels (with the ability to pan or scroll, following the mouse pointer, if you select 1,024 by 768 or a higher setting).

This keeps icons and menu text from getting too tiny, letting you enjoy the screen’s crisp colors and bright backlight — turning the latter down one or two notches to help stretch battery life proved perfectly adequate, unlike laptops that leave us searching for a brighter-than-brightest setting. Our test unit’s display had no bad pixels to be found.

We also like the P1510D’s keyboard, or at least like it as much as we can given its scaled-down size: The keyboard’s 16mm pitch means it’s barely wide enough to accommodate your hands, but once you adjust to having your fingers crowded together you can take advantage of a smooth typing feel and decent layout. Like many laptops, the Fujitsu uses a Fn key to piggyback Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn on the cursor arrows, but the Fn key doesn’t usurp Ctrl’s rightful place in the bottom left corner, even if the Delete key is edged out of its ideal top-right-corner placement by the never-used Pause/Break.

By contrast, we’re not wild about the ThinkPad-style pointing stick embedded in the keyboard: Unlike a touchpad, it takes both finger and thumb (if not two hands) to handle the joystick and mouse buttons. After some practice, you learn to master its at-first-too-slow-then-suddenly-fast motion, but it makes us wish there was room for a touchpad.

In other finger-related news, the LifeBook joins the growing trend of providing a fingerprint sensor for user and password log-in or biometric security — indeed, a full-fledged TPM security setup for corporate users. The sensor’s located in the bezel beside the display, while two USB 2.0 ports; VGA, modem, and Ethernet connectors; CompactFlash and Secure Digital flash-card slots; and headphone and microphone jacks are found around the edges of the system.

Less Speed Than Stamina

The P1510D’s benchmark performance is pretty much what you’d expect from an ultralight, battery-miser notebook: fine for everyday work with office applications, no chance of demanding image or video editing or gaming. We saw a BAPCo SysMark 2004 result of 92 (Internet Content Creation 102, Office Productivity 83), with a Futuremark PCMark05 score of 1,211. Graphics-wise, the little LifeBook managed 70 frames per second at XGA resolution in Quake III Arena, but barely staggered through 3DMark05 (score 199) and AquaMark3 (5 fps with a graphics score of 543).

By contrast, we think getting the 6- rather than 3-cell lithium-ion battery would be the best $45 a system buyer ever spent. Even rigorous work sessions with the DVD burner (the latter plugged in, the LifeBook not) lasted for four and a half hours, and we twice managed five hours of unplugged productivity.

In the category of super-easy-to-carry subnotebooks, the LifeBook P1510D delivers as much price/performance value and ease of use as any rival ultralight, even if you never swivel the screen and reach for the stylus to take advantage of its pen-input mode. Its tablet functionality is less than an active-digitizer Tablet PC’s and more in line with Fujitsu’s earlier vertical-market slate solutions, but so what? It’s a free bonus.

Pros:

  • Barely two pounds, with great battery life — and oh yeah, it’s also a convertible touch-screen tablet

Cons:

  • Compromise for size: small keyboard, external optical-drive option
  • Neither pen input nor pointing-stick control is very precise

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