Dauphin DTR-1. (subnotebook computer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Robert Bixby
The Dauphin DTR-1 (Desktop Replacement-1) is about 50 percent PDA and 50 percent laptop. It comes with Pen Windows and the Ascend personal information manager built in, along with a special spreadsheet optimize for pen use and a group of demonstration programs to show how the system could make itself indispensable for a doctor, nurse, or public safety officer.
The system boasts a 25-MHz 486SLC CPU, 4MB of RAM (expandable to 6MB), and a 40MB hard disk (expanded by DoubleSpace to 73MB). The 5- x 9-inch case sports a pen-sensitive backlit passive-matrix monochrome VGA display (640 x 480), a video output port (800 x 600 with 256-color Super VGA), parallel and serial ports, and a Hayes-compatible modem (the modem and serial port are set to the same interrupt, so they can't be used simultaneously). There's also an Ethernet connector, but while the connector is standard, the Ethernet hardware is not - it's an option that you have to order separately for around $300. The keyboard is in a separate similar-sized unit (5 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches).
Since the reviewed computer had no floppy drive (an external floppy drive is available from Dauphin for $199, and external hard disks and removable hard disks will probably be available by the time this appears) nor any PCMCIA slots, all programming and documents must be managed through the modem or through InterInk. The machine can be operated without the keyboard through the use of a special pen, which also serves as mouse in Windows. Provided applications are set up to make sense of pen input, though my pen input was translated into a Doonesburian gobbledygook that was at first amusing, then troublesome, and finally infuriating. Did I once say that I would carry a pen-based computer someday? Is it too late to eat my words?
Pen input can be made simpler through an onscreen keyboard, but using this keyboard requires phenomenal control because, on the tiny screen, each key is about an eighth of an inch square. So to write this review, I relied on the regular keyboard. Finding it difficult to type on the keyboard because of its size, and wanting to be fair, I asked my wife to give it a try because her hands are about half the size of mine. "Too small," she agreed. Not only that, but it feels funny. The keys are stiff and insensitive, so unless you really press, driving the keys all the way down, your typing doesn't register.
Even more troublesome than the keyboard is the unit's tendency to crash. It locked up on me three times while I had it, each time when I was using the pen as a mouse in Windows. This might be a software problem with Pen Windows. I wasn't able to figure out what was causing the crashes.
The unit folds up neatly in a zippered plastic case. One might think that having the screen and keyboard separate would be a good idea, but it isn't. The screen flops all over the place, making it difficult to hold on your lap. Even on a desktop, I had to prop the screen up against something and pull the keyboard completely out of the case to type (the zipper gets between you and the space bar). A sort of stand is built into the screen half of the case, so you can prop the screen up if the unit is sitting on a flat, rigid surface. The keyboard is held in its half of the case by Velcro.
The power supply is about the size of an electric shaver, and it's very light - it doesn't get in the way or weigh you down like a lot of external power supplies. The unit will run for two continuous hours on a battery charge without the keyboard attached. If the keyboard is attached, it will run for an hour and a half. A beeper warns you when you're down to about five minutes of battery power.
The stated purpose of the DTR-1 is to replace a deskful of documents and notebooks. It's enough computer to do that, and it represents the state of the art of pen-based computing, but it needs a better keyboard and a way to physically attach the keyboard to the computer. The pen input needs to get smarter before I can see replacing anything with this computer.