OmniBook 300. (notebook computer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by David English
It sounds too good to be true. A 20-MHz 386 notebook computer that runs Windows from a ROM card, weighs only 2.9 pounds, and gets nine hours of battery life with continuous use. It even includes a built-in mouse that pops out when needed and slides back for traveling. Could this really be the road warrior's dream machine?
First, the bad news. The OmniBook's VGA screen isn't backlit, though it is one of the best reflective LCD screens around. In bright to moderately bright light, you shouldn't have any trouble reading it (except possibly with very small type, if you and your eyes are over 40). In dim light to near darkness, you'll either have to refrain from computing altogether or seek out the nearest light.
If you're looking for a DOS machine, this isn't it. The OmniBook was optimized for Windows. Even when I stripped out some of the drivers, I could squeeze out only 470K for DOS programs. In addition, the OmniBook's ROM-based Windows can't run in 386 enhanced mode, so you won't be able to multitask DOS programs under Windows.
Back to the good stuff. The Omnibook comes in two models: one with a 40MB hard drive and one with a 10MB Flash-RAM card. Both storage devices are automatically compressed by the built-in DoubleSpace compression (essentially doubling the capacity of either card), and both are PCMCIA cards (making them easy to upgrade later on). The hard drive model gives you more storage (80MB versus 20MB) for less money ($1,950 versus $2,375), but the Flash-RAM model can run as long as nine hours on the OmniBook's rechargeable battery; it can also run from four ordinary alkaline AA batteries. The hard disk model can run as long as five hours on the rechargeable battery; it can also use four lithium AA batteries.
Despite the OmniBook's light weight and compact proportions (11.1 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches), its keyboard is full-size--except for the Home, End, PgUp, PgDn, Tab, and cursor keys. The screen is a generous nine inches wide, with contrast buttons mounted nearby. The unit ships with 2MB of RAM (which isn't as bad as it sounds, since Windows 3.1, Microsoft Word for Windows 2.0c, Microsoft Excel 4.0a, and LapLink come on a ROM card and use only small amounts of system memory when they run). A separate slot lets you add another 2MB or 6MB of system RAM.
If you buy the hard disk model, you'll have an additional Type II PCMCIA slot. If you buy the Flash-RAM model, you'll have two additional Type II PCMCIA slots. Besides being able to use most Type II cards, you can also use many Type I cards.
I was able to move data between the OmniBook and an HP 95LX palmtop using an Epson 2MB RAM card. And you don't have to give up a PCMCIA slot for communications--HP offers an optional internal fax/data modem that fits into yet another slot.
The OmniBook 300 is nothing short of a technical marvel, with its light weight, compact size, all-PCMCIA storage, and small hideaway mouse. If you can live with the nonbacklit screen (and many can't), the OmniBook is the state of the art for high-tech traveling.