Review: Fujitsu LifeBook U810

Not too big, not too small. Is Fujitsu's ultra-portable LifeBook U810 just right for you?

Mobile PCs aren't like the three bears' chairs, beds and porridge anymore. You can always find one that’s just right for you, especially now with the emergence of a new category of ultra-mobile PCs, also known by the acronym (because we just don't have enough acronyms), UMPCs.

Fujitsu’s LifeBook U810 (priced around $1,000), a convertible tablet PC with a 5.6-inch screen that weighs in at a little over a pound and a half, is a prime example of the new genre.

In terms of size, UMPCs fit somewhere between full-function PDAs and ultra-light notebooks with 10-inch screens and weigh in at three pounds or less. UMPCs use new A-series processors from Intel (developed expressly for this purpose) that run at speeds reminiscent of Pentium chips – the U810’s processor has a clock speed of 800MHz.

Like most UMPCs, the U810 comes with the Basic edition of Windows Vista. The standard recommendation for Vista is that it needs at least 2GB of RAM. The 810 only comes with 1GB and cannot be upgraded, but in our testing with software that ships with the product, speed and response time were not an issue.

The 810, also like most UMPCs, functions as a pen-based computer. Its screen twists and folds back on the keyboard to turn it into a tablet.

It features nice extras too, like biometric security – a fingerprint reader to prevent unauthorized access (to Windows and other applications, including Web sites that require authentication). And it has a built-in microphone and Web cam for video conferencing and a Secure Digital (SD) memory card slot.

Not Too Cool, Pretty Hot
If you’re a Goldilocks who considers a PDA's functionality or screen size too limited and notebook PCs too big and bulky, a UMPC might be just right for you. It does involve compromises, however.

Only in a pinch could you use the U810 as a desktop replacement, something that's entirely feasible with many full-size notebooks. It has only a 40GB hard drive, which you also can't upgrade. Still, if you’re computer needs are very undemanding– an executive who spends much of her time on the road and stores most data on the office network, for example – it might work.

You can connect the U810 to the network back at the office, and hook up a standard monitor and keyboard/mouse. It has a built-in 802.11/b/g Wi-Fi network adapter and comes with a simple port replicator with outlets for monitor and wired network. There is also a USB 2.0 port on the device itself – one – which you could use to plug in a Bluetooth or other dongle to run a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Or you could invest $100 in the U810 Docking Cradle, which provides a monitor port, four USB 2.0 ports, LAN pass-through, DC power jack (but no power supply – you have to use the one that comes with the 810 or buy another) and a stand for the unit itself.

Compromises
Another compromise: the U810 doesn’t have an optical drive, which will somewhat complicate installing new software from CDs, and it eliminates the possibility of playing DVDs on the plane.

A couple of options for solving the more pressing of these problems. You can put a disc in the shared CD-ROM drive of another computer on the same network and launch the install program on the 810 from it. Most applications will let you do this. Or you could plug an external USB optical drive into the USB port or Docking Cradle.

If, as seems more likely, the U810 is going to be a second PC strictly for travel – a PDA replacement as it were – you face another set of compromises. This is not a pocket-size device, unless you’re a geek in a baggy corduroy sports jacket. It measures 6.73- x 6- x 1.26-inches with the standard-issue four-cell clip-on battery and weighs just slightly more than 1.5 pounds.

Also, if you need to type long documents while mobile and you’re a touch-typist, you will find it very trying with the U810’s seriously undersized keyboard and tiny screen. You could plug in one of those full-size, roll-up rubber keyboards that Targus and others sell, but then you might as well carry a small laptop.

While the keyboard is not much good for touch typing, except for the daintiest-fingered among us, it is considerably bigger than any PDA keyboard. If you’re a hunt-and-peck typist, it’s not only adequate, it’s a big improvement on a PDA.

Even if you add a plug-in – or Bluetooth – keyboard, you’ll still have to contend with a non-standard mouse substitute, an IBM-style pointing stick positioned in the top right corner of the keyboard (and also accessible when you use the U810 in tablet mode). You push it with index finger or thumb to move the cursor and tap it to select. The mouse buttons are in the top left corner. This system works well, but it definitely takes some getting used to.

Digital Ink
Another input alternative: use the device as a tablet and enter text using the stylus, taking advantage of Microsoft’s Digital Ink and handwriting recognition technologies. They’re part of the operating system. You can enable most applications for Digital Ink and the ones that come with the U810 come already enabled.

The onscreen pen input pad is always available, just at the edge of the screen. Tap it with the stylus or press the // button at the top of the screen, and it pops into the center (or docks at the top or bottom if you prefer).

Even without going to extra lengths to “personalize” the handwriting recognition, it worked pretty well at interpreting our messy scrawl. It’s good enough for inputting e-mails and for more formal documents if you’re going to be editing them later using a full-size screen and keyboard.


Fujitsu LifeBook U810
Fujitsu's LifeBook U810 is well-suited as a replacement for a PDA with its bigger screen and better capabilities.

These compromises might sound like killers, but they’re really not. They’re also more or less unavoidable given the form factor and functionality this product delivers. The U810 is in fact an impressive package and, for the right person, a great solution.

Better Than a PDA
First of all, it is considerably more functional than any PDA. In terms of availability of applications, there are few compromises. You can use virtually any program that runs under Vista.

The software bundle included with the U810 is not overly generous, however. You get the very useful (or entertaining) programs always included with the operating system – Windows Media Player, Media Center (yes, the U810 can function as a Media Center PC), Mail (Outlook Express lite), Meeting Place (file- and screen-sharing over a network or the Internet), Windows Journal (free-hand note taking using the stylus – which can later be turned into text) and Movie Maker.

It also comes with Microsoft Works, which is definitely a poor man’s Office but gives you everything you need in a traveling computer – basic word processing, spreadsheet, database, plus Outlook-like calendar and address book and a PowerPoint viewer that lets you play presentations created using Office.

Microsoft Reader 2.0, the electronic book software originally introduced with the first Pocket PCs six or seven years ago, is also here. It’s an undervalued application in my opinion, and it works much better on the U810 screen than on a puny PDA display – or than it does on full-sized tablets that, in our opinion, are too big to hold for reading.

Performance
The U810 is certainly not the fastest portable computer on the market. Some applications launch sluggishly. We don't recommend it for any compute-intensive application such as crunching big spread sheets or editing large photo files or video.

But for the fairly simple applications that many small business executives use – word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, personal information management and other database applications, it is more than adequate. And it far outperforms any PDA.

Music, with good head phones, sounded terrific and much better than any PDA we’ve tried. Video, ripped at appropriate bit rates played smoothly, and looked and sounded good. We were disappointed, however, at its performance with Skype, the free Internet phone service. In limited testing, connection and voice quality were poor, although that could as easily have been the usual hit-and-miss quality problems with Skype.

Bottom Line
The U810 is definitely not the right product for everybody. However, if you need more power than you can get with a PDA but are dead-set against carrying a full-size notebook PC, the U810 could be exactly the mobile computer you need. It's a lot better than porridge.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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