Getting The Goods On Compaq’s Lightweight Aero 8000

Psssst! I turned to see a sleazy-looking character in a dirty trench coat. “Hey,” he said. “Wanna real good deal on a laptop?” He swung open his coat to reveal a notebook on a shoulder strap. “It’s a steal,” he continued. “A brand-new Compaq, 32 megs of RAM, built-in modem, costs under a grand. Comes loaded with all the Microsoft Office apps, e-mail, Web surfing, the works. And it weighs under three pounds.”

This was too good to be true. I asked how big its hard disk was. “Er,” he muttered, “it’s new technology, doesn’t need a hard drive.”

I asked if it ran Windows 98 or NT. “Oh, it’s real Microsoft Windows, see.”

That’s what I thought he said. However, he was cleverly trying to conceal the truth: Windows CE, Microsoft Corp.’s cut-down operating system for handhelds.

I took a closer look. Compaq Computer Corp.’s new Aero 8000 is about 20 per cent smaller than a typical laptop and a lot lighter. Unlike most CE machines, the Aero doesn’t use a touch screen or stylus, preferring a touchpad and buttons. Of all the Windows CE machines, this could be the best.

I’ve enjoyed using the Aero 8000 — I drafted this review on it — but it’s really a puzzle, raising important questions about the direction of portable computers.

With its sleek three pound body, 10-inch screen and small-but-OK keyboard, the Aero looks a lot like Sony Corp.’s Vaio 505 or IBM’s ThinkPad 240.

But those machines use Windows 98 (the ThinkPad even runs Windows 2000), while the Aero makes do with Windows CE and its cut-down applications — Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Outlook and others. You can view a PowerPoint presentation, but you can’t edit it or create a new one.

CE’s limitations aren’t a problem unless you’re expecting it to do a lot more than it can. But the US$949 Aero isn’t much cheaper than a “real” laptop. There’s no floppy, no hard drive and no CD-ROM.

For storage, you have to add compact flash or PC Card memory cards or hard disks. I’ve seen Windows 98 laptops (admittedly not lightweight) selling for well under $1,500, and for that you get double the RAM, a hard drive and CD-ROM and a larger screen. In today’s market, you can buy two desktop PCs for the cost of one Aero. Looking at value, CE loses. So whom is the Aero aimed at?

The Aero is instant-on; lift the cover and you’re up, with no wait for booting. Battery life is significantly longer than a notebook, sometimes getting past eight hours.

Also, the Aero can be a useful thin client. You can dial in to an NT terminal server and run regular Windows applications.

Finally, the Aero offers enhanced security via a built-in SmartCard reader for use with access control and encryption software. Thus, the Aero could look good to IT managers seeking a secure, mobile thin client.

One more try. Is this the answer for the person who wants to travel light but still do word processing, e-mail and spreadsheets on the road? If it’s not for the road warrior, maybe it’s OK for the road wimp.

In sum, the Aero 8000 is a decent traveling companion, easy on the shoulder, but I found it barely adequate in features and power.

— IDG News Service