When the first laptops began to appear loaded with Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system I was curious to see how mobile computing manufacturers would exploit its new features.

The Vista-loaded laptops I have tested so far include a big widescreen HP Pavilion Entertainment PC, two convertible tablet PCs – Lenovo’s ThinkPad x60 Tablet and Toshiba’s Portégé R400 – and the pocket-sized OQO Model 2 (see below).

The HP Pavilion dv9000 (www.hp.com) is a serious multimedia machine that weighs in a 7.8 lb and comes with a big glossy 17in screen. Among its features that I particularly like are the built-in webcam – inc­reasingly popular on portables – a set of LED-backlit, touch-sensitive VCR-style multimedia controls and inclusion of HP’s QuickPlay 2.1 software, which makes it possible to play a CD or DVD movie without the laborious process of starting Windows.

The dv9000, which costs from $1,350 (£1,040 in the UK) for a base configuration, also takes advantage of the Windows Media Center interface that is now integrated in the Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate editions.

Meanwhile, both the ThinkPad x60 Tablet and the Toshiba R400 exploit another built-in Vista feature: the significantly improved support for tablet computing.

Dedicated tablet PCs – particularly slate-style mach­ines – have made little impact outside industry sectors such as insurance and healthcare. But convertible tablets, such as the ThinkPad x60 Tablet (www.lenovo.com), that combine the features of regular notebook-style portables with a swivel touch screen without charging a huge premium have developed a following, particularly among business travellers.

Vista builds on the XP Tablet Edition by incorporating handwriting recognition technology that does a good job at deciphering even my scrawl. Vista’s built-in training program fine-tunes the operating system to make corrections easier.

I was a big fan of the X60 Tablet when it came out in late 2006 and Vista makes a good machine better.

In its basic configuration, the ThinkPad X60 Tablet costs $1,823 (this model is not yet available in the UK, but the similar ThinkPad X41 costs from £1,222.)

Toshiba’s Portégé R400-S4931 convertible tablet (www.toshiba.com) goes further and is the first portable PC to incorporate features such as Vista’s “SideShow” technology by embedding a secondary display that can receive e-mail notifications, real-time alerts and RSS feeds without having to boot into the operating system.

In fact, the Portégé R400, which ships with Vista Ultimate, is a rather special machine altogether.

It was co-designed by Microsoft and Toshiba engineers as a showcase laptop for Vista and that collaboration led to the inclusion of several innovative features including the SideShow mini-LCD display on the machine’s leading front edge.

The LCD screen itself is only big enough for a small amount of scrolling text,
but it takes very little power and stays on even when the main Vista operating system is shut down.

There are three small buttons next to the display. One provides quick access to basic information such as the strength of any local WiFi wireless networking signal, battery charge remaining, time and date.

The second button shows new e-mail messages, while the third notifies users of calendar alerts.

The SideShow display is configured using an icon that appears in the Vista “control panel” page, a feature that will enable users to download and install other information “gadgets” from Microsoft’s website. So far, however, I have had limited success getting them to work.

In terms of styling, the Portégé R400 is a departure for Toshiba – it comes in a piano-white finish and resembles an Apple MacBook. But the Portégé’s 12in widescreen display rotates smoothly on a hinge to fold flat on top of the keyboard – turning the Portégé into a slate-style tablet.

Unlike some tablet PCs, the Portégé is light enough at 3.7lb to rest it easily on a forearm while “writing” on the screen with the comfortable pen-shaped “digitiser” stylus. The Portégé checks in at 12in wide, 9.5in high and 1.25in thick.

Like the ThinkPad, the Portégé comes with extensive built-in security and data protection features including a biometric fingerprint reader, multi-level passwords and embedded TPM (Trusted Platform Module) encryption technology together with a vibration sensor that moves the hard drive head away from the disc if it detects a sudden movement.

While the Portégé sports a minimalist design that belies its power, Toshiba has made compromises to keep the weight down. For example, like the ThinkPad, it lacks a built-in optical drive, although you can buy an external USB DVD drive. In spite of a price tag starting at $2,600 in the US (it is not yet available in the UK), the sound is thin and tinny.

The Portégé R400 comes with 2Gb of Ram and an ultra-low power 1.2Ghz Intel Core Duo processor, which is fine for basic computing but not enough for gamers or multimedia enthusiasts.

Overall, the Toshiba Portégé R400 is a very capable convertible business notebook that does showcase Vista’s portable prowess.

THE BREAKDOWN

Toshiba Portégé R400

Pros:Sleek, lightweight and stylish convertible notebook that supports interesting new Vista features such as SideShow displays.

Cons:Rather expensive, lacks advanced multimedia features, could benefit from more horsepower.

OQO’s pocketful of change

OQO has made a name for itself as the premier designer of pocket-sized PCs that can run full copies of Windows and its applications such as Microsoft Office.

The California-based start-up’s latest machine is the OQO Model 2. This miniature powerhouse ships with a Windows Vista Home Premium Edition and has a souped-up processor, extra memory, a sleek new docking station and built-in 3G wireless networking.

It is smaller than a paperback, weighs just 1lb and fits in a jacket pocket. Yet it boasts a full thumb-operated qwerty keyboard and colour LCD screen. Stepping up to Windows Vista also means OQO has addressed most of the niggles that irked early users, such as sluggish speed, lack of connectivity options and an inadequate screen.

I found that the machine runs happily for about three hours on a single lithium battery charge, while a double capacity battery boosts run time to about six hours.

OQO (www.oqo.com) has also replaced a rather bulky docking cable with multiple sockets for peripherals with a brilliantly designed sleek new optional docking station that doubles as a stand for the device.

At $2,100 (it is not yet available in the UK) the OQO Model 2 is not cheap, but it is a remarkable little machine that compares well with rivals such as the Sony Vaio VGN-UX180P.

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