Compaq's Aero Makes a Bull's Eye on the Affordable Portables Target

Notebook PCs are especially well suited to education. Students, of course, gain from owning one, as do teachers at any grade level. Administrators and support staff are also obvious beneficiaries, but so are librarians, counselors, coaches, maintenance personnel and others involved with school services. Add the ability to dial-in to a district or college network remotely and one can work or learn any where at any time. From Compaq Computer Corp., the Contura Aero family of ultra-portable notebooks fit the needs, the budgets and the backpacks of our education community. Affordable Subnotebooks Labeling their Aero family "no compromise" subnotebooks, Compaq designs them with 486 Intel processors, bright backlit screens, beefy batteries, a range of hard disk sizes, an integrated trackball, a PCMCIA slot, plus innovative convenience features. Options and accessories, like a desktop expansion base, are also offered. Smaller than a standard sheet of paper, the Aero measures 7.5" x 10.25" and is about 1.5" thick. Depending on the model, they weigh in at 3.5 to 4.2 lbs. This is about 45% lighter and 33% smaller than most notebook PCs. Even adding the AC adapter, travel weight of a top-of-the-line Aero is only a hair over 4.5 lbs. Prices are also lighter and smaller. Suggested retail for monochrome Aeros start at $1,199; color models start at $1,799. The firm's education discount reduces the price further still. Battery life for an Aero is 2.5 to four hours, or up to six hours on monochrome models with an optional enhanced battery pack. The batteries are standard-sized NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) rechargeables, now offered by Duracell nationwide in campus bookstores, office supply houses and even airports. Basic Hardware Specs of Aero Aero 4/25 are monochrome models; they have an 8", backlit passive matrix VGA display. In 640 x 480 resolution, they support up to 16 shades of gray, or up to 64 shades at 320 x 200. Plus, on an external monitor, they support 16 colors at 640 x 480. The Aero 4/25 is powered by a 25MHz 486SX (SL enhanced) CPU with 8K of internal cache. Standard RAM is 4MB, upgradeable to 8 or 12MB and the hard disk is 170MB. Color models are designated Aero 4/33C. These boast a 7.8", backlit color passive matrix VGA display that handles 16 colors at 640 x 480 and up to 256 colors at 320 x 200. They also support 16 colors on an external VGA monitor. Powering the 4/33C is a 33MHz 486 SX (SL enhanced) CPU with 8K of internal cache. Standard RAM is 4MB, upgradeable to 12MB; hard disk sizes are 170MB or 250MB. Tailored for comfort, Aeros have a 76-key touch-type keyboard, with a full complement of function keys, cursor keys (in an inverted T) and an embedded numeric keypad. Plenty of room is left for a palm rest. An integrated trackball is in the lower right corner. Other features include an integrated audio speaker, one enhanced parallel port, one serial port and one Type II PCMCIA slot. LEDs indicate Power, Fast Charge (battery), Caps Lock and Scroll & Number Lock status. There is no built-in floppy drive. Compaq's 3.5" 1.44MB floppy drive plugs into the PCMCIA slot and d'esn't need an external power source. Take it when you need it; leave it at home at other times. Two other nice touches are its button to eject a diskette and an LED to indicate drive access. PCMCIA is key. Compaq offers several data/fax modem cards, regular and cellular, for that slot, but myriad other options exist as well -- network interfacing, more storage plus other communication and connectivity desires. The "Good Stuff" Compaq has integrated many features that make an Aero extremely easy to use. Chief among these are its power-management functions. An Aero can be left on in a standby mode for up to a week (168 hours); hit one button and pick up exactly where you left off, with programs already open and all data saved. Another hugely convenient feature is auto-configuration of PCMCIA cards when they are inserted or removed. This implementation of PCMCIA is a Compaq exclusive. The user interface is another area in which the firm's products stand out. Instead of being locked into Windows' Program Manager, Aeros are pre-loaded with TabWorks, an alternative way to organize and access programs and files. TabWorks takes the ubiquitous Day Runner notebook as its model. In the electronic version, one sets up tabs for each type of task and then places the appropriate application and file icons on that tab's page(s). For example, a student might make tabs for their classes (math, poly sci, English lit) then access their programs (stat package, word processor, quotations database) from those pages. TabWorks also includes Contents and Index tabs. This is a very friendly and intuitive way to organize and use a computer. Also pre-installed are DOS 6; Windows 3.1; Lotus Organizer, a PIM with a calendar and planner; and WinLink, software to transfer files between computers via a serial cable, which is included. Online Help, Security & More User friendliness is paramount. The Compaq Welcome Center, for example, contains an icon for their Learning Center, the jumping off place for an online user's guide, as well as tutorials for the Aero itself, Windows, DOS, even how to use a mouse. EZSearch performs intelligent full-text searches for the needed information, allowing for misspellings and synonyms. Indeed, online documentation is everywhere. Place the cursor over any item onscreen, for example, and a brief description pops up on a line near the bottom. Help is provided for all the pre-loaded software and included utilities. Security is accounted for as well. Users can protect their Aero with a system password, plus QuickLock or QuickBlank functions. The unit also supports Kensington hardware locks. The Welcome Center is also home to the Compaq Control Center. Via this icon one accesses the unit's power- and security-management, computer checkup (diagnostics) and set-up utilities. Finally, the Aero comes with a good set of printed documentation. "Beyond Setup" details controls, lights and connectors; software and PCMCIA installations; and the specs. A good 60% of the booklet, however, is devoted to troubleshooting and diagnostics. There's also a mini-guide to DOS and Windows, and manuals for Lotus Organizer and TabWorks. For $99, one can add a desktop Convenience Base. This external unit replicates the Aero's serial and parallel ports plus adds ports for video, a mouse and a larger keyboard. This enables one to set up a desk with a larger color monitor, a full-sized keyboard, a mouse and perhaps another drive or a modem and attach or detach the notebook without fuss. The unit also has a cradle for charging an extra battery pack and an extra AC power supply. Other accessories include a custom-fit, soft case; an adapter for automobiles; a full-sized, 101-key, external keyboard; a mobile port expander, for travel; and several PCMCIA data/fax modems. Compaq products are backed by a three-year parts and labor warranty. Customers can either bring their unit to an authorized service provider, or have Compaq arrange to pick-up, repair and return it. Plus, toll-free telephone support is available at any time as are technical support forums on CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. Other Notebook Offerings Of course, the firm has other notebooks as well. Most recently added is the Contura 400 line. There is an active-matrix color model, as well as a dual-scan passive matrix color edition, both based on 40MHz Intel 486DX/2 CPUs. These boast 250MB hard disks, two PCMCIA slots (or one Type III), and a larger center-mounted trackball. RAM, hard disk, CPU and displays are all upgradeable. For instance, users can add memory themselves (for a total of 20MB) via a "trap door" on the unit's underside. A third line, the LTE Elite is distinguished by having the AC adapters built right into the unit. A 2 oz. power cord is all that's needed to travel. These versatile notebooks boast removable hard drives (a shock-mounted carrying case is included); two PCMCIA slots; user-upgradeable CPUs and RAM; plus three separate desktop expansion units. Two active-matrix color models are offered, as is a dual-scan passive matrix color model and a crisp, active-matrix monochrome edition. But it is the Aero line -- with its combination of ultra-light weight, ultra-small size and ultra-affordable cost -- that could prove ultra-enticing to education.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.