capsule review

Fujitsu LifeBook U820 Tablet PC

At a Glance
  • Fujitsu LifeBook U820 Tablet PC

    PCWorld Rating

    A lack of power and size makes getting work done a big problem. Sometimes, size matters.

As computers shrink to the size of Pop-Tarts boxes, the Fujitsu Lifebook U820 promises to lead the charge--and still be functional. Unfortunately, it needs to have a better interface and to make smarter use of its meager resources. As it stands, the U820 falters as a tablet PC.

At 6.0 by 6.7 by 1.0 inches, the U820 isn't the smallest machine on the block, but it is a contender. The convertible tablet features a swiveling 5.6-inch touchscreen and weighs a paltry 1.32 pounds. Despite its size, it seems sturdy: Though stress tests are ill-advised, the chassis feels solid, and the neck turns smoothly while providing just enough resistance.

Fujitsu includes a 1.6GHz Atom Z530 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 120GB hard drive--not bad, in theory. But then Windows Vista Home Premium climbs aboard, and the U820 shudders. If you're doing a bit of light Web browsing or word processing, it's fine. Toss in a bit of heavy lifting (say, playing anything more complex than a YouTube clip), however, and you can almost hear the poor thing gasp. It earned a mark of just 24 on WorldBench 6. Here's a machine that really could have benefited from running Windows XP (like almost every netbook with an Atom processor) or more RAM. Fujitsu offers this notebook with XP--your better bet. On the bright side, the U820 lasted just over 7 hours in our battery-life tests.

While smaller is generally better, at some point something has to give. In this case, it's a 5.6-inch touchscreen running at a resolution of 1200 by 800. Getting work done can be an exercise in frustration, as even the hardiest road warriors will find their minds and their vision strained. Tweaking the resolution or simply increasing the font size on all of your Web pages and documents can help, but multitasking is nigh impossible. At least the U820 has a zoom feature (as is often the case with small-screen computers).

The keyboard suffers, too. With some practice (or microscopic hands), you should be able to tap out prose without making too many mistakes, but extended work sessions can become a cramped, nerve-wracking experience. Thumb-typing is technically an option, but the device is a bit too wide to do that comfortably for extended periods of time. For navigation, the netbook has a pointing nub and buttons on the "shoulders," just below the swiveling screen. The layout takes a little getting used to, and the nub can be oversensitive, but it works.

Though the U820's design has a lot to dislike, most of the issues turn into bonuses once you fold the screen down onto the keyboard and use the device as a tablet. In portrait mode, the screen becomes a near-perfect facsimile of a small notebook. It's a still a bit hard to read, but Vista's Tablet PC support offers excellent handwriting recognition, so note taking is a breeze. The small size and low weight make holding the U820 for extended periods of time fairly easy, and the screen is just large enough to be comfortable, without taking up too much space in your hand. Spend an hour or so learning your way around Vista using a stylus and factor in the U820's long battery life, and you have yourself a respectable digital notebook.

A mic and headphone jack, Bluetooth connectivity, Wi-Fi, a single USB port, and a Webcam round out the standard feature list. Along the front of the unit, you'll also find a fingerprint sensor, an SD Card slot, a CompactFlash card slot, and an expansion port, the last of which supports a dongle that adds ports for an ethernet cable and a VGA monitor. In total it's not bad, really: A few extra USB ports might be nice, but slapping on a slew of peripherals negates much of the benefit of an ultraportable. Bluetooth-support should have you covered when you're ready to settle down and use a proper mouse and keyboard, but the U820 simply doesn't have the chops to serve as a primary machine.

The U820 also has a mobile broadband modem, which allows you to hop onto AT&T's EDGE service (with a subscription). And then there's the built-in GPS functionality, care of Garmin. While it won't replace your standard GPS unit, it works--most of the time. Once, I found myself cruising down the street at 14 miles per hour while sitting on the couch. Plugging in the optional external antenna (which slides into the microphone jack, of all places) cleared that issue up.

With a cramped screen and keyboard, mobile broadband, GPS, and unbearably tinny sound from a single underpowered speaker, on paper the LifeBook U820 is more of an oversize smartphone than an undersize computing device. While significant flaws (and a $1200 price tag) ultimately bog this machine down, something close to it could be a real contender. Drop the mobile broadband and GPS while giving users an extra inch of room to maneuver, and--performance issues aside--the U820 could become a palatable PC in a neat little package.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    A lack of power and size makes getting work done a big problem. Sometimes, size matters.

    Pros

    • Incredibly small size
    • GPS and WWAN capability

    Cons

    • Form throttles function
    • Underpowered components
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