Fujitsu Lifebook U2010: the tiniest notebook in the world

Like it or not netbooks are here to stay and nearly every notebook manufacturer has released their own take of the popular low-cost mini notebook design. But is there still a market for MID/UMPC-style machines? That’s the question Fujitsu poses with the Lifebook U2010. It’s tinier than the most miniature of netbooks with a footprint that’s smaller than this mag’s DVD cover and it weighs a petite 610g (the lightest netbook comes in at just under a kilo).

But size isn’t the only factor separating the U2010 from its larger netbook cousins. It has the same form factor of a tablet PC for starters with a touchscreen that rotates 180 degrees and folds back onto the keyboard for use as a slate.
Another key difference is price. Most netbooks with the exception of the HP Mini-Note 2133 run for under $700 and while the U2010 sells for a fair bit cheaper than its predecessor the U1010 it’s still twice as expensive as a netbook. Part of the markup comes from the aforementioned tablet form factor – the rest comes from the fact that like the HP Mini-Note it runs the pricier Windows Vista Business.

The U2010 hasn’t changed much from the previous model the U1010 with all the buttons ports and switches in the same place. The screen is the same 5.6 inches but the U2010 has a sharper 1280 x 800-pixel resolution. The upside of this is that you don’t have to worry about dialogue boxes being cut off or having to scroll horizontally to view a whole webpage. The downside is that all the text and screen elements are even smaller so if your sight isn’t what it used to be you’ll have a hard time using the U2010 at its native resolution.

When it comes to input you’ve got two options: the traditional keyboard track pointer and mouse buttons; or using the stylus. Either way you’re in for a steep learning curve. A tiny keyboard is to be expected given the U2010’s pint-sized dimensions but Fujitsu makes it more challenging by rearranging many of the keys – the worst offender being the highly-trafficked apostrophe key which has been relocated to the top row.

The mouse buttons and track pointer are tricky to use as they’re inconveniently located on either side of the U2010’s swivel hinge.  You’re better off connecting a mouse but given there’s only one – that’s right one – USB port at your disposal your best bet is connecting one wirelessly over Bluetooth.

The touchscreen is nice and responsive so you don’t have to press too hard on the display when using the stylus. Unlike a regular tablet PC the touchscreen doesn’t use an active digitiser so it detects anything you use for tapping on the screen – a good thing as the supplied stylus is small and easily lost. Using Vista’s handwriting recognition technology the U2010 works a treat for entering handwritten notes but as it can’t distinguish between your hand and the stylus you can’t rest your palm on the screen while you’re writing.

In addition to the solo USB port the U2010 includes microphone and headphone jacks both SD and CF card slots and a port replicator on the front (used for connecting the external two-in-one VGA and Ethernet connector). For wireless connectivity it comes with Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi.

A 1.3-megapixel webcam and fingerprint reader are pretty par for the course as far as notebooks go but the Lifebook U2010 throws a few bonuses in as well. It’s the only laptop we’ve seen so far with an FM transmitter used for wirelessly sending its audio to an FM radio. A simple application is used for setting the broadcast frequency on the U2010 and it’s simply a matter of tuning in to the same frequency on a radio. In theory. In practice it was simple to set up and all but impossible to get a clean static-free signal. We got the best results by standing directly in front of the radio – sitting a metre and a half away it was hard to hear the song playing above the static.

The weak transmitter is a shame as it would otherwise be a neat workaround for the U2010’s lacklustre mono speaker. At full volume it’s barely loud enough for you to hear system sounds let alone multimedia. Video playback is also average – using VLC player our XviD-encoded videos were choppy and missed a lot of frames. Not that you’ll be storing too many movies on the U2010’s hard drive anyway – with almost half of the hard drive taken up by Vista you’ve only got around 25GB left of the total 60GB for storing personal files and programs.

Another feature we’re not used to seeing is the built-in GPS. It doesn’t come with any navigation software unfortunately so we weren’t able to test it out. An integrated HSDPA module would be a natural fit for a notebook this size and according to the Fujitsu rep this feature will be added in an upcoming refresh.

Performance and battery life
Specs-wise the U2010 is run by a 1.6GHz Intel Centrino Atom processor but rather than use the N270 chip favoured by netbooks it uses the MID-designated Z530 chip. The main difference is that the Z530 generates less heat and supports virtualisation technology – otherwise the two chips have the same 512KB L2 cache 533MHz front side bus and 12x clock multiplier.

Paired to Intel GMA 500 graphics and only a gigabyte of RAM we weren’t expecting any fireworks in the performance department especially not with Vista running the show. To that effect our expectations were met with a moderate 983 in PCMark05 and 79 in 3DMark06. If you’re expecting notebook-class performance you’ll be disappointed; the U2010 takes a couple of seconds longer to do anything compared to a standard notebook – even clicking on a link to load a new webpage takes three or more seconds. Another expectation you’ll have to check at the door is instant-on. The U2010 may come close to a PDA in size but it takes a full 30 seconds to wake up from sleep mode which rules out using it for quickly looking up an email or phone number.

Performance always needs to be balanced against mobility however and when you take the U2010’s Lilliputian form factor into account the laggy system is a worthwhile tradeoff. If you stick to a couple of tabs in Internet Explorer at a time it isn’t sluggish enough to be irritating and there are lots of techniques you can use to pare down Vista’s voracious resource requirements.

The U2010 comes with a small 2-cell 2900mAh battery that clips to the rear. Using the power-saving profile and with screen brightness set to 40% we got just over two hours of web browsing over Wi-Fi before the system shut down. An optional 4-cell 5800mAh battery is available that according to Fujitsu offers up to 7.5 hours of run-time.

The Lifebook U2010 occupies an interesting space in the laptop spectrum. It’s smaller than a netbook but doesn’t have the bargain-basement pricetag that’s made them such a rip-roaring success. Extra features like the tablet PC design and built-in GPS and FM transmitter make it slightly more appealing but we’re not sure these are worth paying the extra premium for – especially when you can get a high-performance notebook for the same money.