The HP OmniBook 300: Hands On

On a trip to South America, Hal discovers some of the OmniBook's strengths and limitations. The lessons he learned may provide the insights needed to determine whether you need an OmniBook, and which version is for you.

By Hal Goldstein

First You've Got to Find One

We promised a hands-on review of the HP OmniBook 300 in the last issue. But we have had a tough time laying our hands on one.

HP OmniBook 300 With Paw:  Graphic

 .Newly introduced products are almost always in short supply. In addition, HP is distributing the HP OmniBook 300 (and the HP 100LX) through its dealer channel. This makes finding these products quite difficult for purchasers in small U.S. towns. The large, well stocked dealers tend to be many hours away in larger cities.

Fortune intervened! Three days after HP introduced its OmniBook, I was scheduled to fly to Uruguay, South America with my wife to visit her family. Our three-hour layover between planes in Chicago gave me the opportunity to hop in a cab, go to Chicago's Elek Tek superstore, pick up an OmniBook while the cabby waited, and return to the airport with an hour to spare.

On the way back to the airport in the back of the cab, I tore apart the package and discovered six manuals, a power cord and charger, and a battery pack. (The cab driver must have ended up with the name plate.)

New OmniBook + No Power = Frustration

I hoped that there would be some charge in the battery. However, pressing the reset button in back of the computer yielded nothing but the blank HP OmniBook screen.

I was very depressed. I imagined my Chicago-to-New York-to Buenos Aires-to-Montevideo plane trip with this new computer, but no power!

This was unthinkable, so back at the airport I borrowed an electric outlet in front of the ticket counter at the boarding gate (thank you United Airlines). I wrapped the long cord around the counter and hid the charging OmniBook on the ticket agent side of the counter. (Note: The smaller HP 100LX adapter works with the OmniBook, but will not quick charge the unit.)

For a quick charge, HP recommends a one- to two-hour charge: I was able to give it about 45 minutes.

AC Adaptor Connected to OB300: Graphic

 Once on the plane, I pulled out my OmniBook and pushed the reset button. To my pleasure, the Windows greeting screen appeared. My coach seat was a little cramped, but I still had no problem typing or using the OmniBook's unique mouse system.

Hardware: Mouse and Keyboard Useable, Non-backlit Screen Readable

This three-pound unit looks like an overgrown HP Palmtop. (PC Week described it as an "HP 95LX with steroids"). However, it has the features of a full-sized PC.

Press the blue mouse icon in the upper right portion of the keyboard and the HP Mouse pops out of the OmniBook. The mouse does not require a flat surface and can control the cursor movement in mid-air. If you already know how to use a mouse, you'll have no problems.

It's easy to adapt to the OmniBook's full-size keyboard. The first four rows (1-0, A-Z) are spaced identically to a standard desktop AT keyboard. The function keys along the top are a little smaller than a standard keyboard, but easier to reach. The embedded numeric keypad is activated by pressing (NmLk) on right of the top row of keys. The Caps Lock, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, and Enter keys are located where they should be, but are a little smaller than those on desktops.

To conserve power, HP did not backlight the OmniBook screen. However, it is readable. I used the OmniBook in mediocre lighting conditions, both at night on the plane and in a small town in Uruguay. Even with the Word for Windows default font (a tiny 10 point Times Roman), text was readable.

Eventually I changed the Word Times Roman font to a 16 point Ariel font and the text became quite readable and useable. Bolding all of the text helped even more in so-so lighting conditions.

The HP OmniBook 300 is about as readable as a 100LX or 95LX -- useable in different lighting conditions, but not ideal. Like the HP Palmtops, adjusting the contrast and angle of the screen makes the HP OmniBook more readable.

Making the OmniBook Work with a Flash Card and AA Batteries

OmniBook Keyboard Layout: Graphic

 HP says that a fully charged battery pack should power a hard disk version of the OmniBook for five hours and a Flash disk version for nine hours. The battery pack can be "quick charged" in about two hours.

The 45 minute initial charge at the Chicago United boarding gate counter meant that I had less than two hours to use my OmniBook with-hard disk system. Our plane had barely taken off from New York when I got a "two minute warning" message: I had two minutes to save my files before automatic shutoff. Fortunately, like the HP 100LX, most of the OmniBook's built-in applications have an automatic save feature. (Word and Excel save files every few minutes by default.)

I remembered that you could replace the rechargeable battery pack with a set of four AA batteries. HP recommends lithium batteries for the hard drive versions of the OmniBook. I only had alkaline batteries and knew that the hard drive would drain a set very quickly. I also remembered that another version of the OmniBook came with a Flash ROM card in place of the hard drive and that this version could run almost twice as long on a set of batteries.

I had a 5MB Sundisk Flash card in my 100LX (a 5 volt card that was designed for the 95LX, but works fine in the 100LX). I wondered if I could use it on the OmniBook.

I properly turned both systems off, removed the Flash card from my 100LX and inserted it into my Omni Book's A drive. I turned the OmniBook back on and copied the Word and Excel files I had created from the C drive to the A drive. Everything worked fine so far.

HP OmniBook Mouse: Graphic

MS Word on HP OB300:  Graphic

 I wanted to run the OmniBook on double-A alkaline batteries for the rest of the trip. To extend their life, I wanted to use the Flash card as the main file storage device and remove the hard drive. Following instructions in the manual, I turned the computer off (pressing the On/Off key in the upper right hand corner), removed the rechargeable battery pack, and inserted four double-A alkaline batteries.

I then removed the hard disk as per the instructions given on page 14-5 of the Operating Guide. I performed this process with relative ease in my coach seat above the Atlantic. Everything seemed so easy!

I turned the OmniBook back on and pressed (CTRL)-(ALT)-(DEL) to reboot. Like the 100LX, a brief message appeared during the reboot inviting me to press (ALT). Doi