FLIGHT ATTENDANTS whisk away half-eaten meals of gluey food products and chemicals. Passengers lower the window blinds. Screens roll the credits for something with "VII" at the end of the title.
Groaning, you notice that the passenger in the seat beside you is plugging headphones into her laptop computer and her ears. She inserts a CD-ROM into the built-in player and adjusts the screen. You sneak a peek. She is watching "Apocalypse Now" in all its letterboxed glory.
Using flight time to catch up on films you actually want to watch instead of Hollywood's castoffs may be the best and highest use of the new Thinkpad 760CD, the latest flagship of the International Business Machines laptop computer fleet.
Given the machine's $7,500 price, the company would prefer that you think of it as a traveling multimedia presentation machine, but being stuck in a plane and forced to watch a video on the magic of shock absorbers is too horrible to contemplate.
It certainly has a big screen for a laptop. Better still, its 12 diagonal inches (real ones, not the phony ones desktop monitors are measured in) and 800 by 600 pixels can display high-quality, full-screen moving images, thanks to built-in hardware that can decode video encoded with the MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) standard. But that screen cannot transcend the typical laptop limitations, including limited brightness and tonal scale. The Video CD of "Apocalypse Now" looks rather washed out on the built-in screen, but far better (though not as good as real TV) if you connect the machine to a conventional monitor. IBM says you can connect it to a standard television set, too.
The 760CD also includes hardware and software to capture video from sources such as videocassette players. The software, however, is primitive. The manual notes that you must "easily calculate the amount of hard disk space you need to capture a video clip using the following formula:
"Frame size (pels per frame) X Color depth (bytes per pel) X Frame rate X Number of seconds equals Video in bytes," when such calculations are precisely the kind of thing computers are good at and should do for you. ("Pel" is an IBM term for what the rest of the industry calls "pixel," meaning a dot on the screen.)
"Building a video," the manual adds, "can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours." But it cannot include MPEG compression; that process is typically performed by service bureaus with far more powerful machines.
Otherwise the 760CD is a motley collection of fancy technical goodies. The microprocessor is a peppy 90 megahertz Pentium. The CD-ROM player is a quad-scan model and can quickly be swapped with the included floppy disk drive or an optional second battery. The 28,800 bits per second modem can double as a speakerphone. The tiny hard drive holds 1.2 gigabytes of data. But how IBM could offer a top-of-the-line machine with a mere eight megabytes of memory beggars the imagination. The eight more you need will set you back an extra $500.
Along with the steep sticker price, all this technology comes with other costs: the unit weighs about 7.4 pounds, the AC adapter comes in two pieces, and the battery lasts only two hours, which will barely get you through a feature film. On the other hand, the machine's toasty base may help warm you on a chilly day.
The latest Thinkpad design is not entirely successful. The keyboard has been moved back toward the screen to offer a palm rest area that is too small except for the tiniest hands. The tiny stereo speakers in the palm rest are as tinny as those on far cheaper models. Headphones sound better but pass on irritating noises when the CD-ROM is spinning. Many icons on the hardware are confusing.
A mechanical device lets you tilt the back of the keyboard as you can with desktop models. It turns out to be surprisingly useful, since it helps keep the keys level when the machine is on your lap.
IBM's software and manuals continue to be weak. In addition to a confusing icon-based "system map" and a poorly organized "user's guide" there is also a supplement with the snappy title "Considerations When Using Your Computer," another one about using Windows 95 and a page of warnings about the built-in modem. The unhelpful DOS-based onscreen help of previous models appears to have been converted into unhelpful Windows-based help. A configuration screen's icons are puzzling enough but messages such as "Restart machine to take effect changes" are downright maddening.
In the tradition of other top-shelf Thinkpads, these machines are in short supply. IBM personnel installed Windows 95 as an afterthought on the review unit I tested; some very unpleasant results suggest that doing so yourself is probably a bad idea. But units with Windows 95 already installed will not be available until November at the earliest; users would do well to wait.
Three other Thinkpads in this line range from about $5,350 to $6,599, but do not offer the option of an internal CD-ROM player or come with more than eight megabytes of memory. Other manufacturers offer similar machines at significantly lower prices, and prices for portable CD-ROM players have plummeted. But what is money to the digerati?
If you do buy a 760CD and plan a lot of transcontinental CD-movie flights, please remember to take along an extra battery or two, at $279 each. Of course, if you can afford $8,000 for a laptop computer, you are probably sitting up front, where videos and players flow as freely as wine and corporate blather.