January 1999, Revised October 1999
A few weeks ago I made a somewhat impulsive decision to buy a Panasonic Let's Note CF-S51 from a Japanese importer rather than one of the more standard laptop models available in the US. Overall, I've been quite pleased with this laptop and recommend it to others who have needs similar to mine. However, it's not for everybody. (Note: This computer is referred to as a CF51 by some vendors and and S51 by others. CF-S51 is what's stamped on the case.)
I considered getting another 560 or the 4-pound Toshiba Portege 7000. But both have 600x800 displays, and after watching a colleague give up on running Windows98 on his Portege and revert back to 95, I decided to consider other possibilities. The Thinkpad 600 was tempting -- only 1 pound heaver than the 560, it sports a 1024x768 display and a Pentium II processor. With an integrated bay for floppy drive or CD it's really only about a half pound heavier than a 560 and floppy drive, but it also has a larger foot print. Overall, the 600 probably would have met my needs, but I really wanted a lighter laptop.
Laptop manufacturers seem to release their sporty new light weights in Japan months before they are released in the US (and some never make it to the US), so I checked out the web sites of two companies that specialize in importing Japanese laptops to the US and outfitting them for US customers -- Dynamism.com (http://www.dynamism.com) and JPD (http://www.jpd.com/). Both praised the S51 as the lightest Pentium II currently available and raved about it's 1024x768 display. The next day I ordered my S51.
The first things I noticed about the S51 was its small, sleek profile. It's not quite as small and cute as a Sony Vaio 505, but it's smaller than an 8-1/2x11 pad of paper and has a durable and attractive aluminum-alloy cover that looks and feels like stainless steel. When I opened it up and turned it on I was immediately impressed by its display and audio. The small display is bright and sharp, and quite readable even at 1024x768 resolution. As with other laptops, pale pastel colors appear washed out on this display, but other than that I find it to be almost as good as a CRT. The sound is amazingly good considering the small size of the S51's mono speaker. The touchpad also deserves high praise. A big fan of IBM's trackpoint, I was afraid I wouldn't like the touchpad. I have tried touchpads on other laptops (for example the Sony Vaio) and found them quite difficult to use. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to use the S51 touchpad without any practice. The scroll area feature is also nice, performing the function of the wheel found on newer mice. Initially, I found the touchpad so easy to click that I had trouble preventing it from clicking when I didn't want it to. The problem was solved when I turned off the tapping feature so that tapping the touchpad would not generate a mouse click.
The 17mm keyboard is smaller than a full-sized keyboard, but it has a nice feel and is not difficult to touch type on (especially with my small fingers). As with other 17mm laptop keyboards, the right shift key is half sized so as to make room for the up-arrow key. This takes a little time to get used to. The space bar is smaller than those found on other 17mm keyboards, as room was needed for three keys full of Japanese characters that don't seem to do anything when configured for English. But the real drawback to the S51 keyboard is the layout of the punctuation symbols. Most annoying, the double quotes appear on the shift-2, the single quote on the shift-7, and several other punctuation marks and special symbols appear on the right side of the keyboard in different locations than you would find them on a US keyboard. Unfortunately, DOS doesn't seem to recognize this peculiar keyboard layout, and assumes the keys have their normal mapping (customer support provided me with a magic incantation that was supposed to fix this problem, but I couldn't get it to work). Fortunately it is easy to change the keyboard mapping under Windows98 to the standard US mapping. However, if you are not a skillful touch typist you may be confused because the punctuation keys will be mislabeled. I created a diagram that shows the 14 keys that change when you switch to a US mapping and taped a small print-out of it to the right of the touchpad. Alternatively you could put labels on these keys.
Probably the biggest drawback to the S51 is its short battery life. I find that it beeps and tells me to change the battery after 60-65 minutes and then shuts down 5 to 10 minutes later. Fortunately the batteries are light-weight enough that you can pack several with you on trips. However, recharging them all takes quite a while.
Another drawback is the S51's lack of full docking station and the distribution of ports between computer and minidock. Because there is no monitor port on the computer, you must use the minidock to connect to external monitors. The minidock is light enough to carry around, but is added hassle when trying to quickly connect your laptop to a projection monitor for a presentation (I've heard that some people wire-up their own monitor adapters to address this problem, but I haven't found any available as commercial products -- October 1999 update: Panasonic now makes a "baby dock" with a monitor and PS/2 port that sells for about $125). I use my laptop as my home computer, and had previously enjoyed the convenience of snapping my Thinkpad 560 into a port replicator into which I had already plugged a power cord, monitor, mouse, and keyboard. To "dock" my S51 requires plugging in both the power cord and the minidock, and attaching several devices to the minidock (I may purchase a second minidock to leave at home so as to make docking easier). If I was using any USB devices I would have to plug those in as well as there is no USB port on the minidock. Furthermore, as with many minidocks, there is only one PS/2 port. Thus, you can plugg-in either a keyboard or mouse, but not both. You can get around this by using a USB keyboard or mouse, or by purchasing a PS/2 port splitter. The keyboard/mouse cable Y manufactured by Belkin seems to work with the S51, despite warnings that it is only guaranteed to work with Thinkpads. While I find myself wishing the S51 were easier to dock, I also realize that with its high resolution display and comfortable keyboard and touchpad, it doesn't really need to be docked for most purposes. Indeed, even when I'm at home, I don't always bother to dock it. The S51 is so small and that it's quite comfortable to have in my lap when I'm stretched out on my living room couch.
I've had a few other minor difficulties with the S51, none of which have posed any significant problems for me. For example, I have yet to figure out how to get the combination of left and right buttons on the touchpad to simulate a middle-mouse click -- instead I use a keyboard shortcut for the application (Emacs) where I need middle-mouse clicks. If you stick to native Windows applications this shouldn't be a problem at all. There have also been a few times when the S51 froze up and I was unable to reboot it until I briefly removed both the power cord and battery. Fortunately this hasn't happened very often.
In summary, the S51 offers a high-performance computer in a small, light-weight package. If high-performance, high-resolution, small, and light-weight are your priorities and you are willing to sacrifice long battery life, full-sized keyboard, and easy docking, the S51 may be for you.
Last summer I ordered the Panasonic Enhanced Battery when it became available. The battery supposedly lasts for about 4 hours. I have not timed it, but that's probably reasonably accurate. The problem, however, is that the power management software that comes with the S51 is not aware of the existence of such a battery. The battery came with a floppy disk that was supposed to contain software to upgrade the battery management software. However, the software will not run unless Japanese fonts are installed. I have contacted the vendor, Dynamism, several times and have been promised new software, but it never arrives. By disabling the automatic battery shut down I am able to keep using the battery even after the computer thinks it should be used up (after about an hour), but I have no way to get an accurate battery gauge. My satisfaction with Dynamism customer support is rapidly diminishing.