There has been a major feature injection for notebook computers in the past 18 months that have prompted recognition of a new, middle-class of notebook. Computer vendors in Hong Kong claim that up until March, they could sell only the very high-end desktop replacement machines or the low-end lightweight machines that were targeted at commuters or people who needed a portable computer but had a tight budget. They moved some of the middle-range machines but not enough in high-volume. Companies such as Texas Instruments, AST, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Compaq are attempting to meet the buyers in the middle, acknowledging that there are three separate streams of notebooks - performance, standard and slimline. Toshiba, which specialises only in notebook computers in most markets, has perhaps been the most successful. Its Satellite notebook is a basic but well-configured machine that has all the features buyers are after. HP has distinguished its lightweight and heavyweight streams of notebooks in the OmniBook line. Digital has a high-performance machine with the HiNote Ultra and a budget machine with the HiNote VP (for value plus). Dell, known for its participation only in the high-margin, fresh products, has its Latitude machines primed to fill the gaps but is not yet participating in the slimline market. AST has two distinct models of its Ascentia range and I've enjoyed a test drive of the Ascentia J in the past few weeks. The J30 has a Pentium 100Mhz microprocessor, a 10.5 inch screen TFT (thin film transistor), which is large enough for my use and it is a computer that typifies the middle ground of the notebook computer market. It has an 800Mb hard drive, which I doubt I will ever fill. The battery is a rechargeable Lithium-ion device, which is a great feature if you are frustrated by the unpredictable and mercurial battery life of other conventional models. I've had problems in underestimating the need for battery power when the memory effect cut in with Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMh) batteries which do not forgive forgetful treatment from the power adapter. The AST battery gives me about three hours of continuous use before it dies but I mostly have it connected to the mains, through the adapter. The best thing is that it is quite affordable. It's on a par with Acer's AcerNote Lite, the HP OmniBook 600C or the Digital HiNote VP. It has all the basic ingredients to make it a worthwhile companion computer - not a full desktop replacement but certainly a little bit more than just a fancy typewriter. It is more powerful than 95 per cent of the desktops in use in my office, yet small enough to pack into a briefcase or backpack. The impressive thing about this machine is its keyboard. It requires only a light touch on each key and with the Windows 95 buttons, it is easy to manoeuvre around the menus without using the pointing device. The Ascentia J has an IBM-type pointing device, which is quite easy to use, especially if you're a high-volume text keyboarder. The high-end Ascentia P uses the Apple-like SmartPad, which AST says will be included in about 80 per cent of its notebook machines from now on. The disappointment with the Ascentia J standard model is that it only boasts 8Mb of DRam. Since the Ascentia models were released, the price of memory has fallen dramatically, so it is a good ideal to ask for at least 16Mb, just to improve the speed with Windows 95. In fact, AST this week launched a free upgrade from 8Mb to 16Mb of DRam for the Ascentia models and slashed the list price for the J30 from $25,000 to $17,980. Expect street prices to be even lower.