Phoenix Technologies, which makes BIOSes for notebooks and desktop computers, has a nifty idea: something called Firstware Assistant that lets you check your Outlook calendar and email without booting up the machine. You turn on the machine through a special quick-boot cycle that bypasses Windows and lets you view only certain data. You can’t download your email this way, though — just view the most recent messages.
A related idea: Intel’s Extended Mobile Access, which lets you view the status of nearby Wi-Fi signals and monitor email as it comes in, through a second, small LCD on the outside of your notebook. It uses more power but looks promising.