Lenovo has eyes on consumer PC market

Chinese PC maker unveils new line of consumer-focused notebooks called IdeaPad, as well as a desktop line called IdeaCentre. Photos: IdeaPad notebooks

Lenovo is undertaking an Olympic-size effort to establish itself as a consumer PC brand.

The Chinese PC maker has found great success with the iconic ThinkPad brand of commercial laptops, a business it purchased from IBM. And now it's taking the world stage with a new line of consumer-focused notebooks called IdeaPad. There will also be a desktop line called IdeaCentre.

The IdeaPad will come in 15-inch and 17-inch widescreen models beginning this month, with an 11-inch widescreen to be available near the end of March. There's a heavy emphasis on design and an obvious appeal to specific lifestyle applications, including gaming, entertainment, and easy portability.

The 15-inch model is sleek in the tradition of the ThinkPad, but with a linen-like texture on the outer cover, chosen specifically to stand out from the high-gloss route taken by so many other PC makers. The 11-inch model will come in metallic red and will measure just more than half an inch thick. The 17-inch model has specialized gaming, music, and video controls, and comes with an optional high-definition Blu-ray drive.

All have Dolby-branded sound with four speakers plus subwoofer, as well as an integrated camera with face-recognition software so a person's face can be used in place of a password. There is no bezel, or border, on their screens.

Just two years since buying IBM's PC business and a month since on its ThinkPad line--which it was entitled to use for two more years--Lenovo is launching a whole new product category. But the timing of its entry into consumer electronics retail in 15 markets worldwide comes with risks.

With Lenovo being the official sponsor of the 2008 Summer Olympics in its home country, it's a good bet the company will use its position to introduce itself to the world as a consumer PC maker. It'll also be showing off the new systems at next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But this isn't the most opportune time to be entering the consumer notebook market.

Industry growth numbers are not nearly as high as they used to be. In the , growth stood at 22.5 percent, according to IDC, compared with 36.3 percent in the third quarter of 2006. And the already-crowded marketplace is getting even more packed, as PC giant Dell has made a splashy entrance into the retail market to tangle with established players like Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Apple, and Gateway.

Consumer retail is mostly new for Lenovo. As a brand, it is the third-largest PC maker in the world, thanks to its commercial business. Lenovo hopes the popularity of the ThinkPad will lure consumers into buying a Lenovo for home or school use.

"There's a certain halo effect into consumer, better than you might anticipate," said Craig Marigen, Lenovo's vice president of global consumer marketing. But, he added, "there is a long way to go in establishing a really leading brand for Lenovo."

Good looks help in selling oneself to the masses, but will that be enough? As visually appealing as the IdeaPad notebooks may be, it's tough finding room on the shelves of retail outlets, especially when the low-end pricing of $799 for the 15-inch model and $1,199 for the $17-inch model puts IdeaPads squarely in competition with practically every other major notebook vendor.

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