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Mini-notebooks make comeback

A flop when introduced to North America two years ago, sub-4-pound systems look to become a mainstay of the portable market in the near future.

NEW YORK--Mini-notebooks, a flop when introduced in North America two years ago, are staging a comeback and look to become a mainstay of the portable market in the near future.

Design changes, improved component miniaturization, CNET's PC Expo coverage lower prices, and consumers' obsession with weight are pushing mini-notebooks to the forefront of the market, according to executives and company representatives at PC Expo here.

One executive went so far as to muse that the future will bring just two general classes of notebooks: 4-pound portables with large screens and full-sized keyboards that act as desktop replacements--essentially lighter versions of today's upper-class notebooks such as IBM's ThinkPad 600--and three-pound minis with nearly life-sized keyboards, slightly smaller screens, and sub-$2,000 prices.

"The trend is that everything will get thinner and lighter," said Adalio Sanchez, general manager, IBM Mobile Computing. "The hardest decision we had to make was not to come out with a big, 15-inch screen notebook. This is not a notebook," Sanchez added to emphasize the importance of portability.

Compaq Computer's upcoming product plans are indicative of the trend. Next month, the PC manufacturer will release two 3-pound, magnesium-cased notebooks, a Presario consumer system, and an Armada portable for the business market, according to Compaq executives at PC Expo. Both will measure a little less than an inch thick, feature Intel Celeron and Pentium II processors and 11-inch screens, and will sell for under $2,000.

But Compaq is only the latest company to enter the field. IBM earlier this month started selling the ThinkPad 240, a 3-pound notebook with a 300-MHz Celeron, 64MB of memory, a 6.4GB drive, and a 10.4-inch screen for a $1,999. Big Blue differs from others by offering a carbon, rather than magnesium, case.

Last year at Fall Comdex, Dell Computer announced an ultraslim Latitude, but the notebook came with a last-generation Pentium MMX chip. Sony kicked off this new wave of portables with its Sony Vaio 505 and Toshiba followed quickly with its Portege.

Miniaturization has been one of the major factors toward this trend. IBM, for example, is well versed in these designs, already making them for years in the Japanese market, said IBM's Sanchez. Moreover, tiny hard drives can now offer gigabytes of data storage, making ultraslim portables true notebooks, not just companion devices. Fast processors, meanwhile, have become more power efficient, allowing them to be inserted into smaller designs. Price declines have further helped dropped bottom line costs and retail prices.

The current wave of mini-notebooks differ significantly from those of two years ago. The first generation of products, like the Toshiba Libretto, came with significantly smaller footprints. By contrast, today's models come with keyboards that are closer to the size of standard keyboards.

Separately, both Compaq and IBM recently announced Windows CE products that mimic the size of mini-notebooks. Although both the Aero 8000 from Compaq and the WorkPad z50 from IBM can only run CE-based applications, each sells for under $1,000.

Brooke Crothers reported from New York and Michael Kanellos from San Francisco.