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Vulcan gets a grip on mini-PCs

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures comes up with a design for a shrunken laptop that weighs about a pound and rests comfortably in two hands.

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At the Consumer Electronics Show,
the theme is tech anywhere, anytime.

LAS VEGAS--Vulcan Ventures wants to take the lap out of laptops.

The investment company, set up and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is showing at the Consumer Electronics Show here a design for a shrunken notebook PC that would weigh about a pound and rest comfortably in two hands.

Vulcan is negotiating to license the design and associated software to major PC manufacturers, said Michael Agostino, technology analyst for the company. It expects to have a beta model available and actual devices for sale from major PC brands late this year, priced around the same as a midline laptop.

The idea for the design originated 18 months ago with Allen, who was convinced that chips and other components had advanced to the point where full PC functionality could be shoehorned into a truly portable package, said Rod Fleck, research program manager for Vulcan.

"If we had started a couple of years ago, the CPUs wouldn't have been there, the (hard) disks wouldn't have been dense enough," he said.

The standard design for the Mini-PC calls for a folding 5.8-inch screen with 800-by-480 resolution, a 20GB hard drive, built-in wireless networking and batteries capable of running three to four hours on a single charge. The devices will run the Windows XP operating system and standard PC applications such as Microsoft Office. All of this will be crammed into a case about the size of a paperback novel, a little more than an inch thick and weighing about a pound.

The idea is to give mobile workers the wireless convenience and portability of gadgets such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry e-mail devices without the compromises, said Agostino.

"One the one side today, you've got standard laptops, which are just too much for people to carry around all the time," he said. "Then you've got PDAs (personal digital assistants), which means crippled applications and limited power."

Vulcan won't manufacture the devices but will instead license the design and software to PC manufacturers, who will add their own customizations, said Agostino. The company expects the first models to be on sale in time for Christmas shoppers this year, priced at around $1,200 to $1,500.