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Dell jumps on ultraportable trend

Dell is racing to catch up in the ultraportable market, with a new line of high-end laptops that could house an upcoming 500-MHz Pentium III chip.

Dell is racing to shrink its portable computers and trying to catch up to a trend--the ultraportable.

Dell is unveiling today a new compact design with a number of high-end features, following similar announcements from IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba.

Dell Computer also indicated that the new design could accommodate an upcoming 500-MHz Pentium III processor for portable computers from Intel. New systems from Compaq, including its E700 and M700 lines, are designed likewise.

Lightweight laptops are trying to shrug off past deficiencies in design--typically, they have been cutting-edge in form but lagging edge in function. For example, Dell's current offering, the Latitude LT, was very compact but used older Pentium chips and a small screen. IBM and others are now cramming the fastest chips, the best graphics, and large screens into computers that weigh around four pounds--or less.

The new Latitude CS includes a large 13.3-inch active matrix display and a 400-MHz Pentium II processor--the fastest portable chip from Intel. Yet it weighs only 4.3 pounds, Dell said. IBM's ThinkPad 570 is also in this category.

In order to compensate for the slim one-inch high design--which doesn't leave room for an optical drive--Dell has elected to use an external module (receptacle) that plugs into the side and can use a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive or a floppy. Hewlett-Packard provides a similar setup with its four-pound OmniBook 900 notebook.

Prices start at $2,899 for a system with Windows 98, a 4.8 gigabyte hard disk drive, 64MB of memory, and external floppy drive.

A 500-MHz Pentium III processor, which is not yet available from Intel, is slated to be available for the CS line in the fourth quarter, according to Dell.

Dell expects the ultraportable segment to see steady growth, said Gretchen Cole, a product launch manager with Dell. This market (which for Dell means notebooks weighing between 3.5 to 4.5 pounds and having only a built-in hard disk drive) is expected to grow from about 10 percent of the overall market in 1998 to about 15 percent by 2000, according to Dell's forecasts. In the past, ultralight notebooks only constituted a very small segment of the market because they compromised on crucial areas including keyboard size, processor technology, and screens.

Cole also said the CS is a ground-up Dell design. One result of this is that the new notebook can use the same docking station as other Latitude portables. Dell's current Latitude LT model was designed and manufactured by Sharp.

The market for Windows CE is going through similar developmental stages, but from the other direction. Windows CE devices started tiny and are now expanding enough in size and function that, to some extent, they impinge on ultraportables.

Cole said Dell has its eye on Windows CE, and is looking for the right role it will play with corporate customers. "We are looking at smaller classes of systems," she said, but did not elaborate on when any such devices might appear.