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IBM enhances wireless notebooks

Big Blue releases new ThinkPads that feature dual-band wireless and fashion choices when it comes to the navigational stick on the keyboard.

IBM on Monday released a new family of ThinkPads that features dual-band wireless, enhanced management software and, for the first time, fashion choices when it comes to the navigational stick on the keyboard.

The ThinkPad R40 family, targeted at small and medium-sized businesses, is IBM's first foray into what will likely be a busy year for notebooks. Laptop shipments grew by 17.6 percent in 2002, much faster than desktops, according to preliminary figures from research firm Gartner. The trend likely will continue with the greater proliferation of wireless networks and energy-efficient technologies such as Intel's Pentium-M processor, formerly code-named Banias.

The high-end members of the line come with dual-band wireless technology built in. Dual-band wireless makes it possible to create 300-foot zones to send and receive files wirelessly using both the 802.11b and 802.11a technologies. Although most wireless networks now use 802.11b--also known as Wi-Fi--802.11a networks transfer data at a much faster rate and feature more communications channels. As a result, 802.11a networks, and another standard called 802.11g, are expected to grow rapidly.

Toshiba came out with a so-called dual-band laptop late last year. Others are expected to follow by midyear when Intel releases the dual-band version of Calexico, a wireless networking module tuned to work with the Pentium-M that will be integrated into notebooks.

Ease of use will be another selling point for the new ThinkPad line. To revive its position in PCs, IBM has devised a number of applications designed to substantially reduce the costs or pain associated with owning a computer.

The ThinkPad R40, for instance, will come with an Access IBM button, which automatically connects the user to diagnostic tools and online help pages. Another feature is RapidRestore, which lets people erase hard drives in case of a virus attack and then recover data and applications from a partition below the same hard drive.

Additionally, the notebook features a new version of Access Connections, which senses available wireless bandwidth and shifts between them depending on signal strength and traffic.

Big Blue also will use the notebook line for the debut of two new covers for the track point, the small red stick for directing the cursor that sticks out of the middle of the keyboard. One of the new track points is larger and softer than the standard "cat's tongue" knob cover. The other new one looks like a tiny suction cup. Buyers can get all three knob covers and change them at will, sort of like a Mr. Potato Head.

"It is a matter of choice," said Tom Ribble, worldwide product marketing manager for the ThinkPad R series.

IBM hasn't changed the basic style or design of the ThinkPad much since it debuted in 1992, and part of the product's success has been attributed to its look and feel, say analysts and IBM executives.

"The IBM ThinkPad design, inspired by the Japanese shoukadou bentou lunch box, has been punctuated by the innovative track point cap for 10 years," the company said in a statement.

The ThinkPad R40 starts at $979 for a model with a 1.6GHz Celeron processor, while the introductory Pentium 4 version with a 2GHz chip sells for $1,499. Models that come with 802.11b networking are also available.