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Laptop or portable Unix workstation?

Tadpole Computer's new Sparcle workstation looks like a large home or office laptop and is priced as low as $2,995. The company thinks that's enough to net some new customers.

Tadpole Computer, the manufacturer of a line of Unix-based portable computers, is hoping a less-expensive model will increase the size of its customer pool.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company will launch on Monday the Sparcle, a new Unix notebook workstation, based on Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system and UltraSPARC processors. Prices for the Sparcle start at $2,995.

Tadpole has traditionally sold a small number of high-priced portable Unix systems to government and defense customers. Normally a workstation is classified as a heavy-duty desktop computer used, for example, by automakers for the mechanical design of products. But Tadpole's portable workstations offer the same type of hardware in a notebook chassis that looks like a large home or office laptop.

After a management buyout in March, Tadpole has been working to expand its sales. The company believes the new Sparcle portable's lower price will appeal to a much broader range of potential customers. Tadpole's SPARCbook 5000, for example, sells for between $6,000 and $12,000. At the $2,995 price, the Sparcle is more on par pricewise with a desktop workstation, and only a few hundred dollars more than a high-end notebook PC, Tadpole executives said.

Tadpole argues that the lower prices mean companies can now afford to purchase Sparcle portables for a large number of product engineers, software developers or technical sales staffers, whereas those businesses might have introduced desktop workstations or Notebook PCs before.

"We see a lot of growth and a lot of opportunity--particularly at the $2,995 price point--in the development space," said Mark Johnston, Tadpole's CEO.

The company will tout the advantages of technical staff being able to travel frequently or work on projects at home, while also having access to productivity software, such as StarOffice, which will be preloaded on the Sparcle. This will let engineers carry out their work and still read e-mail and produce word processing documents using the same machine.

Tadpole has also developed a CPU sharing feature that lets a Sparcle whose CPU is not being fully utilized run jobs in the background, downloading them via a wireless network.

By offering the Sparcle at a lower price, Tadpole hopes to sell many more of its portable Unix workstations than it has in the past. But even if the plan succeeds, the size of that market is still extremely small when compared with the world market for notebook PCs, which totals several million units per year.

The main reason the Sparcle portable is less expensive than previous Tadpole products is because it was designed to be more like a PC. It uses off-the-shelf components, such as memory, hard drives and optical drives. These components, manufactured to comply with PC industry standards, are much cheaper than the custom-built parts previous Tadpole portables used, allowing the company to pass on the savings.

Tadpole will offer a number of models, priced as high as just over $9,000, the company said.

Its entry-priced, $2,995 Sparcle 440X includes a 440MHz UltraSPARC-IIe processor and a 14.1-inch display, along with 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard disk and a CD-ROM drive. A Sparcle 500X model adds a 500MHz UltraSPARC-IIe chip, 512MB of memory and wireless networking, bringing the price to $3,995. The 650SX model adds a 650MHz chip, a 15-inch display, 1GB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive and a combination CD burner/DVD-ROM for $5,995.

Tadpole has also said it is developing a new line of 1GHz or faster multiprocessor portable machines. The company sells Voyager, a line of portable servers, and a family of rack-mounted servers based on UltraSPARC processors and Solaris.