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Mobile PCs ready for the big screen

With bigger LCDs, mobile PCs are metamorphosing into all shapes and sizes.

Until recently, distinguishing between mobile and desktop PCs wasn't hard: one is little, the other is big. But the availability of ever-larger LCD screens means that what was once a mobile device can now metamorphose into a variety of shapes and sizes--and give consumers some interesting choices.

One of the newest and most experimental trends is manifested in the Compaq Presario 3000 series.

This is a home computer replete with all the features of the most expensive, frill-laden Pentium PCs, with one exception: it uses a desktop-sized LCD screen instead of a CRT monitor. That makes it compact and light enough to pick up and carry around with ease.

The design conjures up memories of the "luggable" PC designs of the mid-'80s--which went the way of the Edsel--but Act II of this kind of design may have a much more profound impact on the industry because, this time, these models can integrate LCD screens as large as 13-, 14-, or 15 inches across.

"At 13 inches you break the [notebook] form factor," said Kimball Brown, vice president and chief analyst at Dataquest, marketing research firm based in the heart of Silicon Valley at San Jose, California. The new screens are also cheaper in comparison to traditional monitors than ever before.

"LCDs are on a cost-reduction curve," Brown said. "The CRT [cost-reduction curve] has played out."

The large LCDs are pushing notebook vendors to "bust out of the plain-vanilla commodity trap," said Bruce Stephens, a vice president at market research firm International Data Group, and many notebook vendors allude to the next generation as "breaking the form factor." But what this means depends on whom you talk to.

Some vendors are studying luggable designs like the Presario 3000, while others are trying to push the envelope on modularity--which means building machines in smaller components to mix and match.

Today, the ultimate modular design lets users "build up and tear down" a notebook PC at will, says Stephens, adding features (and weight) such as a CD-ROM drive or another hard disk drive when needed, as well as removing add-ons when portability is paramount. Compaq, IBM, and others are already offering this capability in a standard notebook design, and future designs for both the home and office will take this to a new level.

Hitachi is working on designs with large LCDs (13-, 15-, and even 17-inch screens) that are intended to transcend the traditional mobile and desktop paradigm for the business PC with a modular, communications-centric mobile base unit that plugs in to a large LCD.

Hitachi calls its design a personal server. "It allows you to be accessed no matter where you are...the LCD is detachable, which gives us flexibility in accommodating large LCDs, " said Mark Yahiro, vice president of marketing and business development at Hitachi.

The same phenomenon can be seen on the home front, where analysts believe that the "sealed PC," or PC with no internal slots for installing add-on cards or other internal peripherals, will spawn a wave of small PC modules that are stackable--like stereo sets on the market today. The concept is being promoted by Microsoft, as part of its Simply Interactive PC (SIPC) initiative, as well as other vendors like Compaq and Toshiba.