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Notebook race to get more packed

NEC touts new Windows CE handhelds and a sub-$1,000 notebook, while CompUSA says it will produce laptops next year.

LAS VEGAS--Packard Bell NEC laid out plans at Comdex for new Windows CE devices and a sub-$1,000 notebook, while CompUSA said it will take a shot at the notebook market with its own systems starting in early 1999.

NEC will unveil two "Jupiter"-class devices in the first quarter priced from $799 to $999, company officials said. Jupiter is the codename for

NEC 120LT notebook
NEC 120LT notebook
Microsoft's latest version of Windows CE (now called Handheld Pro), the operating system for handheld devices and embedded systems.

Although dubbed handhelds, the machines are actually much larger than the previous generations of handheld computers and don't really fit into the ordinary human hand. NEC, like other manufacturers, is trying to accommodate most user's desire for larger keyboards and screens.

"You have to have a keyboard that you can touch-type on," said Michael DeNeffe, product line manager for handhelds at NEC.

The MobilePro 800, coming in February, will be NEC's offering for the standard Handheld Pro class of devices. The system comes with a 9.4 inch color screen, 32MB of memory, and a 133-MHz MIPS processor made by NEC. Keyboard keys measure 17.5 millimeters across, close to the 19 millimeter width of standard keys, a size that's acceptable to about 90 percent of the notebook users, DeNeffe said.

The MobilePro 800 weighs 2.6 pounds and is 1.1 inches thick. It will cost $999.

Before that, NEC will also release the Mobile Pro 770. The main difference between the two is the size of the screen. The color screen is about half the size of the Mobile Pro 800 and offers 640 by 240 pixels of resolution. The machine, which DeNeffe said is about the size of a Franklin Day Planner, will sell for around $799 and weigh slightly less than the 800-series device.

Both the MobilePro 800 and 770 come with a replaceable ROM chip so that users can upgrade to new versions of Windows CE when they arrive.

Outlook for CE improving
While sales of handheld devices have been relatively modest, especially when compared to sales of notebooks, that could change, said DeNeffe. Demand for the systems is branching out from the classic gadget seekers to the more mainstream audiences. NEC has seen demand, for example, from corporations that want to outfit remote sales forces with CE devices.

The application base is also improving. Windows CE devices still lack a crash-proof port of Lotus Notes, one of the applications that seems to be a natural for this class of machines, he said. If that changes, and IBM or some other company comes up with a robust way to bring groupware to these devices, sales will climb.

Perhaps with that very thought in mind, IBM told CNET News.com in an interview that it will come out with its own mininotebook based on Windows CE soon, a sign that the slow start for the Handheld Pro class of devices is starting to gain momentum.

For users still wanting a Windows 98-based computer, the company is offering a 3.6-pound notebook priced at $999 that has a 200-MHz Media GX processor from Cyrix, an 8-inch dual scan display, a CD-ROM drive and 56 kbps modem that could prove popular with students and home users.

CompUSA enters notebook race
CompUSA, following what the company said has been a successful launch of its own brand of desktop computers, will enter the notebook market in early 1999 with systems aimed at small businesses that are priced from $1,200 to $2,500, a spokesperson said.

Executives with the computer superstore chain told retail trade publication Twice that its first notebook, which includes a built-in floppy and CD-ROM drive, will be available in February, to be followed in May by a thin and light notebook that features a large display and built-in CD-ROM drive.

Meanwhile, the company is moving into a new 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that has the potential to build more than 50,000 desktop PCs a month, the spokesperson said.