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Notebooks, mega to mini

Portable computing devices range from one to nine pounds, with screens as big as desktop monitor and as small as a postcard.

LAS VEGAS--The basic formula for creating a new desktop PC involves putting faster processors and a bigger, better hard disk and CD-ROM drive into a box. Notebook PCs strive to do the same, but with one major difference: They must fit all of the same parts into a tightly compact package that can be easily carried around.

The newest manifestations of this challenge are on parade at Comdex here, where a new breed of "megabooks" are seeking to make their mark.

Increasingly, mega-notebooks have features that closely approach the fastest, higher-end desktop PCs, allowing them to serve as true desktop replacements--for a select few who can afford the $6,000-to-$8,000 price tags that some carry.

Mega-notebooks are generally defined Mega-notebooks will serve as desktop replacements for a select few who can afford the $8,000 price tags. as those portables which have the fastest of Intel's mobile Pentium chips running at 200 and 233 MHz and 13.3- or even 14.1-inch displays, the latter rivaling a 16- or 17-inch CRT monitor in viewable area.

IBM's (IBM) newest ThinkPad 770 packs a 14.1-inch display, 5GB hard drive, and a DVD-ROM. While these machines are usually among the heftiest of portables, there are others that even defy the weight associated with this category. For instance, Digital Equipment's (DEC) Ultra 2000 incorporates a 14.1-inch display in a thin, 6.5-pound package by leaving the CD-ROM drive in a separate "multimedia slice" that can be attached to the bottom of the unit.

And by next year, many of the mega-notebooks are expected to incorporate the "Deschutes" processor, the mobile version of the Pentium II chip. However, most mainstream notebooks will continue to use the "Tillamook" processor running at 200 and 233 MHz--and later at 266 MHz--because of the low battery life associated with Deschutes, according to reports from Sherwood Research.

While these mega-notebooks get the fanciest new technologies first, the mainstream market is beginning to get high-end features such as 13.3-inch screens at lower price points. The "midrange" notebooks represent the largest portion of the market in terms of product shipments and now typically include 150-, 166-, and 200-MHz Pentium MMX processors and 12.1-inch displays.

The midrange notebooks will increasingly have the so-called three-spindle design, which allows the CD-ROM, floppy drive, and hard disk drive to be used simultaneously. Further, 13.3-inch screens will increasingly be used in midrange notebooks because manufacturers are finding ways to incorporate the larger displays into thinner and lighter designs.

"Any larger, and these screens will be too unwieldy to be useful," says David Thor, research director for Sherwood Research. The large footprint required by the huge screens will make displays larger than 14 inches awkward to stand up. "If the notebooks are not weighted properly, the device can flip over," he says.

At lower end of the notebook market is the new category of mini-notebooks, characterized by smaller screens and slower Pentium processors. Analysts don't expect mini-notebooks to do well, partially because users have been reluctant to embrace the smaller keyboards. Of late, there has been an explosion of offerings for notebooks that weigh under three pounds, in part because there were previously none in the United States. In June Toshiba introduced the Libretto, a model it had been offering in the Japanese market for some time.

While the so-called ultraportable--a sub-category of midrange notebooks such as IBM's ThinkPad 560--has up to a 12.1-inch display, a mini-notebook gets no larger than the 8.4-inch display in Hitachi's VisionBook Traveller or Sony's new mini-notebook with a 10.4-inch display.

Industry analysts don't expect mini-notebooks to gather a large portion of the notebook market in the United States, partly because users have been reluctant to adopt the smaller keyboards often found on such devices. Also, they generally cost about $2,000 to $2,500, a high price for this category of computer given the features offered. Now, they will start to face competition from devices that run Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

Handheld computers based on Windows CE usually weigh well under one pound and run a "lighter" variation of Windows 95, both in terms of required memory space required and features. They also cost less than mini-notebooks--usually in the neighborhood of $500 to $700, and feature RISC processors from manufacturers such as Hitachi and cramped keyboards that are usable only for simple data input.

Larger Windows CE devices, code-named Jupiter, are now being readied by some companies to provide bigger keyboards, larger screens, and more processing power. Importantly, the price should not go up significantly, keeping these devices at about half the price of mini-notebooks.

One important difference between Windows 95 and Windows CE devices is the ability of CE devices to instantly start up and allow users access to programs, a feature which aids their usefulness as data input devices for people such as sales professionals.  

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