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Sony's tardy-to-school sales season

The company unveils two new back-to-school notebooks, but analysts wonder if it's missed the seasonal spending surge.

Sony launched two new back-to-school notebooks Wednesday, but analysts wonder whether the new models have missed the seasonal spending surge.

In its Wednesday announcement, Sony positioned the new notebooks, the Vaio PCG-NVR23 and PCG-FXA63, for students headed to college.

"For students, it's all about making the most out of what you have," Sony Vice President Mark Hanson said in a statement. The new systems, he said, will let students "jazz up a report with pictures or video, watch DVDs, play hard-core graphics-intensive games, or listen to music."

But NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker said that Sony released the new portables too late to really cash in on back-to-school sales.

"Typically, back-to-school runs its course by Labor Day," he said. "If you're looking to capture sales from college kids or high school kids, you've pretty much at this point missed that opportunity. The thing with back-to-school, as opposed to Christmas, (is) if you need a computer, you have to buy it by now. You can't postpone the purchase until you get to school."

Sony expects to have the notebooks in stores in September. That may be enough to get it a small number of sales after the holiday on Monday, Baker said. "There is some additional back-to-school purchasing and back-to-work purchasing, so you do see an extension for the first couple of weeks in September."

The new Vaio notebooks offer some unique features for the college crowd. The PCG-NVR23 picks up on a new sound enhancement that Sony introduced in May with the Vaio PCG-NV170. Students can add an optional subwoofer--a device that's designed to enhance tones in the lower range of music.

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Back-to-school: notebooks

The PCG-NVR23 comes with a 1.67GHz Athlon XP processor from Advanced Micro Devices, a 15-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 32MB ATI Radeon 7500 graphics accelerator, a 30GB hard drive and a CD-RW/DVD combo drive. Sony expects the new Vaio to sell for an average price of $1,500. The Vaio PCG-FXA63, selling for about $1,400, comes with a 1.4GHz Athlon XP, a 14-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, an 8MB ATI Rage Radeon graphics accelerator and a CD-RW/DVD drive.

Sony's tardiness to the annual scholastic sales season echoes its decline in retail notebook sales, after tremendous gains in early 2001.

The retail sales leader is Hewlett-Packard, including sales from Compaq Computer before the companies' merger, according to NPDTechworld. In the year to date, HP has a market share of 46.8 percent, as measured in units shipped, and 44.8 percent, as figured in dollars. Toshiba is a distant second, with a 26.3 percent unit share and a 25.8 percent dollar share. Sony ranks third with a unit and dollar share of 21.7 percent and 23.9 percent, respectively.

Still, Sony is the fastest growing major PC manufacturer in the world, growing even more quickly than Dell in 2001 and in the second quarter.

Sony notebooks are the most expensive available at retail, according to NPDTechworld. So far this year, Sony notebooks sold for an average of $1,657 each, or about 10 percent above the overall average of $1,501. Both HP and Toshiba notebooks sold below the overall average, coming in at $1,438 and $1,471, respectively.

While HP dominates the overall retail market, Toshiba has the top-selling notebook so far this year, according to NPDTechworld. The Toshiba Satellite 1000-S157, selling for an average $1,017, leads the pack. The portable comes with a 1.06GHz Intel Celeron processor, a 14.1-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 15GB hard drive and a DVD drive. The No. 2 seller is the Compaq Presario 715, with a 1.2GHz Athlon processor, a 14.1-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, a CD-RW/DVD drive and an average price of $1,426.

Sony's Vaio FXA47 is ranked third, selling for an average of $1,358. The notebook comes with a 1GHz Athlon processor, a 15-inch display, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and a CD-RW/DVD drive.