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Notebooks to slim down in New Year

Chip advances and evolving consumer tastes will lead to new generation of slimmer notebooks. Photos: Laptops weigh in

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
6 min read
Notebooks will go on a diet in 2005.

After several years of bulking up to meet consumer demand for high-performance models with large screens, many notebooks will shed weight to dip below 7.5 pounds. New hardware, including an updated version of Intel's Centrino chip bundle, will help usher in the era of slimmer portables, which aren't expected to cost much more than heavier counterparts with equal components, industry watchers say.

A year ago, two-thirds of the notebooks on the market had desktop processors and were heavier than 7.5 pounds, said Jonathan Kaye, manager of product marketing for consumer notebooks at Hewlett-Packard. "Moving into 2005, we're going to see a shift, flip-flopping to maybe 65 percent of notebooks being under 7.5 pounds."


What's new:
Expect notebooks to get slimmer in 2005 as consumers who've grown accustomed to laptops increasingly recognize the benefits of mobility.

Bottom line:
Most consumer notebooks will shrink to between 6.5 pounds and 7.5 pounds. But heavyweight notebooks won't go away completely, as desktop chips can still offer more performance than the latest Pentium Ms and mobile Athlon 64s.

More stories on notebook sales

In the last few years, manufacturers reacted to the desire for higher performance and larger screens by pairing 15-inch, 15.4-inch and even 17-inch screens with processors designed for desktop PCs to create so-called desktop replacement, or desknote, systems. Many of those notebooks tipped the scales at nearly 10 pounds.

Consumers, many of them first-time buyers, didn't seem to mind the extra heft, especially when they gained a big screen. But that's beginning to change, according to PC industry watchers, as increasingly sophisticated buyers consider purchasing second or third notebooks, and factors such as weight and battery life--two features aided by Intel Centrino and low-power Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon chips--jump higher on buyers' lists of must-haves.

For its part, Intel will use "Sonoma"--the next version of its Centrino bundle--to nudge the market toward slimmer notebook models in 2005. Sonoma, which is scheduled to come out in January, could mark the turning point in the proliferation of Centrino in the consumer market, Intel says. The chipmaker, which launched its Centrino chip bundle in early 2003, has been pushing for lighter machines ever since.

But consumers weren't always convinced of the lighter-is-better philosophy. Until August or September of this year, buyers frequently opted for the relatively cheap and fast approach of desktop Pentium 4-based notebooks or the lower price of AMD Athlon processor machines. Around the back-to-school shopping period, lower-priced Centrino systems and changing attitudes about mobility and processor speeds began to intersect.

People who bought desknotes three or four years ago "are refreshing their notebooks, and now they understand the benefits of mobility," said Chad McDonald, senior manager notebook product planning for Gateway. "They realize that thin and light is better, that wireless is unbelievably convenient and battery life is important."

In addition, he said, premiums consumers who once paid for lightweight platforms "have evaporated somewhat. Now that cost structures are in line, it allows us as (manufacturers) to develop more attractive form factors."

Intel's desktop Pentium 4 chips offer higher clock speeds and lower prices than processors designed specifically for lightweight laptops, such as the Pentium M.

But Pentium 4s also consume more power and thus produce more heat, requiring larger heat sinks and more fans, which contribute to heavier chassis. The Pentium M, which currently runs at a maximum of 2.1GHz vs. the Pentium 4's 3.8GHz, performs nearly as well as the Pentium 4, according to Intel. The Pentium M also consumes much less power, maxing out at around 20 watts, while many Pentium 4s top 100 watts, according to Intel.

Intel will attempt to drive home its mobility message with Sonoma machines. Thanks to a number of tweaks, Sonoma notebooks

will offer improved performance while continuing the trend toward lightweight machines with relatively long battery life, said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of the Mobile Platforms Group at Intel.

The bundle will pair slightly faster Pentium M chips, including a new 2.13GHz Pentium M, with a new chipset code-named Alviso. The new chipset offers a speedier 533MHz front-side bus and comes with higher-performance graphics built in. Alviso, whose debut Intel delayed until January, will also add support for DDR2 RAM and PCI Express, a speedier connection for add-in cards.

It will also pack in high-definition audio, which Intel says offers better sound quality and enables noise-canceling array microphones for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) should PC makers choose to add such microphones to a system.

PCI Express will allow PC makers to fit their high-end Sonoma notebooks with graphics cards that contain the latest graphics chips from companies such as ATI Technologies.

"From a consumer standpoint, Sonoma has a ton of goodies," said Chandrasekher, referring to the performance and graphics improvements.

"You'll see some cool 15.4-inch wide-screen designs with four-plus hours of battery life, which will be great gaming machines," Chandrasekher said.

Weighty issues
A number of factors, including screen size, determine a notebook's heft. However, Sonoma systems will weigh at least a pound or two less than similarly fitted machines using desktop Pentium 4 processors. Thanks to smaller chassis and the ability to throw out some extra cooling parts, most consumer systems will shrink to between 6.5 pounds and 7 pounds when fitted with 15.4-inch screens. Larger 17-inch-screen models are likely to start at a little more than 7 pounds, McDonald said.

Thus, the higher performance of Sonoma-based Centrino systems, coupled with the availability of Celeron M--a low-priced alternative to the Pentium M that shares its low-power characteristics--will weed out many desktop Pentium 4 notebooks during 2005. AMD notebooks are expected to follow a similar trend, a company representative said, as the chipmaker offers more low-power Mobile Athlon 64 chips in the first half of 2005. The representative declined to offer additional details.

Heavyweight notebooks won't go away completely, however, as desktop chips can still offer more performance than the latest Pentium Ms and mobile Athlon 64s. Manufacturers are likely to continue building those machines for computer game enthusiasts and others.

"The gamer, the enthusiast, someone doing Web page development or video editing--they don't really care about an extra pound or so if they're going to eek out some more performance," Kaye said. "We think that (the desktop processor notebook) segment is going to be there at least through 2005."

The desktop Pentium 4 will stick around in some notebooks, Chandrasekher also conceded.

But he predicts that a forthcoming version of Centrino dubbed "Napa"--the follow-up to Sonoma that includes the dual-core "Yonah" Pentium M chip--may nearly wipe the Pentium 4 out in 2006.

Fancy new features
Some notebooks are likely to include fancy features such as phones that slide out and secondary screens. Last year, Intel touted a prototype for Sonoma notebooks called Florence that included a 17-inch screen, a built-in camera, a phone handset that pops out, a detachable keyboard and a handle. There is no guarantee that notebook makers will adopt these features, but Intel generally allows its customers to use its designs for free.

Another upcoming feature for notebooks is the Extended Mobile Architecture, or EMA. This involves adding a secondary screen on the outside of the notebook. The notebook stays in the sleep state, but people can monitor what's landing in their e-mail box. Later, the EMA window could be used to monitor phone calls or messaging traffic. Intel has been noodling with EMA concepts in its labs since 2001.

Meanwhile, Gartner predicts that consumer notebook shipments will jump almost 20 percent to just over 20 million in 2005--nearly half of the worldwide notebook forecast of about 55 million units for the year.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.