Comdex mobile device showings patchy

Comdex will showcase a wide variety of slick mobile computers, though some of the hottest will be absent.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read
On the eve of Comdex Fall 1998, the mobile computer market has expanded to the point where almost every conceivable design is available.

But many of the largest manufacturers representing one of the hottest segments--corporate notebooks--will not have booths on the show floor and therefore will not be exhibiting products.

Nevertheless, today's mobile market is sizzling and Comdex will have its share of new devices.

The market comprises everything from the smallest handhelds from 3Com or Hewlett-Packard to feature-packed notebook PCs from Compaq Computer and IBM--and everything in between, such as new-fangled computers from Vadem and ultraslim envelope-pushing portables from Toshiba.

Some of these products will be showcased at Comdex. For instance--starting from the tiniest devices--many of Microsoft's Windows CE partners will be displaying new Palm-sized PCs, which typically use a stylus for data input on a liquid crystal display (LCD).

Handheld Windows CE computers--which include a keyboard and are essentially a shrunken laptop--from Philips, Casio, LG Electronics, and NEC will all be on the show floor.

3Com's Palm Computing division will be in attendance, showing its Palm III PalmPilot personal digital assistant, and may also be showing its upcoming Palm IV, code-named Razor, to some customers.

Royal will be showing its low-cost DaVinci line of personal organizers, along with its GPS Car Navigation product based on Windows CE.

Ultraslim notebook PCs should also attract a lot of attention at Comdex. The Sony Vaio and other slim designs from manufacturers such as Sharp should also catch attendees' eyes.

But one the most interesting trends in design as well as market movement is happening in the business notebook PC segment--and many of these products will be conspicuously absent from the show floor.

The upshot: There is a surge in popularity of the slim, full-featured notebook design, represented by the Armada 7400 from Compaq, the ThinkPad 600 from IBM, and the Dell ComputerLatitude. Other notebooks in this segment include the Compaq Armada 6500 and the HP OmniBook 4100.

To date, the high end of the notebook market has been dominated by feature-packed, 8- or 9-pound machines measuring 2 or 2.5 inches thick. Although bulky, these machines have contained enough extras and power to serve as executive desktop replacements.

That changed this summer with the release of the IBM ThinkPad 600, a 6-pound notebook measuring only 1.5-inches thick but with almost all the features of its heavier cousins. The new slim models from Compaq, Dell, and HP are also similar to the IBM design.

All these models come with bays (receptacles) for either a CD-ROM drive or DVD drive, a crucial feature which had been absent from slim notebooks. They also pack in large hard drives and giant screens, up to 14.1 inches across.

IBM was able to reduce the size of the notebook by switching from a plastic case to a more durable carbon fiber container. Compaq's 7400 also has a more durable case.

The IBM 6-pounder has proven to be incredibly popular, said Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights. IBM is currently shipping in excess of 80,000 units per week.

Meanwhile, many of the older, fatter models are appearing as sale items at resellers such as Value America for blowout prices, he said.

"The demand for the thin and light is very, very strong," he said. "If they are not dead, the 2-inch notebooks are on the wane."

In fact, demand for Compaq's Armada 7400 has been so strong that the company has been severely backlogged since the notebook's debut in August. Dealers have not been able to get the product, they say. Compaq, for its part, admits that it has not been able to meet demand. Most of the 7400s in fact have been sold to major customers in large lots. Almost half of the notebooks have been sold directly to customers.

"Demand is outstripping supply by about 30 percent," said Mark Vena, director of mobile product marketing in North America. "There has been a dramatic shift to the 6-pound form factor. We've had an absolutely overwhelming reaction from a demand standpoint."

Sales for the 8-pound notebooks partially contributed to Compaq's problems, he added. Compaq used the sales rate for the higher end Armada 7800 to gauge demand, and component purchases, for the 7400. The company, however, soon found itself in a shortage.

Manufacturing problems have also contributed to the shortage. The Armada 7400 comes in a magnesium case, Compaq's first metallic case. To ensure that the noteboooks are "cosmetically perfect," according to Vena, Compaq has imposed visual inspection requirements.

"The yields are not quite as robust," he said, although the company is moving to rectify the problem.

HP, for its part, has said that its 6-pound unit, the OmniBook 4100 family, now accounts for more than half of the company's notebook sales.