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Dell sheds unwanted pounds in laptop

The computer maker plans to unleash smaller notebooks packing features similar to larger notebooks. There will be a few compromises as it takes a swing at Gateway's and IBM's business.

Dell Computer has big plans for little laptops.

The PC maker next week will launch a new "ultra-portable" laptop that weighs 3.6 pounds but packs the same features, including fast processors and built-in wireless connectivity, available in 8-pound monsters.

The new laptop, Dell's Latitude C400, pairs relatively low weight with a 12.1-inch screen, built-in wireless connectivity and Pentium III-M chips at speeds up to 1.2GHz--the fastest mobile chips currently available from Intel. Ultraportables generally weigh in at 3.5 to 4 pounds but are sometimes seen as being compromised because the smaller size dictates the use of a slower processor, and battery life is shorter than in larger machines.

The Latitude C400 model, first reported by CNET, replaces the current Latitude L400. It is also the first of a pair of notebooks Dell has designed to take on tasks typically associated with full-size laptops. The designs eliminate some of the compromises previously faced by notebook users, who want to travel with the lightest possible machine.

"We want to...bring mainstream performance to the ultraportable and redefine that category," said Tony Bonadero, director of product marketing for Latitude at Dell.

The move "makes sense in terms of rounding out (Dell's) product offering," as the company takes steps to be more competitive with rivals Gateway and IBM in the ultra-portable and mini-notebook markets, said IDC analyst Allen Promisel.

Dell is the top notebook maker in the United States. During the third quarter of 2001, Dell held 25 percent of the U.S. market and 14 percent of the market worldwide, according to IDC.

Ultimately, the company's philosophy of increasing performance while shedding weight will extend to all of the Dell Latitude models.

The PC maker plans to continue refreshing its notebooks throughout the early part of 2002. Following an earlier update of its Latitude C800 and C610 and now the C400, Dell will update its C500 series. A new C510, in the first half of next year, will offer faster Celeron processors and a lower price. The company also plans a Latitude 800-series notebook fitted with Intel's first mobile Pentium 4 chip for the first half of 2002.

The C400, to be priced at around $2,000, offers built-in 802.11b wireless networking as well as a revised keyboard design and dual pointers to control mouse movements. And it fits into Dell's current notebook docking station.

Compromises along the way
Dell did make a few compromises, however. To keep the Pentium III-M chip cool, it added a heat pipe and fan to vent heat from the chip. Dell also removed the parallel port, a device used to attach a printer, meaning users must print via a network, connect via a docking station or use a universal serial bus printer.

Ultraportables also generally have less area to squeeze a battery, leading to smaller batteries and reduced portable power time. Dell reports 3 to 3.5 hours of battery life for the new C400. An optional lithium-ion polymer battery plate that attaches to the bottom of the C400 extends battery life.

"Think big, but look small" best sums up Dell's philosophy for not only the C400, but also a smaller, mini-notebook, likely to be dubbed a Latitude X, that is due next year. The new mini-notebook will use essentially the same components as the L400, just in a smaller chassis, Bonadero said.

Mini-notebook are laptops that generally weigh less than 3 pounds. Their smaller size and cramped keyboards have kept the class from becoming popular outside of Japan, analysts say.

But Dell believes that by offering the L400's larger keyboard and screen, a faster processor and integrated wireless, it can overcome the compromises that have limited sales of other mini-notebooks.

"This is different. It's the same product we have today at 3.5 pounds, just shaving a half-pound off of it," said Bonadero.

This new machine will sport a processor running at about 800MHz, a 12-inch screen and a near full-size keyboard and will be capable of connecting to a wireless network.

Though Dell is attempting to expand the capabilities of the mini-notebook, analysts warn the PC maker could still fall into a trap, creating a sexy notebook that nobody wants.

"The same issues still exist," IDC's Promisel said. "With such a thin and light form factor, you have compromised battery life as well as compromised overall computing power. People don't want to sacrifice much in terms of performance."