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Dell thinks thin with upcoming notebook

The company's new "ultra-portable" notebook packs features normally found in its larger notebooks and squeezes them into much smaller chassis.

Dell Computer is working on a tiny new notebook with the mettle of a full-size machine.

Sources familiar with Dell's plans say the new "ultra-portable" notebook packs features normally found in its larger notebooks--including integrated wireless networking and processors running at 1GHz and faster--and squeezes them into much smaller chassis.

Dell's goal for the new Latitude notebook, sources say, is to offer a machine with the performance of a larger notebook, such as the Latitude C600, but with much greater portability. Customers would be able to chose the machine for its portability but not have to compromise by settling for a slower processor, lack of built-in wireless connectivity or smaller hard drives and memory allotments.

The new notebook, which is destined to replace Dell's Latitude L400, will weigh in at about 3.5 pounds and is likely to measure a hair over 1-inch thick. Ultra-portable notebooks generally weigh 3 to 4 pounds. Because of their tight internal confines, these notebooks usually feature external disk drives and slower processors, which produce less heat.

A full-size notebook weighs between 6 and 8 pounds, can offer the fastest-available processors, and includes a large hard drive and space for a CD-ROM/DVD drive and a floppy drive. An intermediate step, the "thin-and-light" notebook, weighs between 4 and 5 pounds and includes a single drive bay for devices such as CD-ROM drives.

Despite the difficulties of producing such a machine, creating a full-featured ultra-portable has been a long-term design goal for Dell. Chief Executive Michael Dell told reporters during the PC maker's September 2000 Dell Direct Connect customer conference that he believed many customers would like a 3-pound, wireless-enabled notebook. At that time, company executives confirmed Dell had a three-pound, wireless-enabled notebook design in the works and also hinted about offering broader wireless plans for notebooks.

Dell representatives declined to comment for this story.

Following trends
Analysts say the push to offer more performance in a smaller package is on track with general market trends.

Such a system "would basically give (Dell) a portable PC that would perform on par with a large desktop replacement system," said IDC analyst Alan Promisel. "You're not sacrificing by shrinking the form factor."

One problem with the current crop of ultra-portables is that, for the most part, buyers are forced to make sacrifices, trading off performance for weight. A strong offering in this category could help bolster Dell's sales this year, even though the overall PC market is expected to see negative growth.

Dell has managed to buck the overall PC trend and sell more notebooks, even though sales of ultra-portables were hit hard in the second quarter, according to Promisel.

U.S. sales of ultra-portable notebooks were down 26.7 percent in the second quarter from the first quarter and down 33.4 percent from the same period a year ago.

Dell, on the other hand, increased its ultra-portable sales by 8.8 percent from the first quarter and by 43.8 percent year over year.

Dell's new Latitude ultra-portable will be outfitted with 1GHz and faster Pentium III-M processors from Intel and will include a 12-inch display, sources said. More sizeable drives and larger allotments of memory are also likely.

The notebook is also expected to offer Intel's forthcoming 1.2GHz Pentium III-M mobile chip. Intel will announce the faster Pentium III-M chip in early October, sources said. Several notebooks from other manufacturers are also expected to be based on the new chip. Intel offers Pentium III-M chips from 866MHz to 1.13GHz.

Sources suggest the new Latitude ultra-portable will be priced about the same, if not lower, than the current Latitude L400, which starts at about $2,200 for a base configuration that includes a 700MHz Pentium III chip, 12-inch screen, 64MB of RAM, 10GB hard drive and CD-ROM drive.

The machine has been successful, as Dell is now the top U.S. seller of ultra-portables, according to IDC.

The company is also the top PC seller on a worldwide basis. Its success comes, in part, from using its manufacturing efficencies to aggressively cut prices.