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New wave of thin notebooks coming

The next wave of ultralight notebooks is here as PC makers discover more ways to add features while keeping the weight down.

4 min read
The next wave of ultralight notebook computers is being readied for market, as companies such as Compaq, Gateway, and Micron target a growing market segment currently dominated by IBM.

Overall, industry analysts say the demand for ultraportable computers--slimmer and lighter than full-fledged notebooks--has been growing, as PC vendors discover ways to add more features, such as CD-ROM drives, while keeping overall weight down.

But experts warn that you can be too thin or too light. While thin notebooks such as IBM's ThinkPad 600 have sold well, ultrathin notebooks that weigh under 3 pounds have not sold as well in the U.S. The small keyboard is too big a trade-off for many consumers.

IBM's ThinkPad 4.1-pound 560 defined the ultraportable category with its slim 1.2-inch thick profile and large (at that time) 12.1-inch display. The 560 remains the sector's leader, but has been eclipsed in some respects by the ThinkPad 600--and notebooks to appear soon from others such as Compaq--which offer a CD-ROM and a larger display in a package that weighs about 5.5 pounds.

The "pure" ultraportable market--meaning products like the ThinkPad 560--will probably never amount to more than 10 percent of mobile market, estimates Mike McGuire, mobile technology analyst at Dataquest. Meanwhile, products in the 5 to 6 pound range will eventually become the mainstream of the notebook market, he says.

A tale of two notebooks
'Extreme' ultraportable notebooks

10.4-inch to 12.1-inch display
3.0 to 4.5 lbs
Pentium MMX or Pentium II processor
Lightest systems have reduced-size keyboard
No CD-ROM or floppy drive

'Full-function' ultraportable notebooks

12.1-inch to 13.3-inch display
5.0 to 5.5 pounds
Pentium II processor
Full-size keyboard
Built-in bay for CD-ROM or floppy drive

Two reviews from CNET Computers.com
IBM ThinkPad 600, a 'full-function' ultraportable
Sony Vaio 505, an 'extreme' ultraportable

IBM's Leo Suarez, director of product marketing, claims that results from Audits & Surveys Worldwide show it was the largest notebook vendor in the second quarter based in part on sales of the ThinkPad 600. Other vendors are apparently eyeing IBM's success with ultraportables and are getting ready to jump into this market segment.

(Click here for detailed specifications of the ThinkPad 600, Toshiba Portege 7000CT, and the Sony VAIO 505GX.)

"The ultraportable computer market will get a kick later this year. Some manufacturers will likely be able to include some form of removable media such as a CD-ROM in systems weighing less than five pounds," predicted David Thor, mobile computing analyst with Sherwood Research.

Gateway and Compaq are among the vendors readying full-featured ultraportable systems for release early this fall. Compaq is working on an Armada with a 300-MHz Pentium II, a bay for a CD-ROM or floppy disk drive, and 12.1-inch or optional 13.3-inch display in a package that weighs around five pounds, according to industry sources. The system is expected to be released in early September.

Compaq did not return phone calls by press time.

Meanwhile, Gateway is busy at work on its own ultraportable for release this fall that should sport a Pentium II processor and weigh around 4.5 pounds, according to industry sources. Gateway officials declined to comment on specific product plans, but did note that the ultraportable segment is "interesting" and that the company is "looking for directions as to what to do."

John Costello, senior product marketing manager for Gateway, said the market for ultraportables is maturing because many buyers are already on their second or third notebook. "A growing percentage of the market knows what kind of features they are willing to sacrifice" with an ultraportable, Costello thinks.

Portege 7000CT
Toshiba Portege 7000CT
While full-featured ultraportables like the ThinkPad 600 will see the largest sales growth, that's not stopping companies from coming out with a variety of interpretations of the "extreme" ultraportable.

Micron is readying a mini-notebook with a 266-MHz Pentium MMX processor and a 10.4-inch active matrix display in a package weighing under three pounds and measuring just over one inch thick, according to Shane Thomas, vice president of portables for the company.

Thomas said the price of the notebook is expected to be under $1500 for a system with 32MB of memory and a 4GB hard disk drive when it is introduced sometime in the fourth quarter of 1998.

Micron's notebook, which is similar in size to the recently introduced Sony Vaio 505GX, represents the extreme example of an ultraportable computer. The reduced-size keyboard and lack of on-board CD-ROM or floppy disk drive that characterize these systems limits their appeal.

Other recent entrants in the extreme ultraportable category include Toshiba's Portege 7000CT. The new Portege is a one-inch thick, 4-pound notebook that features a 12.1-inch active-matrix display and full-size keyboard, but can still be considered a member of the extreme ultraportable class product because of its lack of a built-in floppy drive or CD-ROM drive.

"What's going on is that people are driving for the lightest, thinnest device that they can carry around that has adequate functionality. It's the tradeoff between functionality and weight and usability that is the battle" in designing these systems, said Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights.