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Compaq notebook not a breakthrough

Compaq still hasn't made a splash in the ultraportable market--even with its "new" offering.

They took the handle off.

That is one of two major "innovations" on the Compaq (CPQ) Armada 4160T-Slimline, a notebook computer rolled out today that purports to be the first of a new generation of a light and thin line of computers.

The other innovation? Compaq took out the disk drive and put in a second battery.

"The 4160T [a product that has been shipping for some time] is pretty similar," admitted Mark Vena, director of marketing for mobile products at Compaq. In fact, Vena said that customers have been making their own versions of the 4160T-Slimline for some time by buying a 4160T and unscrewing the lunch pail-like handle.

The "slim" part is kind of a misnomer, too. The Slimline weighs about a pound less, but utilizes a case with roughly the same dimensions. The internal electronics are similar.

The sleight of hand in development points to a larger issue for Compaq notebooks to come: The company has yet to play a major part in the slim and light, or so-called "ultra-light," computer market. IBM, Digital Equipment, and Toshiba, by contrast, have racked up fairly substantial wins in this area.

The slim systems from those companies--which weigh close to 5 pounds, come in cases less than 1.5 inches thick, and contain Pentium MMX processors--have sold well. Compaq's closest equivalent to these computers is the 4100 generation of Armadas, which weighs 6.2 pounds and comes in a 1.5-inch case.

This summer, Compaq came out with the 7330 and 7350 Armadas, which come close to the size of ultraslim computers. However, these have been difficult to obtain, according to a number of resellers and Compaq's own direct sales arm.

The lack of a slim and light presence can partially be traced to history. Last year, Compaq held back on new product lines due to a perceived shortage on products, according to Vena and others. As a result, the company's product line was not as full as it could have been.

That is changing. The company has committed itself to coming out with new notebooks with every significant processor release. Compaq will release its first notebook with the new "Tillamook" Pentium MMX processors from Intel next month, Vena said. These new processors, which run at 200 MHz and 233 MHz, will appear in the high-end 7000 class of the Armada line.

High demand for slim and light products has not escaped the company's notice, and further innovations are expected.

"Most of our customers are going toward the 4100 form-factor in the slimline configuration," Vena said. "The 4100 form-factor is going to be the mainstay. Any new models will take this form-factor."

Seymour Merrin, president of Merrin Information Services, said that Compaq has tended to be more conservative than its competitors in terms of design. Nonetheless, if a growth market exists, it is nearly a given that the company will try to enter it. "They know that it is dangerous to leave an opening in a product line," he said.

In all, the 4160T-Slimline is not a complete non-event. By removing the handle and swapping a second battery for a hard drive, the weight drops from 6.1 to 5.2 pounds.

"But that means you have this extra thing [an add-on hard drive] to carry around," laughed Merrin.