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IBM revamps notebook lineup

Big Blue plans to debut early next month two new ThinkPad lines, the A20 and T20, according to sources.

    IBM is preparing a major revision of its popular ThinkPad notebook computer lineup, as it attempts to jump-start slumping hardware sales.

    Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM will debut early next month two new ThinkPad lines, the A20 and T20, according to sources. The A20 is one of the first portables to offer a 15-inch display with a Celeron processor. Typically, PC makers reserve larger screens for higher-end models sporting Pentium III processors.

    The T20 series notebooks are ultraslim designs targeted at buyers looking for speed and portability. T20 notebooks will weigh less than five pounds and will come with Pentium III processors running up to 700 MHz, along with DVD drives and other options.

    IBM declined to comment on the new notebooks.

    The company is hoping to hit a home run with the announcement and help offset an overall sales slowdown in its hardware business. The Year 2000 technology glitch hurt high-end server and mainframe sales for two quarters, and IBM's PC group is struggling during a difficult transition.

    Jim Garden, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said the new notebooks are part of IBM's attempt to reduce its costs. "It's part of their effort to rejuvenate their PC business. I see that as a background thrust that is going to be constant across multiple platforms at IBM."

    In first-quarter earnings announced yesterday, the computer maker revealed that the division's revenues plummeted $550 million. In part due to IBM's transition from a retail to a direct sales model, Aptiva consumer PC sales declined 45 percent and commercial PCs were down 30 percent.

    ThinkPad sales, by contrast, are growing about one-and-a-half times the rest of the industry. IBM's fourth-quarter market share in the United States rose to 15.1 percent from 13.7 percent a year earlier, according to market researcher Dataquest. For 1999, IBM's U.S. portable share was 15.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent a year earlier.

    The ThinkPad A20 will also be one of the lighter full-featured notebooks around, with the 15-inch display model weighing in at 6.4 pounds. To achieve the lighter weight, IBM is using Titanium-reinforced carbon plastic casings on both models.

    While some other notebooks, such as the ThinkPad 570, weigh four pounds or less, they shed floppy and CD-ROM drives and rely on skimpier batteries. The bigger challenge facing PC makers has been offering desktop features and performance while reducing size and weight.

    The A20 is close to the weight of Hewlett-Packard's recently announced OmniBook 6000. The OmniBook 6000, a competitor to the ThinkPad 600, cannot hold all drives and a battery at the same time, forcing users to attach cables. IBM is gambling the A20's light weight and all-in-one design will appeal to buyers craving features without the hassle of attached drives.

    The ThinkPad T20 builds on the success of the ThinkPad 600--IBM's biggest seller--but offers larger displays while keeping the weight about the same. The ThinkPad 600 tops 13.3-inch displays, vs. 14.1-inch for the T20.

    Both A20 and T20 models feature "Portofino" ports on the lids. IBM will be among the first notebook makers to offer Portofino ports, which are similar to expansion slots used on the Handspring Visor. The ports allow people to connect peripheral devices, such as global positioning systems and MP3 players, to their notebooks.

    Big Blue will offer a PC camera for the Portofino port and in the third quarter will offer a Bluetooth modem as part of an overall push into wireless devices. Bluetooth is a radio frequency technology that simplifies wireless communication. A Bluetooth-equipped notebook, for instance, does not need a wireless modem or independent wireless ISP account. Instead, data from the notebook can be sent by radio to a cell phone, which can then transmit messages to the Web.

    In the meantime, IBM will introduce new wireless networking options for connecting ThinkPads to corporate networks, without the need for cables.

    Both the A20 and T20 models include support for miniPC modems and networks as well as common components, which means docking stations, drives and batteries are swappable between the two new notebook lines.

    Five basic ThinkPad A20 models will be available in more than 20 configurations. The entry-level model with a 500-MHz Celeron processor, 64MB of RAM, 6GB hard drive, 24X CD-ROM drive, 56K modem, 12.1-inch TFT (thin-film transistor) screen and Windows 98 will sell for about $1,800. Adding a 15-inch display raises the price to about $2,300.

    The high-end A20, selling for about $4,000, will be marketed as a mobile workstation for graphics users. Features include a 700-MHz Pentium III SpeedStep processor, 128MB of RAM, 18GB hard drive, 6X DVD-ROM drive, 56K modem, network card and 16MB of video memory, double most high-end models. The 15-inch SXGA display supports resolutions of up to 1400 by 1050 pixels, fitting more on the screen than the 1024 by 768 resolution more typical of notebook screens.

    T20 pricing and configurations were not immediately available.

    Pricing is tentative and could be changed by IBM prior to the notebook's May 2 launch.