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Slim notebook market growing

Quite a few vendors plan to introduce new ultralight notebooks during the third quarter, heating up the slimline sector.

Quite a few vendors plan to introduce new ultralight notebooks during the third quarter, more evidence that competition is heating up in the slimline sector.

Sharp and Compaq will offer new ultraportables by September, while Sony plans to expand its lineup in Japan.

Ultraportables--slimmer, lighter and often more expensive than full-fledged notebooks--have been growing in popularity as vendors have discovered ways to pack more standard features, such as drives, into smaller footprints. Cost has also been coming down on certain lines.

IBM's ThinkPad 560 defined the category and remains the sector's leader, but Sony's Vaio has recently enjoyed a surge in sales. Hewlett-Packard and Mitsubishi entered the market in the past year with a magnesium-encased ultraslim model marketed as Sojourn in the United States and Pedion in Japan.

Compaq and Sharp will get into the field later in the quarter for the first time. Sharp's Actius A100 has drawn early notice. The sub-three-pound system will come equipped with a 233-MHz Pentium MMX, a 3.2GB hard drive, 64MB of memory, a 11.3-inch screen, and an internal modem. It will debut in September for an estimated price of $2,400 to $2,700, according to Sharp.

Compaq said today it will debut a sub-four-pound Armada notebook running a Pentium II chip, according to Dr. Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights, a market research firm.

"This category is going to be quite exciting during the next 6 to 9 months," Purdy observed, adding that ergonomics will prove key to winning the "second generation" of ultraportables.

"We're finding that for consumer popularity the keyboard is really, really important. Hence the Pedion or the Sojourn, which doesn't have a full keyboard, is an OK device but not mainstream."

Sharp's Actius will come with 17mm keyboard, 89 percent of a standard-sized notebook, according to Sharp. "This is Sharp's [expertise in] miniaturization coming to fore, so that you get a really nice ergonomic feel," Purdy said.

Earlier this week, Sony said it will offer a version of its Vaio 505 with a 4.3GB hard drive beginning on July 25 in Japan. The new model, featuring double the data storage capacity of current models, is expected to retail for around 350,000 yen ($2,495), according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

Presently, the Vaio 505G comes with a 2.1GB hard drive, 200-MHz Pentium MMX chip, a 15mm keyboard, and a 10.4-inch active-matrix screen. That configuration sells for $1,999. It debuted in May in the United States, one month before Sony introduced a 266-MHz Pentium MMX version for $2,699. The first Japanese-market Vaios rolled out last November.

The US versions are already available with Windows 98, but the Microsoft's new consumer operating system won't be available in the Asian country until the 25th of this month.

At the same time, Sony is expected to incorporate Intel's top-line mobile Pentium II chip into the 505 series for the first time. The high-end model would cost about 400,000 yen ($2,850), said sources quoted by Nikkei.

The Vaio's 15mm keyboard is good, Purdy noted, but the company will compete on price-performance.

Toshiba has also announced a new ultraportable for the Japanese market, Purdy noted, and it's likely that IBM will revisit its 560 line again. In April, the company announced its 600 line, not quite as light as its predecessor but offering more power and multimedia features. The 600 also uses the Pentium II processor.