Laptops get thin, muscular

Innovation: Companies build light computers with high performance.

April 03, 2003|By Jon Fortt | Jon Fortt,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

With the rest of us tightening our belts in the economic downturn, laptop manufacturers have decided to play along after a fashion: Cutting-edge laptops are losing weight.

The latest diet program comes from Intel, whose Centrino three-chip package is designed to deliver performance, wireless connectivity and long battery life in laptops that weigh less.

Just a year ago, Intel-based laptop manufacturers such as Sony and IBM were focused on building thin laptops that did not have a built-in CD or DVD drive, and thus needed an attachable expansion dock to be fully functional. While those laptops are still around, manufacturers are putting more effort into delivering lightweight laptops that have all the essentials in one package.

In other words, the industry is getting closer to bringing us a nice screen, a strong battery, a wireless Internet connection and a built-in CD burner, all in a package that won't break our backs when we lug it around.

Intel is not the first company to focus on making laptops lighter. Transmeta, a small Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker, began beating the drum about three years ago. Its Crusoe chips can be found in many of the most innovative laptop designs - for example, the half-inch-thick Sharp Actius MM10, announced for the U.S. market recently, has a Crusoe.

Also, Apple Computer, which has long used Power PC chips from IBM and Motorola, has managed to build thin, light computers that handle complex tasks such as DVD authoring.

The first hint of this laptop revolution came two years ago when Apple Computer introduced the Titanium PowerBook. The inch-thick marvel sported a 15-inch- wide screen and a built-in slot-loading CD/DVD drive; unlike many other 2-year-old laptops, the TiBook still looks current. In February, Apple followed with the TiBook's little brother, the 12-inch PowerBook.

This time, however, Apple has company.

Witness the IBM ThinkPad T40, a sophisticated black laptop built for business. Like the TiBook, it's an inch thick. But it not only weighs a pound less, in battery tests it smokes the TiBook and the 12-inch PowerBook.

"Mobile has caught up enough with performance that going to a laptop and making it your full-time computer is no longer the compromise it used to be," said Kevin Krewell of Microprocessor Report, a newsletter that follows the chip industry. "Now you get laptops that are over a gigahertz, they're snappy, and they're fast enough to do everything you want to do."

Buyers are noticing. According to January data from market research firm NPD Techworld, 30 percent of consumer computer purchases are laptops, up from 25 percent the year before. Laptops are more expensive than desktop computers, and as a result, 44 percent of computer-buying money went to laptops.

But for the most part, consumers are not looking for lightweight laptops - they're looking for the highest performance for the least money. Many times, that means a laptop that weighs more than 6 pounds, lacks built-in wireless connectivity, and gets less than 3 hours of battery life for DVD playback.

"Thin and light laptops for consumers have been a non-starter," said Steve Baker, analyst with the NPD Techworld. "The customers want all their drives integrated, with as much stuff inside the box and as big a screen as they can get. At least for consumers, the premium that you pay for more battery life and thin and great looks isn't really worth it."

Businesses are another story. Road warriors - business travelers who spend a lot of time on planes, in hotels, and in customer meetings - place a high premium on battery life and lightweight portability. They appear willing to pay the premium for new technology like Centrino.

And some in the computer industry think home users will come around eventually. A Sony marketing manager who was showing off the company's heavier Pentium 4-based laptops for consumers speculated that after carrying around such a laptop for a while, many buyers will want to upgrade to something sleeker, like the 4.3-pound V505.

"The vast preponderance of business users who are looking for mobility are moving toward thin and light," said Nathan Brookwood, analyst at consulting company Insight 64. He said notebooks that weigh between 3 and 5 pounds "make up more than half of laptop shipments."

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