Big screens's star could rise

Laptops: The industry's next `killer app' might be 17-inch LCDs perfect for movie-viewing.

November 20, 2003|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Tech companies are always looking for a "killer app," a use that's so compelling it leads to huge sales of a gadget or program or service.

A macabre description, but a reality in technology history. The big sales surge comes not from regular improvements in speed, capacity, and versatility, but when there's some great new thing that just couldn't be done before.

An early killer app was the spreadsheet. That saved so much number-crunching time for businesspeople that they would buy a personal computer just for spreadsheeting. Yes, they heard it could do other things, but they really didn't care. In fact, if it had just been the VisiCalc computer, instead of the Apple II (popular brands at the time), that would probably have made them even happier.

Another killer app was desktop publishing. Even though IBM's lower prices and market clout had made it the more popular system by the late '80s, Apple's Macintosh was much better at desktop publishing. And desktop publishing was a killer app for some small businesses and some departments of big businesses. They bought Macs just for that ability, keeping Apple alive into the '90s.

E-mail is certainly a killer app, with many people using their computers for little else.

Some of the recent killer apps have been particular Web sites. eBay's a great example. That one site is important enough to sell a lot of computers by itself.

Now there's a new killer app that I think computer companies are underestimating: laptop movies.

I realized this when a friend mentioned that she really only used her notebook for e-mail and watching DVD movies.

And that was the same day I was sad to return my latest Gateway review computer - the M675 - because I had grown accustomed to watching movies on its big screen.

Yet that's not how Gateway markets the M675. This is a "desktop replacement" computer, designed to have everything you could get in a desktop computer yet still be portable.

The 675 has a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR (specially fast) RAM, a 60GB hard drive, a Media Card Reader, lithium ion batteries, and 10/100 Ethernet. It has everything you need to run the latest business applications at high speeds. And with the built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi modem, you can do some of that business at the local coffee shop or airport terminal, connecting wirelessly to the Internet.

But you know, there's a fair amount of competition in the high-speed processor, big-hard-drive, plenty-of-memory category. Most of those machines now have Wi-Fi built-in, so that isn't any big whoop either.

M675's special strength is the display: a 17.1-inch WSXGA Wide-format flat panel driven by a Radeon 9600 graphics adapter with up to 128MB of VRAM and an 8X AGP accelerator.

In other words: a big and especially wide screen with electronics fast enough to keep up with most any game or movie.

And for the movies? There's the M675's DVD-R/-RW drive. Which means a drive that can both read and write both CDs and DVDs.

Now, the big screen is useful for "desktop replacement" work, with nearly enough space to put up two word processing documents side-by-side, or to have a spreadsheet on the left and a Web site on the right. Lots of writing and number-crunching involves picking information and numbers out of research documents; with a smaller screen that can mean clicking back and forth between the two. With the M675 I can see both.

(Incidentally, the large screen is complemented by a large keyboard. So there's a full numeric keypad on the right here, which number-crunchers will be glad to see after too much time trying to press the special function key to get keypad numbers overlaid on a regular keyboard.)

And the DVD drive could be useful for business too, both in assuring you that all discs you receive will be readable and in giving you a chance to backup or exchange information on DVDs - which hold nearly five times as much as CDs.

But I loved the big screen and quiet, fast DVD drive for movies. The wide format meant that the wide-screen, movie theater-style image option on DVDs was truly watchable, and that any movie had a lot of space to make its impression.

The M675 spoiled me with that screen size, and handy headphone jack on the side, plus volume controls on the front edge of the computer.

There were only two thumbs-down factors of this movie machine. At 8.9 pounds it's not too comfy to sit on a belly in bed or to lug to the airport. And the speakers are mediocre, so I pretty much had to use headphones.

If you haven't tried a DVD-capable notebook as a movie machine, you should. And mention to your computer company that future designs should have this killer app in mind.

And maybe we could all try to think of a less vicious term for "killer app."

Others weigh in

Gateway's M675 has competition in the 17-inch-screen notebook ranks - some more hefty than others. According to technology Web site zdnet.com, the contenders include:

Apple PowerBook G4, 6.9 lbs.

Eurocom D470W Impressa, 7.5 lbs.

Hypersonic Aviator ZX7, 9 lbs.

HP Pavilion zd7000 series, 9.3 lbs.

Toshiba Satellite P25 series, 9.9 lbs.

Acer Aspire 1700, 15.6 lbs.

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