Notebook computers are finally doing what they do best ? acting as the lightweight, attractive and slightly more expensive alternatives to desktops. But changing trends in the market look set to allow notebooks to shed weight while increasing their usability and functionality ? the CD-Rom conundrum.
One good example of this is the trend towards the inclusion of internal CD-Rom drives in mid-range notebooks, with companies such as Compaq, Toshiba, IBM, NEC and Sharp now offering very capable CD-Rom notebooks at desktop prices. But in almost every case, the inclusion of the CD-Rom means sacrificing economies on size, weight and battery life.
While it is true that anyone serious about using any kind of new productivity applications on their notebooks will need to have a CD-Rom, there are indications that this need not necessarily be an internal device. Hewlett Packard?s new HP Omnibook 800CT, for example, packs a 133MHz Pentium processor, a 1.4Gb hard drive, 16Mb of Ram, 16-bit stereo sound, an active matrix display and a pop-out mouse into a package about two-thirds the size of most notebooks.
The HP trade-off is that both floppy disk drive and CD-Rom have to be connected as external add-on devices. Whether that is a worthwhile trade-off depends on how often users are likely to need CD-Rom and floppy disk access. That?s where recent events come into play.
A couple of years ago, many people would require CD-Roms to use online reference works and floppy drives to load data on to disks for handing to other people. But the advent of the Web and email is changing all that.
Many users, particularly in North America, where local phone calls are free as part of a fixed monthly service charge, are quite happy to use the Web as their online reference tool, and their email package as a way of sending files to friends and colleagues. Floppy disks are still useful for backup and CD-Rom drives are needed for loading new applications, but little more. This means that as long as the notebook has the ability to attach these devices externally for those times when they actually are needed, they do not need to be internal.
Sound, of course, is still a requirement for many applications but it now seems to be the standard equipment on most systems ? as is the ability to easily add internal PC card modems.
The result of all these developments is a realistic chance that quite a powerful system can be built (like Omnibook 800CT) that is still lightweight and able to provide long battery life.
The other great thing about today?s more powerful breed of notebooks is that they can reasonably be considered as alternatives to high-powered desktops merely by adding a keyboard, screen and external mouse. Notebooks can often be tucked under the desk and used as if they were desktops, and then unplugged and taken out of the office at the end of the day so that they can be used at home or on the road.
In this sense, it is easier to justify the cost of notebooks as it becomes something more than a strict one-to-one comparison between notebooks and desktops. The real measure for anyone using a computer at home, at the office and on the road is calculating the cost of having a desktop at home and at the office and then spending time to keep the data at each location ?in sync? with the other. That cost can then be compared with having a notebook, two external monitors, external mice and external keyboards (the latter three items are not essential, but desirable if you feel the need to recreate a desktop computing experience at each location).
Although admittedly chea-per than buying two desktops ? and getting more competitive all the time ? high-end notebooks are still generally more expensive to maintain and expand. The cost of additional Ram, for example, tends to be significantly higher for notebooks than for desktops.
This is because notebook computer Ram is non-standard and must be purchased from the PC manufacturer directly ? so you don?t get the price-competitiveness that currently exists in the desktop industry where dozens of third-parties produce standard inline memory modules (Simms) that will fit in hundreds of desktops.
The same is true for the hard disks used on notebooks, which are more costly to upgrade be-cause they cannot be easily upgraded from industry-standard parts. Interfaces to the hard disks are still often proprietary and need expensive electronic packaging if they are made available in PC card format.
Internal modems for notebooks do conform to the PC card standard and therefore get the benefit of competition. But they cost slightly more than comparable specified internal modems for desktops. The same goes for network cards produced for notebooks.
And it all starts getting more complicated when you add new desktop technologies into the mix. The latest of these to arrive on a notebook is the recently unveiled Intel Pentium MMX multimedia technology, which Toshiba has incorporated into its latest high-end Tecra 740CDT. Toshiba claims it is the first notebook to feature the new Intel 166MHz Pentium processor with MMX. It also comes with a standard 2.02Gb removable hard disk drive, 10-speed CD-Rom, and a 13.3in diagonal TFT active matrix display system. With a price of more than $6,000, it is also not surprising that the company says it sees power users as the ideal customers for the Tecra 740CDT.
Multimedia developers and users running resource-intensive applications, and business users who need to access and deliver data at maximum speed are expected to be among the first to line up to buy the Tecra 740CDT.
Intel claims users should be able to experience up to 60 per cent performance improvement when running so-called multimedia applications which need to access the CD-Rom, display full-motion video and credibly handle sound and music output. When combined with an optional Toshiba Desk Station V Plus docking station or an Enhanced Port Replicator II, Toshiba is claiming that the Tecra 740CDT can replace the roles of several desktops (so you only need one at home, office and on the road).
Again, as you would expect for the price, there are lots of other hardware goodies on-board, including a 256Kb pipelined burst level 2 cache, 16Mb of high-speed EDO DRam (expandable to an impressive 144Mb), a 13.3in diagonal active matrix TFT display (which Toshiba says is the largest mobile computer display currently available) that offers 65,536 colours at a maximum resolution of 1024x768. Further display enhancements include Chips & Technologies? HiQ Video PCI graphics controller, which is supposed to produce smooth playback of 64K colour high-resolution full-motion, full-screen video, 64-bit graphics acceleration, along with 2Mb EDO video memory.
But arch-rival Compaq does not intend to let Toshiba have the multimedia notebook market to itself. At the beginning of January, the company announced its first Presario-branded 1000 Series notebooks in the US with a specification that included MMX. These multimedia notebooks now include the 166MHz Intel Pentium MMX processor as standard, as well as 12.1in STN and TFT panels; new built-in 10-speed CD-Rom drives; 256K pipeline burst cache, and lithium ion batteries (which Compaq claims will add up to 35 per cent more battery life).
The most surprising thing about these machines is the price. In the US, Compaq will charge less than $4,000 for a notebook with 12.1in TFT SVGA display; the 166MHz MMX Pentium; 256K pipe line burst cache; 16Mb Ram; 1.44Gb hard drive; built-in 10-speed CD-Rom; built-in disk drive; 128-bit accelerated graphics; built-in 33.6Kbps/ 14.4Kbps data/fax modem; lithium ion battery; audio CD control buttons; trackpad pointing device; joystick game port and two-port stereo speakers with Premier Sound audio.
Compaq has done something unique with notebook models aimed at education by producing its first network-ready, multimedia notebook computer for schools. The Compaq Presario 1060ES comes standard with Learning Paq software (a choice of bundled education titles), a combination 33.6Kbps modem/Ethernet network PC card for instant Internet access, and is supposed to be the only Windows-based notebook to come stan- dard with Hyper Studio software for multimedia presentations. And the price is imp- ressive (although only available through Compaq certified education partners) at $2,499.
Compaq says most of these new Compaq Presario models will not just be limited to the US. The company has rolled them out in North America and Latin America and expects to launch them later this year in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Asia Pacific and Japan. Product prices and features for each region and country may differ ? and Compaq Education products are only available in the US.
The take-up of the mainstream desktop technologies by notebook manufacturers is now happening faster than ever. While it may be an advantage to jettison some aspects of it internally (as HP did with the Omnibook 800CT), for the most part these technologies are helping to keep sales strong and margins healthy.
The big result for dealers and resellers is that it means that any solution they devise for use with desktop systems can be sold on a modern notebook ? and will usually command a reasonable premium (and a better margin for the dealer). In a world where margins are constantly under attack and unique selling propositions disappear faster than pints at closing time, this has got to be a good thing for the industry.
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