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Feature - 5 December 2007 (ARN)

Are we there yet?

Fleur Doidge (ARN)05 December, 2007 13:53

Smaller, lighter and faster has long been the mantra from notebook vendors everywhere - but how much further do we need to go?

When the first laptops launched, they were luggable rather than portable. The 1981 CP/M-based Osborne 1 - priced at $US1795 - was a popular contender for the crown of the first true commercial laptop. It weighed 11kg and was the size of a sewing machine. It didn't run on batteries but had to be plugged in to take advantage of its blistering 4.0MHz processor, vast 5-inch display and capacious 64KB of RAM. We've come a long way, baby. But are we there yet?

The latest ultraportables are less than one-tenth of the Osborne 1's weight in a typical 12.1-inch LCD form factor. Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) are even lighter, tipping the scales at 900g or less.

You'd think that a feather light package would be where it's at, a veritable Holy Grail for notebook manufacturers. But the reality is the smallest only sell in a certain subset of the market. The sweet spot for notebook sales is mid-range, weighing 2.5kg with a 15-inch screen. After all, human fingers aren't getting any smaller.

Acer product manager, Henry Lee, said the Taiwanese manufacturer offered 15.4-inch, 14-inch and 12.1-inch versions of its TravelMate business notebooks. They are all widescreen, following user demand. "They all use Intel Santa Rosa-type processors, Core 2 Duo with vPro, so they're more targeted at the high end, government, corporate and education markets," Lee said.

Acer's 1.95kg TravelMate with a 12.1-inch screen has 2GB of RAM, a built-in Web cam and optical drive. It also featured Crystal Eye technology to help the Web cam in low light, Lee said, but it wasn't a volume seller.

"In Australia, users tend to prefer our largest TravelMate, with the 15.4-inch display. I think it's because people here tend to travel a lot by car," Lee said. "People just throw their notebooks in the car."

While there's little performance benefit to the larger beasts, though, Lee said they did have a discrete graphics card - something most vendors leave out of ultraportables.

"But you can have the same processor, the same amount of memory, the same hardware," he said. Many vendors use the more expensive ultra-low voltage CPUs in their ultraportables, which help keep systems cooler and extend battery life. However, Lee said Acer used standard CPUs because the advantage was negligible against the need to keep smaller product within buyer budgets. Acer's 12.1-inch TravelMate promises 3.5 hours of battery life, up to a maximum of 5-6 hours with an additional battery.

According to Lee, major boosts to TravelMate technology aren't expected until Intel's Penryn 45nm hardware and the Montevina mobility bundle arrive in 2008.

Is Acer planning to go smaller? "We've certainly got no UMPCs planned. I think we might play in that space but right now we're just watching and seeing whether the product will become mainstream," he said.

To UMPC or not

Fujitsu PC product manager, David Niu, doesn't like to call Fujitsu's LifeBook U1010 a UMPC, although technically it does fit in that category. The U1010 weighs just 610g, has a 5.6-inch display, 1GB of on-board RAM and runs XP or Vista over Intel's UltraMobile Platform 2007, including up to 1.2GHz of A110 ultra-low voltage processing power.

Instead, the U1010, Niu said, is a fully-featured small computer, without the limitations that the term UMPC came to represent when early iterations were launched a year or so ago. With the two-cell battery, you get about three hours of battery life and, with the optional four-cell, up to six hours.

The U1010 retails at around $1699 and about 4000 have been sold across the Asia-Pacific to date, but there is a large demographic of youthful early adopters in markets like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan that likes to buy small and cute products, he noted.

"Australians are more budget-sensitive and they don't want to buy a computer for the sake of buying a computer," Niu said. "But we are expecting these products to do quite well."

Fujitsu focuses on travelling professionals and executives who appreciate the smaller form factor and can pay the premium such technologically advanced products often command. About 70 per cent of Fujitsu PC product weighs under 2kg, according to Niu. And many are coming out with 3G for better connectivity across Australia.

Resellers, he suggested, must understand that one size didn't fit all when it came to notebooks. Savvy resellers will educate customers about the different features, functionality, benefits and disadvantages of various SKUs - because the range from all vendors is diverse.

"It's important that resellers help users make up their minds," Niu said. "And they need to teach consumers that if the notebook you choose is more than 2kg it's probably not a good idea for it to sit over your shoulder for two hours."

Toshiba information systems division general manager, Mark Whittard, said it was selling a UMPC in Japan, but not locally - not yet anyway.

The vendor does, however, offer an ultraportable, the Portege R500, which weighs 700g. A 998g version with optical drive is also available.

Battery life is at the 2-3 hour mark, but can be boosted with an extended battery pack.

"The problem with UMPCs so far is that they're not quite fully functional in a small footprint," Whittard said. . .

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