Notebook market heats up

Notebook market heats up

The general public has an impression that 2000 is going to be the dawn of a new technological age. While that age is already upon us (really beginning more than a decade ago), 2000 presented a tangible date - a new millennium - to tag as the start of a new era.

Technology companies have therefore felt a subtle pressure to use 2000 to launch as many new products as possible. The fact that they have risen to the occasion is evidenced by the number of weary IT journalists, who only six weeks into the year, are wondering when they are going to get a breather.

The emphasis this year is on mobility; small, powerful, lightweight, portable devices that will handle big jobs without costing a fortune. A lot of emphasis is being put on the mobile PC market and industry predictions indicate a growth this year of around 12 per cent. That's about the same as the desktop market is expected to grow, but it marks a major improvement over 1997 and 1998, when growth struggled to get past 7 per cent.

General manager of Harvey Norman's computers and communications division, John Slack-Smith, describes 12 per cent growth as an aggressive target, but feels with the implications of GST, it is an achievable one.

`Notebook sales in the last few months were very strong. Brands such as Toshiba and IBM have never shown better value for money and we are very pleased with our notebook business at present. We believe it is going to continue to form a healthy part of our computer hardware business right through 2000 and beyond.

`Notebooks are becoming more of a consumer item than they have in the past. Schools are computerising at a rate of knots and many that we deal with now have notebooks as a prerequisite for certain courses.

`Notebooks are more afforable and many people need to be mobile nowadays. They are no longer sitting at a desk for the whole of their working life. They are out moving around the countryside and notebooks allow them to operate as they move,' says Slack-Smith.

While Harvey Norman continues to expand its sector of the market, smaller retailers are finding their choices of product diminishing. Three of the leading brands - Dell, Gateway and Apple - sell either exclusively online or through their own controlled specialist outlets.

Compaq has experimented with a combination of its own outlets, some department store chains and online sales, while IBM offers online and shop door sales. However, Toshiba, NEC, and Packard Bell have so far stayed in the channel, and while Hewlett-Packard has dabbled with Internet sales overseas, it is yet to offer a local online store.

Last year saw mobile PCs drop to a price level that put them within the range of home users, VSBs (very small businesses) and SMBs (small-to-medium size businesses), and that is where most of the growth over the next five years is expected to come from. Last year also saw the phenomenal entry of the Apple iBook into the consumer market. In October, it outsold all other mobile PCs on the US market and had a significant impact on the Australian market in the lead- up to Christmas. At this stage Apple is staying out of the mass retail channel, preferring to stick with its specialist Apple stores, despite the limited success of some of them.

While slick marketing and a unique product have helped Apple, the Wintel market continues to be driven by new technology.

The processing power gap between notebook and desktop narrowed last year, and decreased fur-ther this year with the introduction of Intel's SpeedStep Pentium III mobile chip.

The new chip automatically boosts performance from 500MHz to 600 or 650MHz (depending on the model) as soon as the user moves from battery to mains power. The step up is automatic but can also be handled manually. The user can run the processor at maximum speed under battery power, but will suffer a consequent reduction in battery life. While the difference in performance is hardly noticeable - even when using heavy-duty applications such as DVD movies - running a machine at 500MHz can give 20 to 30 minutes more battery time than running it at 650MHz. The efficiency of the chip is such that it also will give better battery life than many slower processors, and this is being pushed as a major selling point.

The difference is due to the processor running at only 1.35 volts at 500MHz, compared to 1.6 volts at 650MHz. It also runs cooler - 7.9 watts compared with 14.4 watts for the 650.

Intel Australia channel platform engineer, Sean Casey says SpeedStep is only the first step in what will be a much more flexible range of processors. The new PIII 500 is capable of running at up to 800MHz, but overheating problems have to be overcome.

Casey says it is possible to have thermal sensors that would automatically `throttle down' the pro- cessor if it gets too hot, and in the future it is likely mobile users will have a much wider range of processor speeds to choose from to suit the particular job at hand. Eventually, travellers may have the option of dropping the processor speed below 500MHz to extend battery life even further while using basic applications such as word processing, but be able to boost it at any time they require heavy-duty jobs done. The good news is that the SpeedStep processor costs exactly the same as the standard PIII 500 mobile chip.

Meanwhile, competition in the mobile chip market is heating up with the long-awaited launch of Transmeta's new Crusoe family of mobile chips. The previously secretive Silicon Valley company has launched two chips: the TM5400 for lightweight notebook computers running Windows, and the TM3120, a processor for Internet appliances running the Linux OS.

However, none of the major manufacturers have yet indicated they will be using the Transmeta.

But AMD may have the final say in the battle with Wintel-based machines. Reports from the US suggest AMD is preparing the K6-III as a SpeedStep killer. The company has managed to make it an ultra-cool (thermally) processor that will outdo both SpeedStep and Transmeta when it is launched later in the year. Several notebook manufacturers are using AMD processors, most notably Toshiba, which holds a healthy market share lead in Australia and uses the AMD chips in its entry-level machines.

Both Intel and AMD expect to have 700MHz and higher processors available by the middle of the year. That is about the same time as we will see the first notebooks equipped with the new Bluetooth wireless technology. Bluetooth is a low-cost, short-range (10 metres) radio frequency system that enables data to be transferred between a variety of devices. In particular, it will enable notebooks to wirelessly connect with the new WAP (wireless application protocol) mobile phones that link to the Internet. The two devices will be able to communicate seamlessly and the mobile will be capable of downloading e-mail directly to the notebook, even if the mobile is still in the user's pocket.

However, while members of the Bluetooth consortium, in particular Intel, Toshiba, Nokia and Ericsson, are promoting its benefits, the channel has yet to be convinced. Infrared offered similar benefits, but nowadays has little sales appeal because very few people use it.

David Higgins, a PC category manager at distributor Tech Pacific which deals in most of the major mobile PC brands, says there has been little discussion in the channel about Bluetooth and at this stage it is not yet considered a major selling point. `Sure, people talk about it, but it is not something they are jumping up and down waiting for. Once it comes out people will obviously pick up on it, but it is not something they are hanging out for.'

Higgins says larger screens have been the most important development in the market. `There is no doubt there has been a demand for the bigger screens. The 14 inch screens are what everybody wants - the bigger the better.'

And that is what customers will get according to several manufacturers who have already, or are about to release 15inch screens. But that is about as big as they will get, according to IBM's mob-ile computing marketing manager, Darren Gossling. He describes the size as being limited by the form factor of the computer. `It depends on what you want to carry around with you. With some of the new flexible polymer technology, we might be able to get a little bigger.'

`If you look back over the last 12 months what you have seen is a differentiation in form factor. Think Pads have been getting smaller with the introductions of the 600, 550 and the ultra-portable 240. At the same time, you are seeing screens getting larger - up to 15 inch TFT - and processors getting faster, hard drives getting bigger and maximum memory capacity increasing. That trend is going to continue.

`In the future the form factors will be getting thinner and lighter and more powerful,' Gossling says.

NEC and Packard Bell are hoping 2000 will be a much better year for them. The Packard Bell brand, once one of the top five selling computer brands in the world, has slipped badly in recent years, so much so that it no longer exists in the US.

The company is now owned by NEC Computers, which has decided to market everything under it own name in the US.

However, Packard Bell will survive in Australia and there will be some cross-branding between Packard Bell and NEC in the SOHO market.

NEC Computers Australian managing director, Ron Dyne, said neither NEC nor Packard Bell had any intention of moving away from its traditional channel partners and Packard Bell, in particular, would not be following the trend towards selling online.

Dyne says up to $6 million will be spent over the next 12 months to promote the two brands in an effort to climb back into the top five in Australia by 2002.

Packard Bell is already showing encouraging results with a 100 per cent increase in computer sales overall in the December quarter. Some of that increase came at the expense of Compaq, as Packard Bell took up the shelf space left when Compaq departed Harvey Norman.

Dyne describes the NEC brand as being used to target various business market segments while the Packard Bell brand will aim at the SOHO, VSB (very small business) and home markets `through a small number of key mass merchants'.

The industry has no doubt that the mobile PC market is picking up and the data being offered by analysts, such as IDC, looks positive for several years to come.

Spurred on by new technology, and lower prices, the market is looking healthy.

However, with the trend towards online sales and specialist single brand stores, resellers will not have it all their own way.what's new from . . .

. . . Compaq

Compaq has targeted the consumer market by announcing a new Prosignia 150 notebook that uses a 433MHz AMD processor. The notebook, which retails for just under $2800, includes an ATI Rage PRO graphics controller with 8MB VRAM, 32MB memory, a 12.1 inch or 14.1 inch XGA CTFT display and Compaq PremierSound.

It is pre-loaded with a suite of software applications ideal for small businesses, including Microsoft Office Small Business Edition, Internet Explorer and Norton AntiVirus software.

Compaq has yet to include SpeedStep technology in its various mobile PC ranges, however, it does offer up to PIII 500 in its Armada M700 series. The M700 is ultra-portable, weighing in at less than 2kg, and comes with CTFT displays measuring up to 14.1 inch; integrated Mini PCI modem and enterprise docking solutions. It also comes with 64MB of RAM and 12GB hard drive capacity.

The versatile MultiBay offers support for standard floppy disk drive, a 24x Max CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive; optional second battery, second Hard Drive, or Super-Disk LS-120 drive, and for added convenience, is hot/warm-swappable.

In its top configuration it retails for around $7295, which is around $1000 less than the E700 PII 400-based series (which Compaq describes as its portable workstation).

1300 301 324

. . . Dell

Earlier this month Dell launched the Inspiron 5000, a notebook PC aimed at the consumer and small business markets.

The Inspiron 5000 comes in its basic form with a 466MHz Mobile Celeron processor and offers 15 inch and high- resolution SXGA+ screen options, 64MB of RAM and a 6GB hard disk drive.

However, Dell is also offering a wide range of configurations including a second battery, CD-ROM, DVD- ROM or Zip drive modules, up to 18GB storage and up to 512MB of SDRAM. The choice of processors ranges from the Celeron to the new PIII 600 with SpeedStep technology.

Prices vary according to configuration, but a top of the range Inspiron 5000 R600LT (Home) with PIII 600 SS, 64MB SDRAM, 12.0 GB Ultra ATA Hard Drive, 3.5 inch 1.44MB Diskette Drive, 8MB ATI RAGE Mobility-P 2XAGP Video Controller, High-fidelity Audio SoundBlaster Compatible, 6x Max Variable DVD-ROM Drive & Software MPEG, 15.0 inch XGA Colour TFT, Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition, Microsoft OEM Works Suite 99, and Internal 56K Modem (V.90) will retail at $5999.

Dell 1800 812 393

. . . Gateway

Gateway was one of the first to jump on the SpeedStep bandwagon, announcing its new top of the range Solo 9300 XL Deluxe on the day Intel unveiled the proces sor.

The new Solo 9300 XL Deluxe offers the industry's largest display at 15.7 inches and a choice of 600MHz or 650MHz PIII SS processors. It also has Dolby Digital/AC-3 output, a DVD/MPEG-2 software decoder, an ATI 2x AGP 3D graphics accelerator with 8MB of SGRAM, IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and composite video output ports. RAM and storage space are configurable to the purchaser's specifications and Gateway claims its modular design allows for battery life up to 6.5 hours (using a second battery) or storage capacity up to 36GB (with a second hard drive).

In addition to housing second batteries, second hard drives and all standard media drives, the Solo 9300 supports the LS-120 SuperDisk for storing large amounts of data and CD-RW drives for creating content on CDs.

At the other end of the scale Gateway Solo Pro 2550 offers a PIII 600 SS, 13.3 inch TFT displays, up to 288MB of memory, 6GB to 18GB hard drives, integrated 56K modems and AGP graphics with 4MB of SGRAM.

The Solo Pro 2550 notebooks start at $4198 while the Solo 9300 XL Deluxe with 15.7 display and 650MHz SpeedStep technology is priced at $7999.

1800 50 0739

. . . IBM

IBM will release a new range of Think Pads with Intel's SpeedStep technology later in the year. In the meantime, its ThinkPad 600X comes with a PIII 500 processor, 64MB of RAM, which is expandable to 576MB; and a 12GB hard drive. It offers a 13.3 inch TFT active matrix display capable of 1024 x 768 resolution. The 600X sells for just under $7390.

The corporate workhorse of the ThinkPad range is still the popular 770 series. The 770Z relies on a PII 366 processor but comes with 128MB of RAM, 14GB of hard drive capacity and retails at $9312. Its ultra portable 570 model also relies on the PII 366 and provides 64MB, expandable to 192MB and a 6.4GB hard drive. It has a 13.1 inch TFT display and, like most of the ThinkPad range, comes with an integrated 56K modem and infrared communication capabilities. It retails at $5811.

IBM also has a ThinkPad i series aimed at the consumer and SOHO markets. It introduces a choice of Celeron, PII and Pentium MMX processor options with the top of the range being the Celeron 466 power 1400 model. It comes standard with 64MB of RAM, 14.1 inch display, 9GB hard drive and a price tag of $4689.

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. . . Toshiba

Last week Toshiba announced several new models across its range of Satellite Pro, PortŽgŽ and Tecra models.

All feature Intel's PIII 600MHz SpeedStep processor with Front Side Bus, providing faster memory access and data throughout.

The company also has boosted the expansion capabilities of its mobile computers.Specific latest offerings include the expanded Toshiba Tecra 8100 range, the PortŽgŽ 7200CT, Satellite Pro 4270XDVD and Satellite Pro 4320XDVD.

The top of the range Tecra 8100 has the PIII 600 and features the option of port replicator and an expansion station that includes 2 PCI slots, drive bay, with hard disk or tape backup functions.The port replicator, offers built-in Ethernet networking, and can operate alone or attached to the Expansion Station docking base.

The ultra slim Portege 7200CT also has the PIII 600 SS and includes a 13.3 inch active Matrix TFT display. It is only 2.5 cm deep and weighs 2kg.

Satellite Pro 4270XDVD uses a 500MHz Celeron processor with 64MB of RAM, 6GB hard drive and 14.1 inch TFT screen, while the new Satellite Pro 4320XDVD has the PIII 600 SS. Both machines feature Mobile Savage 3D graphics and an integrated CD ROM, hard disk and floppy disk drive.


1800 021 100

. . . NEC

NEC has launched three ranges of notebook in its effort to get back into the top in the mobile PC market.

The Versa LXi range represents its desktop replacements, offering a choice of PIII 450 and 500MHz processors, up to a 15 inch XGA TFT display and 18GB hard drive. All models come with a 24x CD-ROM drive but the VERSA bay will accept a variety of modules, including DVD-ROM or second hard drive. NECV offer up to 256MB of RAM, mini PCI modem and integrated miniPCI LAN combo.

At the other end of the scale, the Versa Note VX represents the entry-level machine but offers processors ranging from a Celeron 500 to a PIII 500. A wide variety of displays from 12.1 SVGA to 14.1 inch XGA are available, with hard drive capacity ranging from 6.0 to 12.0GB. An integrated modem is standard and is bundled with a range of Microsoft and Norton software.

The Versa Lite FX series is the ultra portable range offering Celeron 400 or PIII 500 processors, up to 192MB of RAM, 12.1 inch TFT display, 6GB hard drive, modem and LAN connections, and a 24x speed CD-ROM.

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