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Laptop dancing

Laptop dancing

Think notebooks and think Toshiba. Unlike the PC market, where the leading vendors have been known to swap places from time to time, Toshiba remains firmly entrenched at number one on the notebook charts. Its dominance of the market is so great that, even though it doesn't sell desktops in New Zealand, for instance, its notebook sales give it a place in the top five of the total PC market.

According to market researcher International Data Corp (IDC), Australians will buy `a touch' over 300,000 notebook PCs this year and if 1998 figures are anything to go by, around one third of them will be Toshibas. Last year, the vendor bolstered its reign, capturing just under 35 per cent of the notebook market in Australia. Compaq, IBM, Acer and Dell followed Toshiba. All together, the top five held 76 per cent of the market that saw 265,583 notebooks shipped.

Analysts say that with about 35 per cent in 1998, Toshiba's share of the market is well below its peak. Still, when the company's sales equal the total sales of its three nearest rivals, Toshiba hasn't got much to worry about.

`The entire PC market is on the rise,' says Toshiba New Zealand manager Ralph Brayham. `As the leader of the notebook market, Toshiba is keen to see the notebook market grow further. While the average notebook penetration in corporates averages 15 to 20 per cent, there are some sites which have around 60 per cent of their staff using notebooks.

`We see this trend continuing as more and more organisations recognise the benefits of a notebook over a desktop.

`What will also fuel this trend is Intel's announced intention to simultaneously release new chips to desktop and notebook manufacturers, so the issue of desktop PCs having greater processing power will shortly disappear. However, we recognise that portability does come at a premium and the price reflects the value provided by the system.'

At the high end of the market, that's a price premium of about 100 per cent over a comparably kitted out desktop system. Notebooks are coming down in price, however, and as they do, they'll appeal to a much greater market.

But even though notebook sales are growing faster than the PC market as a whole (according to IDC, the overall PC market growth was 2 per cent lower than the notebook market, which grew 11 per cent in 1998), IDC Australia analyst Logan Ringland doubts the market is ready to replace desktops with its sleeker, more mobile and more expensive cousins.

`There has been very little of the predicted desktop replacement happening within the market. However, we are seeing notebooks become the tools of an increasingly mobile workforce.

`Corporate segment and medium business are still the predominant markets at the moment,' he said. `However, we are noticing an increase in the number of notebooks sold to the smaller office.'

The channel

In these days of sensitivity to the issue of whether vendors should sell through the channel or by some hybrid scheme, Toshiba emphasises its channel model.

`Toshiba is strictly a channel-based business, with the majority of its business being done through the top tier of five-star resellers,' Brayham says. Among those, Toshiba recently named Applied Micro Systems (AMS) its five-star reseller of the year for its contribution to the provision of high-level service to Toshiba's customers.

The second-tier resellers are supplied through Toshiba distributors. This year Toshiba recognised Computer Hardware of Australia (CHA) for its excellence in the field.

`Our focus is on quality, reliability and value for money while aiming to be the notebook leader in all categories we compete in,' Brayham says.

The company whose name is most often associated with the switch from channel to direct sales, Compaq, remains a channel notebook supplier (with the odd exception of customers with which the company has a direct relationship inherited from Digital). Its notebook products are distributed in Australia by Dicker Data, Ingram Micro and Express Data.

Acer, too, has not seen a lot of impact from Internet sales. Since the company relies upon the channel, it has no intention of moving to a direct sales Internet model, officials claim.

Resellers bring in customers, and provide a front end for customers, which is not available with direct sales. Acer services some large accounts directly, but generally relies upon its distributors, such as CHA and Alstom.

IBM laptop distribution is direct to tier-one business partners, and through major retailers and distributors. The company does maintain a Web site, called `PC Shop', but it is gearing this toward the channel. The PC Shop is used to generate leads and to select an IBM business partner to handle the actual purchase.

`It is our belief that this is what customers need, so we have no plans to go direct,' says Darren Gossling, the company's Australia and New Zealand laptops marketing manager.

The technology

So much for channel models; there's vastly more variety to get to grips with among notebook models themsevles.

The market is characterised by increasingly large screens. Today's norm is the 13.3 inch active-matrix display, while high-end 15 inch screens are big enough to replace all but the largest desktop monitors, and they're easier on the eye.

Hard disk drives in today's notebooks are typically 6Gb and bigger; CD-ROMs are standard and DVD is increasingly common. And this is all being provided in smaller and smaller cases, with a growing emphasis on swap-out modularity.

Toshiba has three ranges of notebook com-puters: Satellite, PortŽgŽ and Tecra. The Satellite series is Toshiba's entry-level notebook, aimed at small-to-medium businesses, large organisations and SOHO users.

The PortŽgŽ is a stylish ultra-portable range. There is the 3110, which measures 257mm (width) x 19.8mm (height) x 216mm (depth) and weighs 1.4kg.

The Toshiba Tecra 8000 range has a single platform that uses one system motherboard and one software image regardless of configuration.

`This reduces support costs for corporate and government users with shorter qualification times, longer product life cycles, and interchangeable components,' says Toshiba's Brayham.

`By the end of this year resellers and end users can expect to see from Toshiba faster [up to 500MHz], lighter and more powerful machines [Pentium III] with greater screen and DVD capabilities.

`These will shortly be followed by the first products which support the Bluetooth radio link technology and do away with many of the cables we use today.'

Compaq has generally been the number-two player in the laptop market, though that place has recently been threatened. Compaq has just released three new models, says product marketing manager Jeremy Burgess.

`We have defined three market segments: mobility, flexibility/integration and desktop replacement,' Burgess says. `Mobility purchasers are interested in lightweight equipment that can be easily carried, and we offer the ultra-thin, ultra-light 1.5kg M300 model for them.

`The M700 model provides swappable devices, for the flexibility market, which is looking for the ability to reconfigure the system and carry along only what is needed. The desktop replacement market is not concerned about portability; these systems might only be moved infrequently, and the emphasis is upon power. We meet this market with the E700 dual multi-bay workstation class laptop.

`Our main philosophy in this area is that one size doesn't fit all. Overall market trends include a continued need for lighter and more portable systems. Compaq will be introducing a portable projector soon, which will fit next to the laptop in a briefcase and bring full presentation capability to the road warrior.'

According to an Acer spokesman, the Travelmate 330 series is the number-four notebook supplier's hot product.

`This is a slim, ultra-portable notebook that is priced just away from the mainstream, and half the price of competing slimline units,' he said.

IBM, on the other hand, doesn't identify a single hot seller, but sees the mobile user as increasingly making use of a variety of devices, including a laptop, cellphone, and a palmtop like IBM's newly released Workpad.

`Customers will always pay more for a mobile unit over a desktop, although prices are coming together more,' says Darren Gossling, the company's Australia and New Zealand laptops marketing manager.

Innovations that are beginning to appear include the ultra bay, which lets the user easily add a second hard drive or second battery, according to Gossling.

`Screens are getting clearer, crisper, lighter and larger, and they use less power and have higher resolution. Products are continually being upgraded. We have seen a typical life cycle as being from 18 months to two years.'

Other contenders

Outside the top five, there are several other well-known notebook brands. NEC, for example, doesn't register very highly in the market share figures in Australia and New Zealand.

But, in its homeland Japan, it has 30 per cent of the market.

Last year, Christchurch-based Insite Technology became a NEC notebook distributor, alongside the Asustek range that it also sells.

`We have been doing the NEC product for eight months now and have increased our market share in this time from .03 to about 5 per cent,' says product manager Anthony Brett.

NEC will release a PCMCIA thumb print scanner into desktop replacement units before the end of the year, tamper-proof hard drives, BIOS locking software, PIN function keys and other security devices.

`One big initiative is the move to fashionably small B4 form factor lightweight units,' says Brett. `Another has to be the Sierra Wireless CDPD product that Insite has been working with. Integrating this product into the NEC range makes secure, wireless remote access to corporate networks a reality.

`Voice dictation software on laptops is going to be another important trend, permitting hands-free data input.'

Asustek, in the meantime, makes configurable, upgradable `white box' notebook solutions. The company builds boards to exact Intel specifications, resulting in a product that will take anything from a Celeron 300 to a PII 400 and up. Insite buys a base unit from Asus (Sony TFT, ALPS touchpad) and then installs the operating system, CPU, hard disk (3.2Gb to 20Gb), RAM, and CD-ROM or DVD as specified by the customer.

`We can hold lots of stock because we have effectively removed the dangerous 'commodity component' out of the laptop so are not left with old technology to shift at negative margins,' says Brett.

Not forgetting Apple

Notebooks running Microsoft operating systems aren't the whole story, of course. Apple and the Mac OS have been having a spectacular revival in the desktop market and now, with a new low-end notebook offering, all eyes will be on it to see if it can match that result in the mobile market.

The new product is the iBook, which shares the distinctive colour scheme and curves which set the desktop iMac apart from the Wintel competition. As a colourful, user-friendly entry-level product, it's not hard to see why the iBook is creating lots of anticipation.

`A key feature is the AirPort, which lets it connect to an Internet hub through wireless communications; since one hub can serve 10 units, it is seen as a way to provide quick Internet connectivity in a classroom setting,' Margaret Bright, Apple product manager with New Zealand distributor Renaissance, said.

`Apple's laptops compete in the Intel-saturated market by providing ease of use and cutting-edge technology at a lower cost. Styling has also been a strong point.'

While the existing G3 Powerbook line is aimed at professionals and those running power-hungry applications, Apple officials say the iBook will serve the entry-level and classroom markets. It will also allow resellers to extend their reach into the small-to-medium business market, the space Apple hasn't been competing in for a while.

With a number of exciting new product releases from major vendors, this ever-expanding sector of the PC marketplace will continue to offer great reseller opportunities certainly in the short and medium terms.

AMD boosts notebook chip

Advanced Micro Devices has released a 450MHz version of its mobile K6-III processor, which it claims is the highest-performance chip of its kind on the market. The news was tempered by reports that Gateway plans to stop using AMD's chips in its PCs.

The new AMD processor will be available in a Prosignia 150 notebook from Compaq Computer later this month, the companies said. AMD also launched the product at 433MHz and 400MHz.

Intel 's current fastest processor for notebooks is a mobile Pentium II running at 400MHz. Clock speed is only one measure of processor performance, but AMD said other features in the K6-III, including a faster memory bus and larger on-chip cache, make it faster than a mobile Pentium II. AMD released results from a handful of benchmark tests to back up its claim.

AMD also increased the speed of its K6-2 mobile processors, which are aimed at lower-cost PCs. The K6-II is now available at 475MHz, 450MHz and 433MHz. By James NiccolaiFeature-packed 3-pound notes from IBM and CompaqIf 8-pound notebooks are starting to wear on your nerves (and shoulders and neck), here comes relief - new 3-pound notebooks from Compaq and IBM offer a viable, lightweight option without some of the compromises that other ultraportable notebooks entail.

We reviewed preproduction versions of IBM's ThinkPad 240 and Compaq's Armada M300. The latter has since been released and retails for $US3845 (local pricing as yet unavailable). Unlike the first wave of superslim 1 inch-thick notebooks (which began shipping last year), these machines have nearly full-size keyboards and include built-in parallel and serial ports.

Tiny travellers. Like competing superslims from Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba, the ThinkPad 240 and Armada M300 pack a lot into improbably tiny packages. They measure about an inch thick with the screen closed and weigh about 3 pounds, not including their AC adapter or external floppy drive. Like their competitors, they have no built-in internal bays.

But these two newcomers carry some key improvements. While competitors' keyboards are roughly 85 to 90 per cent as big as a full-size notebook's, the ThinkPad's and Armada's come in at 95 per cent. We found touch-typing on both a little easier than on older superslims we've tested, like Sony's VAIO PCG-505FX.

The built-in ports on both notebooks mean one less piece of equipment to pack for the road. Other superslims relegate parallel and serial ports to detachable sticks. But the ThinkPad and Armada house these connections (along with other standard ports) on the notebook itself.

Both notebooks perform capably, equalling the speed of similarly equipped full-size portables. Neither notebook can match the 3-hour battery life that full- size laptops typically achieve, but they did fairly well on our battery tests, considering that they run on lightweight four-cell batteries. (Standard notebook batteries have eight or more cells.) You can buy longer-lasting, slightly heavier batteries for both notebooks that purportedly double their away-from-outlet life, a claim we did not test.

Top touch-typing. If you type a lot and want a great keyboard, look no further than IBM's ThinkPad 240. We found it noticeably more comfortable to use than the Armada's, despite the latter's longer wrist rest and bigger keys. By Carla ThorntonNotebook class of 99 earns high honoursYou couldn't ask for much more from the notebook computer industry. Over the last year, vendors have improved nearly every aspect of their systems, from processor speeds and hard drive capacity to system weight and battery life - all while dropping the average price significantly.

The five vendors we included in this review were Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and NEC. The reviewed notebooks offer 366MHz Pentium II-based machines that cost between $3999 and $6400.

Hard drives are larger, and designs are sleeker and lighter even though screens are bigger. All the systems feature 14.1 inch screens except the Dell and the Gateway which have 13.3 inch screens. With all components included, most of the systems weigh between seven and nine pounds. We also saw the longest-ever notebook battery life recorded in our Test Center lab: nearly five-and-a-half hours, set by Gateway's Solo 2500.

Some of these notebooks contain built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives, and some have multibay capabilities that enable them to accept either or both of those drives as well as such modules as a second battery, a second hard drive or a DVD-ROM drive.

The bottom line is that all these notebooks are good. We adjusted the scoring this year to reflect the more advanced technology and improved designs. Despite the raised bar, all the systems scored above a 7.0, qualifying them as recommended systems.

Three systems scored above 8.0, setting them off as the best of the best: Gateway's Solo 2500, NEC's Versa LX and Compaq's Armada 1750. By Michelle SpeirGateway's Solo 2500Tolstoy perhaps could not have written War and Peace on the Solo 2500 without recharging the battery, but Gateway's battery life was still nothing less than amazing. It ran for an unbelievable 5 hours, 29 minutes and 53 seconds - a full two hours longer than the runner-up. In fact, we ran the battery test twice because we thought the result was a mistake.

Combine astounding battery life with an excellent feature set and all-around high quality, and you get one of the best notebook buys of the year.

The Solo 2500 lagged a little behind the pack in performance, scoring a 129 on the SYSmark/98 benchmark and landing in a tie for seventh place with the MetroBook.

Gateway's system design is very good. It features accessible components that are relatively easy to remove and replace. Ports are clearly marked, and the case construction is solid. A PC Card modem is included.

There is no multibay and therefore no support for a second battery, but considering the battery life of this notebook, we don't think you would need a second battery.

The Solo 2500's setup/ease of use is good. It includes a system restoration CD to be used in case the system crashes. The CD includes operating system restoration, hardware drivers, Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, McAfee Associates's VirusScan and a full complement of online documentation. Additional online documentation and the latest drivers are available through Gateway's Web site.

Gateway offers three ways to monitor battery status: through a battery gauge icon on the Windows taskbar, via a battery gauge indicator in the LED display and via a pop-up battery status display.

The bottom line is that this notebook offers an excellent package for an excellent price, even if it may not be a speed demon in performance. You also won't get multibay capability, but not everyone needs that feature. Take a good look at this bargain buy when you shop around. RRP $3999.

NEC's Versa LX

Our second-place finalist was NEC's Versa LX. It also came in second for battery life, with a time of 3:23:58. The NEC turned in the top SYSmark/98 score of 144 (although several others were so close that the difference is not discernible).

The Versa LX's very good system design features a multibay that will accept a second hard drive, a battery, a CD-ROM drive or a DVD-ROM drive. The keyboard lifts up for easy access to memory. The hard drive is also fairly easy to remove and replace.

The system comes with a restoration CD and a CD that contains hardware drivers, Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, McAfee's VirusScan and PowerQuest's PartitionMagic applications and utilities.

NEC offers two ways to monitor battery status: through a battery status icon on the Windows taskbar and via LEDs on the battery itself.

Even though the Versa LX finished second to the Gateway, it does offer a few things the Gateway does not. It's more expensive, but it features the multibay that the Gateway lacks, and the NEC's performance was slightly better. A modem is not included, so you'll need to buy one yourself. Despite the slightly high price, the Versa LX still is a very good buy. RRP starts at $6400.

Compaq's Armada 1750

Compaq's Armada 1750 turned in one of the faster SYSmark/98 scores at 143. It was on the heavier end of the group, weighing 8 pounds, 12.8 ounces, and battery life was a bit short at 2:41:59.

Compaq's very good system design includes a multibay that accepts a second hard drive, a battery or a floppy drive. Because the CD-ROM drive is built-in and separate from the multibay, you can use a floppy and CD-ROM at the same time. The keyboard lifts up to provide easy access to memory. The hard drive is also fairly easy to remove and replace. This notebook also features an internal modem.

Setup/ease of use is good. The Armada 1750 includes an operating system rescue disk and pre-installed Compaq Diagnostics. The full set of online documentation is very good.

There are two ways to monitor battery status: with a battery status icon in the Windows taskbar and via a `battery low' audio warning.

The Armada 1750 is another high-quality, solid system in this roundup. Although the Compaq unit is a bit heavy and short on battery life, it is a reliable laptop backed by a well-known company. RRP starts at $4295.

Dell's Latitude CPi A366XT

The Latitude CPi A366XT is the lightest of the bunch at 7 pounds, 5.2 ounces. Its SYSmark/98 score of 140 puts it among the faster systems for performance. Battery life was good, at 3:03:35.

The Latitude CPi's lightweight helped it earn an excellent score for system design. In addition, it offers multibay support with dual-battery capability and easy battery and hard drive replacement. A panel on the bottom of the unit snaps off and provides easy access to the memory modules. A PC Card modem is included. The only downside to its design is that you can't use the floppy and CD-ROM drives at the same time.

Dell earned a satisfactory score for setup/ease of use. No rescue disk was included, but when we called Dell to enquire about this, we were told of a program called Zigzag that resides on the hard disk. This program is supposed to let you restore the original factory-installed configuration yourself, with the help of a technician on the phone. However, we would never have known about this program if we had not called Dell. It is not documented anywhere, and we question the usefulness of a tool that users would not even know about. We would have preferred a rescue disk. A quick-start guide would also have improved Dell's score. The latest drivers are available from Dell's Web site.

With the Latitude CPi you get a lightweight, quality system. RRP $4874.

TARGUS - notebook accessories

One of the notebook PC carrying cases' global market leaders, Targus has recently expanded its product range to include a series of notebook computer accessories which include power, connectivity, and security products. Targus notebook accessories create a family of mobile-related products the company claims will enhance the efficiency of portable computer users worldwide. Some of their latest accessories are also compatible with desktop PCs.

Defcon CL: Notebook cable lock

The Targus Defcon CL (cable lock) protects notebooks and valuable data by using what Targus claims to be `the first computer security product to offer the benefits and convenience of a 'keyless' solution'.

Highlights

Cut-resistant stainless steel cable

Easily attached to computer

User settable combination lock

Keyless

RRP $49.95

Universal AC Adapter

Ultra-thin, ultra-light, ultra-portable, the Targus Universal AC Adapter is a convenient power source that features patented Power Tip technology to automatically control the voltage to match your notebook's requirements. Fits most notebooks.

Universal Auto/Air Notebook Power AdapterWeighing less than 6.4 ounces, the Targus Universal Auto/Air Notebook Power Adapter is the compact, portable power solution for mobile users on the road. Using Power Tip technology, the adapter automatically controls the voltage to match a notebook's requirements. The adapter allows users to plug virtually any notebook computer into airline seats with Empower capability, but it also works in vehicles with standard cigarette lighters, with cellular phones and portable printers.

Highlights

Universal - works with most Notebook PCs Quality engineered to power and recharge your NotebookSleek, compact designBuilt-in circuit protectionRRP $199World Travel Connection KitDoing business around the world? Targus World Travel Connection Kit contains power and telephone adapters to keep people connected from Australia to Zimbabwe, according to the company. The kit points to the right adapters with a simple selection guide and quick identification labels.

Highlights

Notebook power and telephone adaptability in over 100 countriesLeather organiser for quick reference and easy storageIncludes eight phone adapters and six power adaptersEasy-to-use country selection guideTargus (02) 9807 1222


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