Good things come in small packages

Good things come in small packages

It doesn't matter how you pitch it, the idea of paying up to a $2000 extra for a portable computer that is less powerful continues to grate.

Lighter, smaller and less feature rich than their counterparts, ultra-portable notebooks are defined in a number of ways. Broadly speaking, they weigh in at less than 2kgs, with a screen size of 12 inches or less. But reducing weight means taking the optical drive out and relying on a shorter battery life.

While the need for an optical-drive is debatable, powersupply continues to be the key challenge for engineers looking to decrease weight and increase mobility.

The first generation of laptop batteries lasted about two hours between charges, heated up when used and were likely to blow-up if over-charged. To make matters worse, these batteries were subject to a phenomenon called memory effect whereby repeated charging would reduce battery life, increasingly limiting the time end-users could spend without being tethered to a power supply.

They were replaced by Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries which ran lighter and cooler and were less subject to memory effect.

Lithium-Ion batteries are currently standard in most laptops, especially ultra-portable models. They offer a laptop user 5-6 hours of power before needing a recharge, are slimmer, lighter, cooler and capable of being recharged hundreds of times.

However, losing weight in ultra-portables also required technological changes to reduce the amount of required power.

It was Intel's 2003 launch of its mobile Centrino platform that made lightweight mobile computing a reality, and paved the way for more than 150 new laptop models within 12 months of its launch. Not only did the Centrino platform facilitate wireless connectivity, by creating purpose-built mobile computing hardware Intel managed to reduce power requirements.

Ultra-portable laptops generally manage to wrangle a further power premium because their screens are smaller and require less power to run.

Less for more

Despite such improvements in battery technology, many vendors install a smaller-than-standard battery unit in order to reduce the weight of ultra-portable models, thus sacrificing potential battery life.

In fact, with the optical drive gone, the screen and keyboard reduced in size and the battery cut in half, it begins to become clear why selling ultra-portables is such a challenge in the first place.

To complicate matters further, notebooks that weigh less than 2kg without an optical drive can cost more than double their larger, better-featured counterparts.

Blackberry, Palm devices and even 3G phones all seem to offer many mobile computing requirements at a significantly lower cost.

Toshiba product marketing manager, Justin White, said the trick lay in matching the right mobile technology to customer requirements.

"It is all about asking the right questions," White said. "Do they really need an optical drive with them all the time, can they get access to the applications they need using a PDA, what is going to happen to their email attachments if they are using a Blackberry? There are a lot of things such as presentations and business applications that can't be done without a laptop."

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