Taking notes for Christmas

Taking notes for Christmas

As business and consumers gear up for the Christmas shopping season, users can expect the latest crop of gear to feature everything from new screen technology to advanced video engines. Notebook action is in full swing - and consumers are lapping it up.

According to IDC, the PC market in Australia shipped 791,079 units (desktop and notebook PCs) during Q2 2004. This was a record total market result and a solid 8.1 per cent increase from the first quarter of the year.

In the overall notebook market, technology advancements include the addition of DVD+R double layer support, increased wireless connectivity and beefier hard drives with capabilities up to 100GB.

Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) plans to launch hard drives with this capacity by the end of the year. For the home and SOHO user, desktop performance and integrated wireless features are essential, while getting access to versatile mobile solutions for different business requirements are top considerations in the corporate world.

The digital home market - and growing desire for digital content - was fuelling the notebook consumer space, IDC PC hardware analyst, Mike Sager, said. And vendors were catering to the space since consumers wanted to use their mobile PCs for entertainment purposes. Users were seeking enhanced graphics, surround sound and personal theatre displays.

In the Zone

Sony, for example, had launched Vaio Zone, an entertainment content browser designed to make the notebook PC the hub of AV content, Sony Australia's Vaio product manager, Marcus Cornish, said.

"Vaio Zone is a software program that enables you to pull of your multimedia content out of a Vaio that acts like a server," Cornish said. "While using other Vaios, you can pull content down in the home wirelessly on 802.11g or on the cabled LAN. So you can pull your video, your DVD content, your digital still images, all of your music files and can share them among different PCs in the home."

The technology was not restricted to Vaio notebooks.

"Any other XP-based machines can have client software put on it, and that can source from, or stream from that notebook, either wirelessly or from a cabled LAN," he said.

Toshiba is also in the digital entertainment arena, rolling out the Qosmio, a four-in-one wireless notebook.

The release catered to the AV and IT convergence trend hitting the market, Toshiba product marketing manager, Judi Liddiard, said. It was the most significant company initiative in the lead up to Christmas.

"This notebook platform complements the Media Centre Edition, as well as being a standalone nifty notebook," Liddiard said. "That will be the most significant change over the next few months."

The notebook promises enhanced boot-up, larger hard drives for DVD recording and incorporates a wireless TV system that lets users watch TV on multiple equipment over a wireless LAN.

Sager said other top features souping up the current crop of gear - they would continue to be hot next year, as well - included wireless connectivity and widescreen.

"In the consumer space, widescreen, higher RAM, and larger hard drives [with much higher capacity] are important - basically everything is bigger and better, but smaller," he said.

The latest processor developments have fuelled the overall mobile computing market, he said, and will continue to pave the way for faster, more powerful notebooks. In particular, Intel Centrino mobile technology was growing in both the retail and the corporate space, Sager said.

Mobile processing power has become much more important given the use of video, audio and detailed graphics has become more prevalent and applications are increasing.

To meet future demand, Intel is preparing for the launch of the forthcoming Centrino mobile technology products including the Sonoma platform (slated for release early next year) and the next generation platform dubbed Napa.

In the meantime, Intel spiced things up this year with several launches. One of them was the rollout of the Mobile Intel Pentium 4 processor 548, which supports Hyper-threading for the portability market (designed for larger-sized PCs typically known as desktop replacements).

The company also expanded the Intel Pentium M processor and Intel Celeron M processor lines aimed at the mini-notebook, sub-notebook and tablet PC markets.

Meanwhile, rival AMD expanded its lineup of mobile Athlon 64-bit processors (the 3000+ operates at 2GHz), which are meant for use in thin and lightweight notebook computers. In particular, AMD introduced the Mobile Athlon 64 processor 3400+, which gives users a 32-bit/64-bit processor designed for Windows-based notebook PCs.

And expect to see more action on all fronts from a cross section of players, Sager said. More and more hardware vendors would get into the notebook game in the Australian market - some had made a name for themselves within the last year, he said.

"You've got Asus, Samsung, LG and BenQ. If you were in the market last year, they weren't here," Sager said. "Those four notebook vendors are really growing, particularly in the consumer market and some parts of the commercial space."

Record growth

Asus, for its part, hatched a local office last April. The company has been selling notebooks into Australian for three years, but now sees huge market opportunity and a need for a local presence.

Asus A/NZ sales director, Ted Chen, said the company was banking on success in the consumer as well as corporate and government markets. The company typically sold 20,000 units per month in Taiwan - in Australia sales had reached 5000 units per month.

But the company wanted to crank up the heat and cater to consumer needs by offering a sleeker design, boosted performance and a bevy of features that offer desktop-level functionality, he said.

"This year has been highly competitive in the

Australian notebook market," Chen said. "And with prices coming down, we're constantly figuring out how to increase our market share. That's the top challenge for us."

Given the revved up mobile market, vendors are catering to a wide range of needs. The thirst for widescreen, which is ideal for road warriors and multimedia enthusiasts, is one example.

Third-ranked notebook maker, Acer has launched a widescreen 17-inch mobile entertainment centre, dubbed the Aspire 1800. The notebook features an 8-speed Super Multi DVD Drive and optional built-in TV tuner.

Acer notebook product manager, Antonio Leone, said the Aspire was the first widescreen notebook to feature ATI Mobility Radeon X600 PCI Express with 64MB.

"This gives users the high-performance graphics capabilities only recently introduced on high-end desktop PCs," he said.

Asus has also rolled out the W1 series, which combined a widescreen, TV tuner and subwoofer and was ideal for multimedia entertainment, Chen said.

The M6 series also offered the widescreen visual experience.

With a built-in TV tuner option, the W1 notebook turned into a widescreen TV. A significant feature, he said, was the fact it supports time-shift, which let users record a show without having to sit by the TV all of the time.

Looking beyond widescreen, another top trend is the push towards notebooks with the DVD format.

Indeed, the format has seen a massive increase in popularity as a storage medium across a host of consumer electronics devices.

Sony's Cornish said the recordable DVD media only readily existed in single-layer single-sided (DVD-5) format.

High definition cameras

But things were changing. He said Sony was the first to offer in-built DVD+R dual layer support DVD burners in notebooks. The company was offering the technology on two Vaio models, the PCG-K86P and the VGN-A29GP.

"Dual layer enables you [in the plus format] to double your storage capacity on one disk", Cornish said.

"This means more storage for large files, and for backup, which is one of the key components. If you're doing high quality editing [burning onto DVD] you now have high capacity storage onto a dual layer disk. With the advent of high definition cameras in the consumer space, dual layer has its benefits with increased storage capacity as well."

Other vendors are jumping into the game.

Acer planned to launch this technology early next year, Leone said.

All eyes were cast on the SMB space, IDC's Sager said. While the consumer space was going very well, he said the commercial side (particularly the large corporate sector) was not growing as fast. Instead, the SMB and education markets wre the sweet spots, he said.

Models targeted at the SMB space were now an affordable alternative to the traditional corporate desktop, said Toshiba's Liddiard. The company catered to the space with three models: the Tecra A2, along with the M2 and the S1. The A2, which offers extended battery life, high performance processing power and integrated Super Multi DVD drives, was ideally suited for channel partners that service value-conscious business shoppers, Liddiard said.

"On the smaller side of the SMB space, users are interested in what they can do with their computers personally as well as work-wise," she said. "So they may be looking at things such as FireWire for the digital data download. While larger companies want product consistency."

The A2 series would have a regular product refresh so Toshiba resellers can offer the latest technology at small business prices. Acer has also released new models catering to the space, which represented a main focus in 2005, national channels manager, Greg Mikaelian, said.

As part of its pitch, the company had rolled out the TravelMate 2300, which offersed a Celeron M platform, offers longer battery life, as well as reduced travelling weight (thanks to a thinner and lighter device) - key considerations on a consumers wish list, Leone said.

Also noteworthy, he said was the fact the launch represented the beginning of the end for integrating the floppy disc drive.

"This is reflective of the fact that more and more people are considering alternative storage medium such as the removable USB storage drives and portable storage [and using recordable CD as a means of backup]," Leone said.

Climbing up the food chain, but still aimed at the SMB market, is the rollout of the TravelMate 4000. Considered the mainstream performance Centrino offering, the notebook offers enhanced wireless functionality with the addition of SignalUp technology.

"This delivers high-quality wireless service through a longer range, and a more stable signal," Leone said. "The wireless signal keeps going for longer, so you can work further and further away from the antenna [the base station or the access point to the wired network]. So that gives the user more freedom to roam, knowing you can get a stronger signal over that range."

Meanwhile, the rollout of the 3200, which is aimed at the enterprise and executive professional user level, offers enhanced performance, a lighter weight and smaller footprint.

Resellers could also position the new product category (thanks to its small size and weight) at the education market, Leone said.

"The product provides all the docking support, dedicated memory and Firewire," Leone said. "It provides additional connectivity and information management tools."

Wireless enhancements

IDC's Sager said the enhanced wireless functionality was an important factor, and Acer offered the wireless feature next to the screen itself - whereas many vendors put the wireless at the base of the PC.

"Because of the design feature, Acer claims to be able to offer 25 per cent increased wireless signal strength," Sager said.

Looking down the track, Acer's Leone said the company would continue to push widescreen, high performance wireless, as well as DVD burner technology in order to make it a mainstream optical solution.

"We're going to keep seeing optical technology evolve, battery technology will improve, and notebooks will become lighter and thinner in terms of the casing materials," he said.

Future chipsets would offer benefits in terms of faster connectivity, via PCI Express, as well as higher performing audio, Leone said.

"This will be available primarily in higher end products before it cascades down to mainstream products," he said.

From digital entertainment gateways to video conferencing on the road (with built-in microphone and cameras for instant communication) and advanced mobile performance, many consumers see it as the right time to grab a notebook.

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