Embracing the mobile PC

Embracing the mobile PC

Road warriors and mobile aficionados craving power and performance - along with a few whiz bang features - can look to the latest crop of notebooks on the market for a fix.

From new processors and enhancements in wireless technology to added bells and whistles that cater to the digital home (including larger LCD screens) and other nifty features including GPS satellite navigation capabilities and the addition of secure fingerprint recognition, notebooks are coming into their own.

According to Gartner, the overall PC market recorded impressive growth in the first half of the year. Second quarter results indicated year-on-year growth of 14.4 per cent while sequential growth was 8.6 per cent.

Steamy demand in the professional and consumer space were prime reasons for the overall boost, principal analyst for Gartner's hardware and systems group, Andy Woo, said.

"In the professional space, demand was particularly strong in the SMBs while consumer sentiment remained highly positive," Woo said. "The stable economic environment will continue to be a key catalyst in the Australian PC space."

Honing in on the Australian mobile PC market, year-on-year growth was 36 per cent.

"There is certainly a market shift on how end users perceive mobile PC," Woo said. "As the price performance gap continues to narrow with a desktop, end users are beginning to embrace mobile PC as the platform of choice."

In particular, the Australian government market - including the Department of Defence tender and the Federal election - drove an increase in buying, 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.

And while the education space waned in the second quarter, this segment was expected to pick up in the third quarter and maintain its recovery for the rest of the year, IDC said.

Mobility madness

So what's driving the notebook demand? With advances in notebook technology (including boosted processing power and functionality, lower prices, along with long battery life), consumers are seeking the mobile form factor as a desktop replacement.

Powering up the technology, AMD recently unleashed the 64 Athlon 64 processor 3400, a 32-bit/64-bit processor designed for Windows-based notebook PCs.

The latest launch - which is added to the AMD64 processor lineup - offers an enhanced virus protection security feature, that will be enabled by the Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Catering to the Tablet space, AMD has also rolled out the AMD Athlon XP-M processor 2200+, marking the first time a convertible Tablet PC will incorporate a mobile AMD Athlon processor, according to the company.

Taking advantage of the latest power boosts, product manager for Optima Technology Solutions, Henry Lee, said vendors were incorporating these faster processors into their notebooks, which delivered quicker responses and better performances, as well as enhanced battery life that was extended via the power saving capabilities of new CPUs.

In particular, the addition of Intel Centrino mobile technology boosted mobile processing power and wireless capabilities, Lee said.

Surging past Pentium 4 performance, Pentium M offered enhanced battery life (up to six hours) and built-in wireless functionality.

Indeed, PC users are demanding high-performance notebooks to help them stay connected on the go. Given the zippier functionality (including adding hyper threading to the mix for pure grunt and power along with 128MB video cards), some vendors say notebook sales are eclipsing PC sales.

Many notebook vendors are launching high performance desktop replacements notebooks in a bid to capture a sizeable chunk of the market.

Toshiba product manager, Matt Codrington, said the technology was rivaling desktop PCs in terms of power and performance, and offering consumers a mobile entertainment system.

"The desktop is dead from our perspective," Codrington said.

The consumer space, in particular, was generating most of the heat, he said.

"The rise in flexible working and the greater number of SOHOs is driving the adoption of desktop replacement PCs and users are demanding increasingly higher levels of performance and features from notebooks to enhance business productivity," Codrington said.

Toshiba recorded a cracker quarter in Q3, hitting the one million mark for notebooks sold in A/NZ since 1985. Codrington said the notebook market was growing at a double digit rate, indicating the technology and price gap between notebooks and desktop PCs was closing fast.

But Lee said while notebook sales would eventually surpass desktop PC sales, it was going to be a slower process than some might think.

"When compared to notebooks, desktop sales are still quite strong due to the fact they have a lower price point and many users do not require information on the run," he said.

While Optima's notebook sales had been stable for the past few months, Lee expected a surge in sales around Christmas thanks to interest from home users and the continued push towards the digital home.

In this space, Australia was obsessed with moving towards a widescreen format, particularly the 15-inch, he said. This was ideal for playing DVDs.

"DVD burners are now on about 80-90 per cent of notebooks," he said.

And expect more advancements, Lee said.

Later this year and into 2005, the rollout of a dual layer DVD burner, which doubled the storage capacity, would also drive notebook demand.

"So instead of having 4.7GB per disk per side, we'll get 8GB or 9GB," he said.

On its Tecra A2 line, which caters to the SMB space, Toshiba has included a DVD SuperMulti CD-RW/DVD combination drive or DVD burner, which allowed DVDs and CDs to be copied and viewed anywhere, Codrington said.

"What's significant here is the DVD-RAM feature, which is a technology specifically designed at the professional or business environment," he said. "It's a very fast DVD recording technology that allows the user to use RAM technology to back up the data very effectively and quickly."

Capitalising on the convergence trend, consumers were also craving big screens (either plasma or LCD), with built-in digital TV tuners and high quality sounds systems, Lee said.

"The notebook with media capabilities will be a central part of an entertainment unit," he said.

Pioneer product manager, Jeff Li, said the company realised the market potential in digital TV tuners at an early stage and introduced the DreamVision digital TV tuner in both PCI and USB box.

"The technology is now offered with all Pioneer PCs and notebooks," he said.

Gearing up for the launch of the Windows XP Media Centre edition, Pioneer has been chosen as a launch partner and the Pioneer Media Centre PC and notebook will be available from October 1.

Optima's Lee said notebooks were becoming digital media centres, letting users play DVDs, edit videos and tune TV.

"By extending the capabilities and performance levels of notebooks, vendors are making them increasingly attractive to a wider audience," he said.

The addition of an ATI mobility Radeon 9700 graphics card along with 64MB video memory were other features offering enhanced graphics capabilities for online gaming and content creation, he said.

Fujitsu's notebook product manager, John Lee, agreed the addition of DVD burners was one of the hot new features on notebooks.

"There's been a leap forward in terms of DVD burners coming to the mainstream in the notebook world, which was typically relegated to desktops," he said.

The fascination with larger screens (the company has beefed up its S-7010 range from a 13.3-inch screen to a 14-inch) was capturing attention in Australia.

"While popular in other parts of the world, this form factor is taking off in Australia because here people have a tendency to love bigger screens for DVD viewing and displaying more than one document."

On the larger screens, the company had added superfine screen technology to boost the LCD movie viewing experience, he said.

"Compared to a standard LCD, the superfine LCD brightens the screen and gives a crisper image." Lee said.

Catering to the desire to watch movies, Pioneer's Li said the company was pitching the 870 notebook, a desktop replacement model, with a 17-inch widescreen that also offered ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 256MB DDR SGRAM, 4x built-in speakers, and 3D stereo enhanced sound, among other features, to enhance the experience.

Toshiba's Codrington agreed the native widescreen (a 16 x 10) had become hot over the past 12 months.

"Other screen technology advancements include the clear super view (CSV), which provides images that are brighter than standard wide-screen LCD displays," he said.

The technology, which increases notebook brightness by 30 per cent, has been added to the Satellite M30 special edition model, for example.

The Toshiba M30 also includes a high quality video engine that enables traditional TV quality on a notebook screen.

"The video engine enables traditional television-quality video entertainment on a notebook screen with crisper images, higher contrast and smoother motion," Codrington said.

As the digital home concept caught with consumers, notebook demand was also being driven by the increasing reliance on digital cameras, he said.

"Consumers and small businesses are producing their own content [photos] and need a place to store the data," Codrington said.

Notebooks with larger hard drives (80GB to 100GB machines) were answering the call, he said.

And while close lipped about specifics, Codrington said the company had anaudio/video appliance that catered to the digital home space coming out in Q4.

The other big development this year, Fujitsu's Lee said, was the ability to offer a notebook that operatee on all three wireless formats: a/b and g.

In some current models, and all subsequent rollouts, the technology would be standard, he said.

"The market is moving towards this seamless connectivity," Lee said.

Enhancements in wireless connectivity within the last 12 months had also driven demand for mobile computing, Codrington said.

"Increased security features and the rollout of hotspots (along with the uptake of broadband), makes notebooks a real mobility solution where customers can travel with it, be connected and productive," he said.

Essentially, notebook connectivity is catered for by Gigabit Ethernet, Wireless, Fast Infrared Port and Bluetooth.

Prices had come down for wireless routers - another factor for the wireless push into notebooks, Codrington said. Overall, new developments in wireless networking software, the addition of VoIP in the enterprise line with the rollout of the Tecra M2, along with new form factors were striking a chord with consumers.

"Putting productivity tools like VoIP lets users interact with the notebook directly and harness the bandwidth in the network infrastructure, thereby reducing costs, which is what enterprises are all about," he said.

Also on the wireless front, the Tecra A2 notebook line offers ConfigFree software which, Codrington said simplified automatic connection to multiple wired and wireless network profiles for users who moved between work locations.

"This has been a standard on Toshiba machines since the start of the year," he said. "And the new generations of ConfigFree, which come out every quarter, include Bluetooth."

Acer, meanwhile, is boosting its wireless performance with the addition of Signal Up technology, which ensured that the wireless connection remains stronger over longer distances, Acer's product manager, Antonio Leone, said. As part of the boost, Acer has placed two PIFA antennas on top of the notebook LCD panel.

According to Leone, Signal Up's panel-top placement reduces the interference caused by a notebook's shielding, mechanical parts and electric and thermal noise from the main board and processor.

The addition of the technology was a key selling point for resellers, Leone said.

The Acer TravelMate 8005LMi, in particular, which is equipped with the technology, offered superior performance in terms of distance from the access point while still maintaining a usable connection.

"We're ensuring we have wireless-enabled tech­nology," he said. "Signal Up is all about offering a higher quality of service, offering a stronger signal strength for the user."

And while wireless technologies are being embraced by a growing number of businesses across Australia, IDC has found that more than 90 per cent of local businesses have no comprehensive strategy in place for the broader use of mobile technology.

Swallowing the tablet

Some analysts say the mobile mix was also being confused by product placement for Tablet PCs.

While slow to take off (in part because of higher costs), Fujitsu's Lee said the Tablet was expected to take off later this year and into next year.

The company is banking its slate range - minus the keyboard - and the convertible models - similar to a notebook - will attract a wider audience. Today, the slate is popular with vertical segments such as sales, building, mining and logistics.

Codrington said the Tablet would also have a role to play in the enterprise - and not just in vertical markets.

"Improved form factors in an enterprise environment," he said. "Moving forward to 2005 and 2006, Gartner and IDC are both predicting that notebooks with tablet features (including pen-based functionality) will service up to 40 or 50 per cent of the enterprise space. As applications become built around this environment, the form factor will become more popular."

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