While notebook computers have become a mature category, it hasn't stopped companies from trying to find ways of distinguishing their products from run-of-the-mill models.
Averatec (www.averatec.com) of Santa Ana, Calif., has been selling a line of attractive notebooks at budget prices that can now be found in stores such as Staples and Best Buy. I've been trying out Averatec's new 6200 Mobile Theater, a silver-colored model with 15.4-inch screen that weighs 6.2 pounds. It sells for $1,250, on the low end for a notebook with similar features. It has an SXGA 1280 by 800-pixel display with about 20 percent more characters along its width than the standard XGA, a 60GB hard drive, AMD Athlon processor and built-in Wi-Fi with 802.11g.
What's unique is its built-in DVD capabilities. It can be used as a standalone DVD player with the PC functionality turned off, much like the stand-alone DVD players you see people use on planes, but with a much larger screen (probably too large for a coach seat). While the battery lasts a couple of hours when using it in the computer mode, it lasts about four hours when used as a DVD player, enough to play two or three movies.
It also comes with a wireless remote that can be stored inside the computer's PC card slot. The size of the screen is about the size of a TV you might have in a bedroom or kitchen, so this configuration makes a lot of sense for these locations, or in a dorm room.
Overall, it is a competent performer as a computer, with the addition of a good DVD player. I expect we'll see this feature from some of the major brands, but for now, Averatec is unique.
At the other extreme of both size and price is Sony's (NYSE: SNE) Vaio PCG-X505 ultra-thin notebook at $3,000. It's thinner and lighter than any other PC, with a full-size screen and keyboard. The 505 model number has been around since Sony (www.sony.com) introduced its first small Vaio notebook in 1997. While the original represented leading-edge design, it also came with compromises: an undersized keyboard that was roundly criticized for making it very difficult to touch-type. Sony still hasn't figured out the importance of a good keyboard, and this continues to be the new product's weakness.
The x505 seems to have been the result of a design challenge to Sony's engineers to create the thinnest, lightest weight notebook possible. The result is an extremely thin, 1.9-pound sliver that's the size of a student's spiral bound notebook.
It uses a 1 GHz Pentium M processor, has a 20GB hard drive, 512MB of RAM, 10.4" XGA screen, Ethernet port, modem, USB and FireWire.
While it's not all that practical for the intensive mobile user -- it was probably never meant to be -- it is useful for e-mail, browsing the Internet and some occasional writing. Sony's willingness to do innovative products such as this is encouraging; it accelerates the development and use of new materials and new technologies. For instance, the product is made of carbon fiber, a material used in expensive bicycles and golf clubs. It provides extreme stiffness and durability while being lightweight and very thin.
As noted, the major compromise is its barely touch-typable, full-size keyboard, with flat-topped keys that are not contiguous and that have very short travel. It doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi, but includes a Wi-Fi 802.11g card that fits into the single PC slot. And a CD/DVD read/write drive is a $300 option. It has a 20GB internal hard drive, a fairly ordinary 12-inch XGA screen, and uses a track point rather than a touchpad. It comes with a mouse with a slot for a memory stick, and a handsome hard fabric protective slip-case is provided.
While it's easy to be critical of the product for what it's not, I think that misses the point. It's a wonderful implementation of what could be done and what likely will be done in the future. Think of it as the Porsche of notebooks; state-of-the-art in many respects but not too practical for everyday use. But like a Porsche, it will attract attention wherever you use it.
On the subjects of notebooks, PC Magazine (www.pcmagazine.com) just published the results of its annual survey of notebook computers based on customers' experience and ratings of performance, reliability, service and support. The results are much in line with similar surveys from PC World (www.pcworld.com) and Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org). Apple has the best rating, followed by IBM, in the above-average category. Dell, Gateway, Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu are rated as average, and HP and Compaq trail at below average. While Averatec is too small to register, it should be praised for offering 24-hour customer support.
Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com.