Divide and Conquer: Today's Ultraportable Laptops

Monday Jun 23rd 2008 by Jamie Lendino
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The ASUS Eee PC has taken the air out of the elite ultraportable PC market, helping spur its fragmentation -- and sharpen its focus.

The future of ultraportable laptop design isn’t trending toward the underpowered, overpriced vein that has dominated ultraportable design for the past decade or more.

For years, petite high-end models held sway, like the original Toshiba Portégé, the IBM ThinkPad 701C and 560 series, and the magnesium alloy and carbon fiber VAIO X505. This same style is seen in some of today’s fancier, sub-3 pound, dual-core ultraportables.

But that’s all changing. In fact, it’s tough to even define an ultraportable these days. But first and foremost, it’s still a PC that’s light enough for both consumers and enterprise mavens to carry all the time. Traditionally, that meant less power, less comfortable keyboards, smaller screens, and fewer ports. That much is still true for the most part.

More importantly, a new category of low-cost ultraportable units has emerged, epitomized by the Asus Eee PC. These models give travelers a second PC option that’s much lighter than their regular laptop, and yet can still accomplish most of the same tasks—particularly if those tasks are done “in the cloud.” And at prices around $400, they can qualify as impulse purchases.

Meanwhile, traditional ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) were originally supposed to take off as a kind of lower-cost ultraportable. But their sales have lagged in comparison to the Asus Eee PC and their ilk, mainly due to high prices, ungainly form factors, and hobbled configurations. But even those machines are evolving. As a result, the ultraportable market can now be grouped into three categories: the traditional high-end, the low-cost entries that focus on cloud computing, and the diverse UMPC sector.

The high-end still exists

Apple has a way of dominating conversations these days. They pulled it off again this year with the introduction of the MacBook Air. Ultraportable laptops weren’t exactly new to the Cupertino-based company—memories of the Duo 2300c still linger—but the Air has taken portability to a new level, offering a Core 2 Duo processor, full size keyboard and very usable 13.3-inch screen in a 3-pound machine that’s thin enough to slide into a manila envelope. However, its limitations soon became apparent even to early converts, even as others argue that optical drives are already obsolete.

Regardless, the business class machines that traditionally held down the ultraportable sector are still thriving—and with some new names to boot. The ASUS U2E-A2B is a 2.7-pound, leather-clad beauty with an LED screen, optical drive, solid-state hard disk, and an HDMI port. The Sony VAIO VGN-TZ150N features a carbon fiber casing, a comfortable raised keyboard, and matches the ASUS’s optical drive and 2.7-pound weight.

Meanwhile, Toshiba’s Portégé line lives on with the solid-state, 1.7-pound R500. Lenovo’s powerful, svelte IdeaPad U110 suits corporate users with its all-black exterior, while the company’ sX300 lineup offers 3G data options, IT-friendly configurations, and robust management tools. Some of this is driven by the trend toward solid-state hard disks, which are finally beginning to drop in price; they’re a natural option for laptop machines since they’re faster, more durable, and have no moving parts.

UMPCs and Tablet PCs land with a whimper

None of the keyboard-less UMPCs have really taken off, despite being available for several years now. Even when handed one for free, it’s still tough to decide whether to take it along on a given outing or not—usually, a real laptop wins.

Situations where an UMPC form factor is ideal are fairly narrow in scope; and deciding between taking a UMPC and taking a regular laptop can feel like splitting hairs. Throw in their high cost and UMPCs are still a niche option.

Tablet PCs, on the other hand, come in convertible, slate, and UMPC models, and are beginning to infiltrate the ultraportable market. The convertibles have screens that swivel around and fold flat over the keyboard, turning the whole thing into a kind of computerized notebook, complete with a stylus. Slate tablets eschew the keyboard entirely and are permanently in this notebook mode. UMPCs have very small (often 7 inch) screens and usually weigh just one pound—they’re about as small as you get before heading into cell phone territory.

Finally, some UMPCs today come with keyboards, but that still doesn’t guarantee a successful design. The HTC Shift, the Samsung Q1 Ultra, and the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 all have significant compromises when compared with a regular laptop PC.

The Q1 Ultra costs over $1,000 and has tiny, BlackBerry-style keys split around both sides of the screen. The HTC Shift has a dual-boot setup, plenty of wireless connectivity, and a convertible tablet design—but at $1,500, it’s an oddball effort with too many operational quirks. The Fujitsu LifeBook U810 weighs just 1.5 pounds, but it sports a very cramped keyboard and a tiny 5.6-inch screen that belies its $1,000 price point.

The rise of Linux

If UMPCs missed the boat, ASUS certainly hasn’t. Their popular Eee PC has essentially opened the door for that elusive of all tech goals, the Linux-powered consumer PC.

Linux has emerged as the ideal OS for low-power, tiny laptops in the $400 price range—an idea first credited to the One-Laptop-Per-Child project, but given weight with the introduction of the Asus Eee PC, and the general trend toward cloud computing.

This class of ultraportable may start under $400, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all cheaply made. One look at the HP 2133 Mini-Note’s sharply drawn, brushed aluminum housing will dispel that notion. But these machines have less-than-full-size QWERTY keyboards, tiny screens in the 7- to 9-inch range, and often, flash memory for hard disks (which restricts total storage to just 4GB or 8GB in some configurations).

ASUS has since rolled out more robust versions of their Eee PC, including the 10-inch 1000 and the 9-inch 901, both available with 20GB of encrypted storage as well as a choice of Windows or Linux platforms. And Acer joined the fray with its Aspire One, a $399 model with a comprehensive array of ports, two memory card slots, and an Intel Atom processor.

Ultraportables will likely always remain a “second PC.” But the reason may no longer be price, or even limited computing power. Instead, it will just be that they’re too small and cramped for comfortable use over prolonged periods. On the other hand, when it comes to slogging through an airport with several bags of luggage, or keeping a laptop ready at all times for moments of inspiration, it’s tough to beat one that weighs less than three (or even two) pounds and takes up so little space.

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