This may be the year laptops grow up.
The amount consumers spent on the notebook-size personal computers in May surpassed what they plunked down for desktop models, according to NPD Group, a market-research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. Laptops accounted for more than 54 percent of the $500 million spent on computers during that month, says NPD. That's a 20 percent jump from three years ago.
The shift is rooted in Americans' widening quest for mobility. Over the past few years, portable computing has become a virtual necessity for business travelers. Consumers have grown to expect instant access to e-mail and the Internet. Families traveling by car or plane have glimpsed the joys of being able to watch DVDs on the road.
Falling prices make these luxuries even more attractive. Laptops cost an average of $1,474 last year - a 20 percent drop from 2001, according to IDC, a technology-research firm in Framingham, Mass. This year, IDC expects the average price to fall to $1,290.
Increased competition is responsible. With fewer consumers buying desktop computers, manufacturers are shifting their attention to laptops. Sharp, which had dropped out of the market several years ago, introduced a new laptop series last month. So did eMachines, a low-cost manufacturer whose entrance in the market signaled a long-term trend toward low prices. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Gateway, and Toshiba have all priced models under $1,000.
The effect on consumers: Each quarter, the share of laptops sold in the US grows by a full percentage point when compared with desktops.
"Demand for mobile computing is really increasing, while the market for desktops is shrinking," says David Daoud, a senior analyst with IDC.
Despite all the excitement surrounding laptops, finding the right device requires most consumers to accept drawbacks. Laptops are essentially limited by the characteristic that makes them worth buying in the first place: their size.
As recently as a year ago, most computermakers were designing lighter and thinner laptops. The top models from IBM and Sony, for example, required consumers to buy an expansion dock if they wanted to play CDs or DVDs. The design satisfied many business travelers, who mostly wanted a light and packable device that wouldn't quickly drain battery power.
But many consumers weren't happy. As computers have become as much entertainment devices as information portals, Americans have come to expect access to software, music, movies, and digital photos - even from laptops.
All of those features cannot be powered by a tiny laptop, or even shown on the accompanying display. But now, many more laptops include powerful processors, CD and DVD drives, and wide-screen displays.
Even top desktopmaker HP recently announced plans to debut a laptop with a 17-inch display by the end of this year.
The drawback of the suped-up models: They are heavier (as much as 10 pounds) and eat through battery power like snack food.
Still, many buyers will probably be satisfied with a heavier machine. Because most consumers buy laptops for use in the home, according to NPD's Stephen Baker, the increased heft and girth that come with a powerful machine are easier to bear.
"Most people are bringing it from the family room to the couch, which is a pretty easy haul," says Mr. Baker, NPD's director of industry analysis.
Experts often separate today's laptops into four categories:
Ultralight: These are the laptops of choice for business travelers who want to carry around as little weight as possible. Ultralights are about half an inch thick and weigh three to five pounds. Why so light? They don't include internal CD or DVD drives; users primarily share documents over e-mail. Such a tiny body can hold a display screen of only 12 inches. Any smaller, and the keyboard can be cramped. Other drawbacks include slower processors and less memory. One example: Sharp's Actius MM10. Price: $1,400.
Business: These provide the perfect balance between the ultralights and heavier consumer models, say experts, and represent the top selling laptops overall.
Business laptops weigh no more than six pounds and their displays are less than 14 inches. But these thin models offer a significant boost in processor power and memory. They also can burn and "rewrite" CDs and play prerecorded DVDs. One example: IBM's ThinkPad T. Price: $1,600.
Consumer: These machines offer basic functions including word processing, Internet access, and e-mail - just like a rudimentary desktop - but with the charms of portability. They weigh up to eight pounds, are a bit more than an inch thick, and contain displays 14 to 16 inches wide. They have enough hard-drive capacity and memory to store MP3 music files and edit digital video. One example: Dell's Inspiron. Price: $2,300.
Desktop replacements: The giants of the laptop family, these seven-pounds-and-up computers are not the picture of portability. Consumers often buy them for the rare occasion when it is necessary to compute elsewhere. Displays are often as large as 17 inches, and the keyboards are forgiving to clumsy hands.
Most important: They offer the hardiest hard drives and most memory, and are capable of both playing and recording CDs and DVDs. Early adopters with an interest in music and video editing are likely owners. One example: Apple's PowerBook G4. Price: $3,300.