Laptops reach a tipping point in sales

The day after Thanksgiving was chaos in my house. My four children, overjoyed at the prospect of no school, invited some friends over to watch a movie. The noise level grew steadily, and it became increasingly harder for me to work.

So I packed up my laptop, jumped in the car, went to a local coffee shop with free wireless Internet access, and finished my column there. I seldom work on a desktop computer any more. My laptop is convenient, portable, and powerful.

Apparently, I'm not the only one doing this. Laptops are increasingly the choice of computer shoppers. For the first time, more people bought laptops than desktops (52 percent to 48 percent) during the "Black Friday" week ending Nov. 26, according to Current Analysis, a retail market survey firm. Overall, PC sales rose more than 35 percent over last year.

Laptop sales will continue to grow, especially over the Christmas period, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director of Jupiter Research, an Internet and consumer technology research firm.

A combination of factors is at work. "The rise of ubiquitous connectivity is one," he says. "Thanks to wireless, you can connect to the Internet in more and more places outside your home. And people need to be online more often these days. It's more a part of their lives than it was in the past."

This is particularly true of young people, a much more mobile computing generation, Mr. Gartenberg says. (They are also the most frequent recipients of computers as gifts.) Students use laptops to take notes in class. Research for projects and papers is done via the Internet. "Perhaps even more important, their social life centers around computers," he says. "They use instant messaging to constantly stay in touch with their friends - their music is stored on the computer, their photos."

The biggest factor for the swing to laptops is price. While desktop prices remain low, laptops are now much more affordable. A decent laptop can be had for about $600, while a very good model costs $1,500. Not long ago, prices for comparable machines would have been almost twice as much.

The reason for lower prices is simple: The technology is better and cheaper. Processors (which determines how fast applications run on a computer) are faster and cheaper. Newer model batteries last longer and cost less. And, perhaps most important, the price of computer screens has steadily fallen.

Lower prices mean that when people look to buy a second computer for the home, it is increasingly a laptop, Gartenberg says.

Those shopping for a laptop this Christmas season should consider a number of factors, including:

Weight. The thinner and lighter the computer, the higher the price. Unless you're a "road warrior," carrying a laptop everywhere, you won't notice much difference between a four-pound laptop and a six-pound one. But the heavier model will cost a lot less.

Screen size. These days, laptop screens can be as big as those found on smaller desktop models. A larger screen may cost a bit more and make the laptop a bit heavier, but it makes the computing experience much more enjoyable, especially if you plan to play lots of games on the machine.

Wireless. This may be the most important feature, if you are buying a computer for a student. Older models require a wireless card that too often becomes lost or broken. Newer models have built-in wireless access, which should be the 802.11 wireless system that allows it to communicate with a base station connected to the Internet. Most wireless computers in North America operate on a 802.11b standard, but makers are moving toward 802.11g for better performance and faster speeds. It works with the 802.11b standard because they use the same frequency. You're safe buying a machine with the 802.11b or 802.11g standards.

Battery life. This is another area that can push up the price. Computer manufacturers tend to, shall we say, exaggerate how long a laptop will run on its battery. Still, its worth having a computer with a stated 3 to 5 hours of battery life. Most computers have one battery with one cell. Buy batteries with more than one cell if you go "unplugged" for long time periods.

Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when buying a computer is not asking themselves what they want to do with it. If you want to keep up with the rapid advances in technology, you'll probably want a new machine after three or four years. For additional guidance, visit Laptopadvisor.com (www.laptopadvisor. com/laptop-buyers-guide.html). The site helps you determine what you need in a laptop based on what you'll use it for, as well as suggested laptop models.

The popularity of laptops won't make desktops disappear. Their roles are likely to change, though. Desktops are increasingly the "hubs" for home computing wireless networks, the Current Analysis report notes. Desktops now act as a kind of "mainframe" for the home, with laptops the satellites that revolve around it. That model is being strongly championed, for instance, by Microsoft.

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