Potent laptops shove desktops aside

At one end of the room sits an old Apple Macintosh, its screen black, looking like an artifact. At the other end, a silver laptop, also by Apple, now does the work of the silent desktop.

Its user is Tony Hillman, a retired television-news producer who splits his time between Vero Beach, Fla., and Caledon, Ontario.

He uses his computer to write and to keep in touch with people around the world over the Internet. The power of the Apple Titanium makes the Internet easier to use, though Mr. Hillman points out it's the form, not the speed, that he appreciates.

"Its much cleaner than having a large computer that takes up a lot of desk space. And the screen seems about the same size or bigger than the old monitors," says Hillman, in his cluttered study. "The only thing I had to adjust to was the flat keyboard. Typewriters and computer keyboards have that angle that you get used to."

The scene in Hillman's den illustrates a trend in computer buying.

"We are seeing an increase in the demand for laptops," says Jed Kolko, an analyst who specializes in consumer attitudes to technology for Forrester Research in San Francisco.

Mr. Kilko attributes much of the demand to people wanting to supplement their desktop units. But he also acknowledges that as more people grow accustomed to powerful laptops with big screens and fast microprocessors, they will begin to accept them as outright replacements for old-style computers that take up so much space.

These are laptops that never see a lap and might never head out on the road. The PowerBook G4 Titanium (starting at $2,499), with its 15.2 inch screen, is one of those machines.

Two factors have driven change:

• Increased computing power. This year, Intel released a new version of its P4 chips, giving laptops the power to perform tasks, such as complex video editing, that in the past were best done on a desktop computer. (Not to be outdone by Intel, last month Apple upgraded the power in its top-level Titanium notebook.)

• Larger screens. Screens 15-inches wide and larger provide viewing areas equal to or greater than many desktop monitors. Until this spring, Apple was the king of the wide-screen laptops. Now Sony has come out with a 16.1-inch display, running the Intel Pentium 4 processor, a chip more powerful than those in most existing desktops.

"The built-in display offers a viewing area similar to a standard 17-inch CRT monitor," boasts Sony. A tape measure confirms that the Sony screen has more viewable area than a 17-inch monitor. That's because the industry measures the "whole tube," even the edges that are hidden.

Meantime, IBM touts its A31P ($3,478) as a desktop replacement. The machine weighs a little more than 5 pounds, and has a 15.1 inch screen and an advanced video card.

High-end laptops also have business uses. Michael Hugh, a Toronto-based software consultant takes his Toshiba Satellite Pro (starting at $1,999) to see his clients.

"Our clients are mostly banks, and they don't update their machines that often, so they aren't powerful enough," he says. "So instead of bringing my information along on a disk, I just carry the computer."

The differences between one computer and another are in many ways a matter of taste. Dell offers a Inspirion 8200 notebook starting at $1,599 that also has an Intel Pentium 4 processor. A hard drive of 20 gigabytes is standard. For a premium, the user can upgrade to a 30 GB hard drive, or upgrade from CD-ROM to DVD drive. Dell and other manufacturers also offer a recordable CD/DVD drive.

Today's laptops are certainly portable, but one that weighs seven pounds can seem a strain to carry when traveling.

Those interested in something lighter might consider a micronotebook. These laptops weigh 5 pounds or less. The screen size and computing power are also smaller, but they still do almost everything required of a desktop.

The smallest model, Sony's new Vaio-U, weighs just 1.9 pounds – only twice as much as some personal digital assistants – and has a 20 GB hard drive. It's screen: 6.4 inches. Price: $1,145.

Another option: IBM's ThinkPad X24. This micronotebook looks and feels more like a conventional computer. Weighing 3.7 pounds, it has a 12.1-inch screen and costs $2,674.

And then there's the Apple iBook, which weighs 4.9 pounds and has a 12.1 inch screen. Its processor is slower than the big Titanium, but prices start at $1,199.

That, say experts, poses another threat to full-size PCs.

"Desktops are significantly cheaper than laptops, but there are now laptops moving to the sub-$1,000 price range, and that is making laptops more appealing to a broader audience," says Kolko.

One example of that: an $899 offering from Dell. The SmartStep 100N, weighs 6.8 pounds, has a 14.4-inch screen. It runs, however, on a slower Intel Celeron processor.

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