Featherweight contenders

IBM's 2.7-pound ThinkPad Series X40 has a 12.1-inch TFT XGA screen and integrated IEEE 802.11b wireless. The price for a basic configuration is $1,499.

Acer America's TravelMate C110 Tablet PC weighs 3.2 pounds, with a 10.4-inch VGA screen and 802.11b/g and Bluetooth wireless. It's priced from $1,800.

Sharp Electronics' $1,399 Actius MM10 weighs in at 2.1 pounds with a 10.4-inch TFT XGA screen and built-in WiFi. It uses a USB desktop cradle.

Can agencies find room for thin, ultralight notebook PCs?

Just about anyone who travels with a computer should welcome an ultralight notebook PC, generally defined as weighing less than 4 pounds.

A few pounds make a difference, whether on a daily commute or on bruising road trips, and that should be a rallying cry for those who have to lug a computer around.

'It's amazing to me that more folks haven't moved to ultralights,' said Matt Mazzantini, Houston-based manager of enterprise notebook marketing for Hewlett-Packard Co. 'Volume-wise it's not a huge seller. But it does meet the need for highly mobile professionals, and it ends up in the hands of professionals.'

Yet, industry experts say, this segment of the notebook PC market captures only about 15 percent of sales in the United States. What's the hang-up?
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One reason, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group of San Jose, Calif., is that enterprise IT departments don't want to support a mixed bag of what they call product images. Many organizations favor one vendor's PCs, so an HP or Dell or IBM shop will have only a limited set of software and operating system images to deal with. Such a move toward uniformity leads many organizations to buy larger, more versatile notebook PCs.

'The majority of the market is still buying what is a desktop replacement product'a larger offering, a larger screen that you're going to work on day in and day out,' Enderle said.

Most mobile workers move their PCs station-to-station'that is, from office to home, he said. For them, the weight of the machine isn't as much of a priority.

'The vast majority of users'the bread and butter of our lineup'prefer products that are sub-6 pounds,' HP's Mazzantini said. 'That's really the sweet spot in the enterprise environment.'

Ultralight notebooks also get competition from handheld products. When some travelers decide to lighten their load, they shed every ounce possible, opting for Pocket PC devices, maybe with an attachable keyboard.

Although ultralights aren't for power users, their specs are nothing to sneeze at. Almost every ultralight notebook PC has at least IEEE 802.11b wireless connectivity built in; some models also support 802.11a and 802.11g.

The RAM in these models is generally a minimum of 256M, and some units can expand to 1G or 2G. The hard drives are usually ample, with 40G a good baseline.

And as these components aren't as powerful as those of desktop-replacement notebooks, ultralights tend to have longer battery life.
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The challenges for shoppers involve the size of the display and, frankly, what you want to, or must, leave behind to achieve ultraportability. Only one manufacturer, Sony, builds a CD-rewritable/DVD drive into its ultralight. The company also includes a swivel digital camera for quick pictures.

In other companies' ultralight notebook PCs, the optical drive'or a floppy, if you need one'add bulk, weight and cables to your travel kit.

A more fundamental aspect of the ultraportable conundrum, Enderle said, is that makers of the devices'with one notable exception'haven't really thought through the niche a super-lightweight can fill.

'Ultralights should always have been considered an accessory to a desktop, and that relationship has been troubled at best,' Enderle said. 'Sharp actually did a pretty nice job: The Actius has a special docking configuration so that when it's docked, the hard drive is continually synced to the desktop computer. When I go out on the road, nothing's left behind. I can have two different machines, one optimized for each use. I'm so much happier not having to carry so much weight.'

The combined price of a Sharp ultralight, a conventional PC and a flat-panel display can add up to the price of a much heavier desktop-replacement notebook. But convincing an IT department to back the idea can be tricky, which Mazzantini and Enderle agree is why many ultraportable devices end up with senior managers who can override IT department decisions.

Mark A. Kellner is a technology writer in Rockville, Md. E-mail him at mark@kellner.us.

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