Dell, Panasonic debut notebooks

Dell Computer Corp. and Panasonic Personal Computer Co. this week will both debut new 133 MHz Pentium-based notebook computers at the FOSE trade show.

Dell will introduce the latest generation of its high-end Latitude XPi notebook family. The new products retain a familiar appearance and compatibility with all the optional add-ons used on older Latitude XP models. Despite this continuity, the company has thoroughly revamped the Latitude XPi to add features and improve performance.

The Panasonic CF-62, meanwhile, offers customers an array of features, including a rewritable 650M CD-ROM drive that doubles as a quad-speed CD reader, a 12.1-inch, 1,024 by 768 active-matrix color LCD and a magnesium case to protect the goods.

Panasonic provided Government Technology Services Inc. with the notebooks it bid on the Army's Portable-1 contract, and Panasonic has rewarded GTSI with an exclusive deal to offer its new notebooks on the reseller's General Services Administration schedule.

These notebook computers are spearheading a drive toward compact, mobile systems that can realistically serve as a power user's only computer. "What is the difference between [Panasonic's CF-62] and a high-end workstation?" asked Tony Colangelo, director of vendor relations at GTSI.

Both the Latitude XPi and the Panasonic CF-62 use 133 MHz Pentium processors and full 32-bit PCI bus circuitry.

"The Latitude XPi is significantly faster than any notebook we have previously offered," said Ken Okaya, Dell's product marketing manager. Dell's Latitude XPi notebooks have not been among the fastest models tested in FCW's Test Center comparisons, but the company aims to change that with a new PCI architecture and 128-bit video controller. Dell has upped its ante to stay in the high-end notebook game by adding built-in audio, an infrared communication port and a larger 11.3-inch active-matrix color display.

Changes to the power management system and the display mean the Latitude's lithium-ion battery now lasts about 25 percent longer, according to the company. That boosts its battery life to five hours in the company's benchmark testing. The new display may save power, but with the new 128-bit controller the Latitude has 80 percent better video performance than the previous model, Okaya said.

Dell has retained the trackball that is centrally located in the wrist rest in front of the keyboard, but it has changed to an optical design that never needs cleaning. Despite the upgrades, the notebook actually shaved off a tenth of a pound in weight.

"People are really going to like the battery life and the backward compatibility," said Wesley Laird, Latitude brand manager for major accounts marketing at Dell. "The federal government never throws anything away. Anything they have ever purchased [for] the Latitude XP will work with this one."

The military has been a good customer for previous models, Laird said. "The armed forces have been very pleased with the unit because of its reliability."

Rewritable CD-ROM Drive

The Panasonic CF-62's claim to fame is its rewritable CD-ROM drive. But the notebook includes a number of other features, such as a huge 12.1-inch color display, a higher-performance video controller, a 1.35G hard disk drive and 256K secondary cache memory.

But the rewritable CD-ROM and 12.1-inch display are the items that really set the CF-62 apart. "We think the military and intelligence agencies especially will find this product valuable for the security," Colangelo said.

"You can keep the applications on the hard disk and store data on the rewritable drive so you can secure it," said John Harris, national marketing manager at Panasonic. In fact, the hard disk drive is also removable, so it can be locked up, he said. "This year 30 percent of our sales are going into the government channel," he said.

Compaq Computer Corp. announced desktop models last month that use Panasonic's new recordable CD-ROM drive, so that should allay any fears that this is an unreliable technology or that it is not an industry standard, Colangelo said. The design is rated for 500,000 rewrites, and the media's life is rated at 30 years. The new display is about the same size as a traditional 14-inch desktop monitor because the LCD uses its entire area, while a 14-inch CRT uses less than its full size.

"Most people don't realize that a 12.1-inch screen is the same as a 14-inch monitor," he said. "[The size] is a phenomenal difference, especially when you see it side by side with a smaller one."

The magnesium cabinet will protect the display better than a typical plastic cabinet because the metal is 20 times stronger, according to the company. "here are several agencies that are specifically requesting it," Colangelo said. The CF-62 is not ruggedized to military specifications, but it is tougher than a regular notebook.

Panasonic employs a GlidePoint pointing device, instead of a trackball, that is built into the wrist rest.

The Dell Latitude XPi will be available in late April, and the commercial price starts at $2,999 for a configuration featuring a 100 MHz chip, 8M of RAM, 540M hard drive and a 10.4-inch, passive-matrix color display. The 133 MHz, active-matrix 11.3-inch version will cost $3,999. Federal government pricing is not yet available.

The Panasonic CF-62 will not be available until June. Pricing has yet to be determined.

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