New notebooks suit mobile users

Notebook computer reviews inevitably begin with a cliche about how the latest crop of portable computers pack enough processing wallop that using desktop PCs is unnecessary. As predictable as that may be, it also is increasingly true.

A growing number of federal agencies are responding by giving mobile workers just one computer: a notebook. These agencies have based their decisions on factors such as the decreasing cost of notebooks and the promise of new chips that will enable these machines to operate as efficiently as desktop computers.

"The $5,000 notebook is dead," said Randy Guisto, notebook analyst for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "Value notebooks are the mainstream. They are more than sufficient to run office applications."

Now that notebooks are more affordable, many managers view them as an alternative to the traditional strategy of assigning each user a desktop PC and supplementing those boxes with a pool of notebooks for mobile workers, or the strategy of assigning two machines to frequent travelers.

Kelly Spang, analyst for Technology Business Research, Hampton, N.H., said agencies should not buy more computers than they have employees. "The rule should be: one person, one PC," she said.

Notebooks should receive another boost in late summer or early fall, when Intel Corp. introduces its new mobile Pentium III processors that largely evaporate the remaining performance gap between desktop and notebook machines.

Some agencies are already catching on. Government Technology Services Inc., for example, sells more notebook computers than desktops, said Mark Thoreson, the company's inside sales manager. "We went over 51 percent notebooks a few years ago," he said.

Thinking out of the Box

Notebook computer power has always been limited by the need for mobile processors to conserve power to have batteries last longer. Space and weight constraints limit the size of notebook displays and keyboards. So when notebook computers are deployed on desktops, users typically connect external monitors, keyboards and mice.

Space constraints also limit the room for integrated circuits that accelerate video processing and otherwise contribute to the overall performance of the machine.

Intel, the primary supplier of PC processors, typically has sold mobile chips that equal the performance of desktop processors after they have been available for nearly a year. But high-performance notebooks have always been significantly more expensive than desktop PCs. Even when desktop PCs fell to $2,000 in average price, high-end notebooks still cost more than $6,000.

But now, as desktops have fallen to about $1,000, notebooks with good performance are less than $2,000. High-performance models are around $3,500.

"The days of the $6,000 to $7,000 notebook are a thing of the past," said Frank Spindler, vice president of marketing for Intel's mobile and handheld product group.

One organization within the Army recently decided to replace desktop computers with notebooks for hundreds of employees. An Army acquisition officer said agency managers asked themselves whether they could really afford to put a PC on everyone's desk in addition to notebooks for people who travel. The answer was no, and as a result, the Army will save about $1,000 per user, the officer said.

The deal is sweetened by the Army's decision to keep existing 17-inch monitors, bought off the PC-2 contract, on the desks. "They have a lifetime warranty," the acquisition officer said. "We can keep them here an eternity."

Vendors say that the desktop replacement trend is accelerating. Phil Kennett, vice president of federal government sales for Gateway Inc., said he is seeing more users making notebooks their device of choice as prices drop.

Jodi Weinbrandt, Dell Computer Corp.'s director of federal marketing, noted that the price difference between desktops and notebooks about a year ago was $1,000 to $1,500. Now that gap has closed to $400 to $500, she said.

Likewise, Intel is providing its fastest processors in mobile form sooner. Weinbrandt said the latest Intel chip technology used to be available on desktop systems nine to 12 months before it was available on mobile machines. Now the wait is about six months.

The question for federal agencies during the summer buying season is whether Intel's Pentium III will be available in notebooks before the end of the fiscal year. The speedy new chips will rev to 600 MHz and employ a technology code-named Geyserville, after town in northern California, that will let notebooks run at desktop speed when plugged into AC power.

Weinbrandt said Dell will "absolutely" have Pentium III machines on the General Services Administration schedule and available for online ordering "before the end of the buying season."

But Intel's Spindler said it will be very close. "We are aiming for the end of September," he said.

Notebook Options

Most of the time, federal buyers interested in notebooks as desktop replacements are either agency executives or mobile workers who still need to work regularly in an office.

"We're seeing people who are most interested in desktop replacement notebooks are technical folks and those higher up in the management chain," said Tim Cole, marketing specialist for Intergraph Federal Systems Corp., which resells MetroBook Computer Corp. notebooks.

Users of a notebook on a desktop have a variety of options, ranging from plugging the notebook into a pricey docking station, connecting it to an affordable port replicator or just slapping the notebook onto the desk and using it by itself.

Despite improvements in built-in keyboards and displays, using a notebook on a desk is unpopular and uncomfortable, Spang said. "There are ergonomic issues if you sit all day long using your notebook," she said. "You could be really hunched over using the keyboard."

As a result, nearly all desktop replacement notebooks are equipped with external keyboards and mice. If the replaced PCs aren't moving to another desktop, agencies can scavenge the keyboards and mice from the outgoing systems.

Some sort of dock or port replicator is needed for networked notebooks and those using external monitors because users don't like plugging and unplugging cables and PC Cards daily, said Chuck Spence, director of marketing for Dunn Computer Corp.

Federal agencies' interest in docking stations varies greatly, depending on the application. "Docking stations are very expensive because they are highly proprietary," Thoreson said. "They add 30 percent to the price of a notebook. Less than 10 percent of notebooks go out with full docking stations," he said.

Part of the problem is that docking station prices have not fallen along with the cost of notebooks. IDC's Guisto said that the dock has become a much higher percentage of the overall price of a notebook.

Army recruiters are using notebooks with basic port replicators on their desktops, said Lt. Col. Doug Fountain, project manager for the Army Recruiting Information Support System. The Army chose notebooks for these users because of the mobile nature of the job. "They are a mobile sales force," Fountain said. "They can take [the notebook] out to the homes and to the schools."

Port replicators are the most popular docking option among federal buyers, according to Brian Nightingale, executive vice president of sales operations for ITC (formerly IntelliSys Technology Corp.).Dale Doan, public-sector industry sales manager at IBM Corp., said most external connections can run through a Universal Serial Bus port to a powered hub, but external displays still require their own dedicated connection. Doan said 40 percent of notebooks that serve as desktop replacements use an external monitor, even though most new notebooks include spectacular displays.

Still, the number of monitors being bought with notebooks is falling, Weinbrandt said. Dell has found that models with the largest built-in displays have proved much more popular than expected with federal buyers, she said.

Gary Newgaard, vice president of Compaq's federal region, said he has observed the same tendency. "The trend has been, 'Give me the best screen,' " Newgaard said.

With the advent of PC Card slots and USB ports, there is less need for any sort of docking station or port replicator than in the past, according to Jan O'Hara, federal channel manager for Panasonic Personal Computer Co."There was a much higher attach rate for docks in the days before PC Cards," she said. "Between infrared, USB and PC Cards, why do you need them?"

Given all of the advantages of expanding the use of notebook computers, observers believe that the base of users will grow in the coming years.

According to Matt Mazzantini, Compaq's Armada performance product manager, there is good reason to consider putting notebooks on the desks of all kinds of workers. He said mobile workers are generally more productive because they can take work home. These users perform three to five hours more work each week than their peers who work only at the office, he said.

Barry Schafer, a computer analyst at the Treasury Department, said he sees no downside to using a notebook on the desktop and as a mobile computing device. "I like it very much," Schafer said. "I'm in and out of meetings with it, and I can work at home. I don't see any difference between having this and having a desktop."

And when he does travel, checking e-mail on the road makes him more productive, he said.

"When I get back, I don't have 467 e-mails looking me in the face."

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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At a Glance

Status

Federal agencies increasingly are assigning notebook computers to mobile workers to use on the road as well as at their desktops. The decreasing price of these machines and the promise of new chips that will allow them to work as efficiently as desktop PCs have been factors in these agencies' decisions.

Issues

Notebooks are still constrained by their size, making them a difficult option for those who want to use them as their desktop machines. Users have circumvented the problem by connecting external keyboards and monitors to their notebooks when using them at their desks. Users also must determine whether to use their notebooks in conjunction with expensive docking stations or with port replicators, which are not as expensive but do not provide additional slots for adding expansion boards and storage devices.

Outlook

Good. With Pentium III notebooks slated for availability by late summer or early fall, the appeal of using these machines as desktop devices should expand even further. And as more users make mobile computing or telecommuting part of their routines, the economics of a "one person, one PC" approach will become even more attractive.

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