Divide and Conquer: Today's Ultraportable Laptops

The ASUS Eee PC has taken the air out of the elite ultraportable PC market, helping spur its fragmentation -- and sharpen its focus.


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The future of ultraportable laptop design isn’t trending toward the underpowered, overpriced vein that has dominated ultraportable design for the past decade or more.

For years, petite high-end models held sway, like the original Toshiba Portégé, the IBM ThinkPad 701C and 560 series, and the magnesium alloy and carbon fiber VAIO X505. This same style is seen in some of today’s fancier, sub-3 pound, dual-core ultraportables.

But that’s all changing. In fact, it’s tough to even define an ultraportable these days. But first and foremost, it’s still a PC that’s light enough for both consumers and enterprise mavens to carry all the time. Traditionally, that meant less power, less comfortable keyboards, smaller screens, and fewer ports. That much is still true for the most part.

More importantly, a new category of low-cost ultraportable units has emerged, epitomized by the Asus Eee PC. These models give travelers a second PC option that’s much lighter than their regular laptop, and yet can still accomplish most of the same tasks—particularly if those tasks are done “in the cloud.” And at prices around $400, they can qualify as impulse purchases.

Meanwhile, traditional ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) were originally supposed to take off as a kind of lower-cost ultraportable. But their sales have lagged in comparison to the Asus Eee PC and their ilk, mainly due to high prices, ungainly form factors, and hobbled configurations. But even those machines are evolving. As a result, the ultraportable market can now be grouped into three categories: the traditional high-end, the low-cost entries that focus on cloud computing, and the diverse UMPC sector.

The high-end still exists

Apple has a way of dominating conversations these days. They pulled it off again this year with the introduction of the MacBook Air. Ultraportable laptops weren’t exactly new to the Cupertino-based company—memories of the Duo 2300c still linger—but the Air has taken portability to a new level, offering a Core 2 Duo processor, full size keyboard and very usable 13.3-inch screen in a 3-pound machine that’s thin enough to slide into a manila envelope. However, its limitations soon became apparent even to early converts, even as others argue that optical drives are already obsolete.

Regardless, the business class machines that traditionally held down the ultraportable sector are still thriving—and with some new names to boot. The ASUS U2E-A2B is a 2.7-pound, leather-clad beauty with an LED screen, optical drive, solid-state hard disk, and an HDMI port. The Sony VAIO VGN-TZ150N features a carbon fiber casing, a comfortable raised keyboard, and matches the ASUS’s optical drive and 2.7-pound weight.

Meanwhile, Toshiba’s Portégé line lives on with the solid-state, 1.7-pound R500. Lenovo’s powerful, svelte IdeaPad U110 suits corporate users with its all-black exterior, while the company’ sX300 lineup offers 3G data options, IT-friendly configurations, and robust management tools. Some of this is driven by the trend toward solid-state hard disks, which are finally beginning to drop in price; they’re a natural option for laptop machines since they’re faster, more durable, and have no moving parts.

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Tags: management, IBM, IT, solid-state

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