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Don't judge a notebook by its processing muscle alone

Many of the mobile systems now being purchased are not feature-packed powerhouses.

There are a number of signs that the U.S. economy has turned the corner at last. One comes from respected researcher International Data Corp. (IDC), which recently revised its PC market forecast to project an 8.4 percent growth rate over the next year (as compared with a previous projection of about 6.3%). Figures for shipments within the U.S. are also expected to rise several percentage points. Not surprisingly, one of the primary reasons for this revision is a stronger worldwide demand for notebook PCs and other portable devices. One explanation for this might be that September is "back to school" month, and a lot of secondary schools and colleges are requiring that students purchase notebook and even tablet PCs as a part of their incoming tuition costs.

Also, a lot of government agencies are upgrading equipment and adding mobile systems in order to beef up their Homeland Security capabilities with systems that are as mobile and agile as the agents and workers who use them in the field. (Recently, it was announced that the U.S. Marshal's office would be adding up to 5,000 more workers to its payroll over the next few years, and we can't imagine these new recruits without some kind of wireless and mobile systems.)

However, a more plausible and reassuring answer might be that a lot of the mobile systems that have been pumping away within the enterprise have finally reached their technology limit and are being phased out in favor of newer and more capable machines.

This is no great surprise, though, since obsolescence is inevitable with any technology. The real kicker is that many of the systems that are being purchased now are not feature-packed powerhouses. Rather, these are systems that are specifically designed for wireless network operation and extended battery life -- which means that vendors have finally gotten the message that no matter how powerful a laptop or notebook may be it is just a doorstop if it is dead in the water. The design of these new notebooks mostly centers on the chip architecture, which has been revamped to make better use of both battery and networking resources.

Both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) have developed low-voltage and network-centric microprocessors, which have been incorporated into a number of next-generation notebook and tablet PCs. Intel Corp. is the undisputed king when it comes to installed base and worldwide market share, although AMD has consistently proven its technology mettle by developing security and power-saving architectures that are every bit as capable as Intel's, and in many cases cost a bit less. AMD chips are at the heart of systems available from such companies as Compaq/HP, Sony and Fujitsu. In fact, the company offers a terrific way to compare and shop for different systems that incorporate its Athlon XP-M chip architecture, without having to visit each vendor's individual Web site -- a real time saver for corporate buyers who are developing an approved list for next year.

The AMD System Price Comparison feature definitely has a strong return on investment (ROI) incentive for small business users who are looking for the latest and most flexible technology at a significant discount. For example, the tool told us that a Sony Vaio FR130, with a 1.6GHz Mobile Athlon XP processor, 256M bytes of memory, 40G-byte hard drive, CDRW/DVD drive, and 14.1-inch display costs roughly $250 less at the local Best Buy than from a large business distributor. The AMD tool also tells you if the system is available, and provides a number of reviews of the system as well as the merchant (in one case, more than 1900 reviews collected over the past six months!).

Intel's Web site is more laser-focused on its chip sets and technologies, rather than the products incorporating these technologies and available on dealers shelves. It stresses technology education, as opposed to AMD telling you, "Hey! We have mobile chips as well and here is how they are applied and how much it will cost you!" Frankly, we prefer this approach, especially as we look to replace a lot of our aging IBM ThinkPad systems (which seem to have a problem with LCD screen durability -- although that is a topic for another time).

We do have to admit that AMD was probably not the first chip maker to take the real-world application approach in marketing its microprocessors. Transmeta Corp., a small but very important pioneer in the low-voltage microprocessor field, years ago started listing and offering comparative data on al the systems that use its Crusoe chip architecture. Today, you can browse through a list of roughly 18 or more different brands of devices, and even buy one by clicking on a link directly to the manufacturer or dealer.

Last month, Transmeta unveiled a new line of energy-efficient processors, called Efficeon that can reportedly run business applications up to 50 percent faster and multimedia applications a whopping 80 percent faster than its previous TM5800 processor family. The chip architecture is expected to set a new standard in terms of mobile computing power, especially since the design incorporates a high-speed bus transport, on-chip graphics capabilities, and a lower pin cont for improved communication within the chip and with devices throughout a notebook PC.

Transmeta is scheduled to talk about the chip architecture and its capabilities next month at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, CA (Oct. 13-16). At this time, it is expected that Transmeta might reveal some of the compute makers who have tested and are planning to unveil systems that incorporate the new chip design. It's just our guess, but we expect Transmeta will showcase the chip and possibly demonstrate prototype systems at this year's COMDEX/Fall conference and exhibition in Las Vegas this November.

So, with all of these new systems and technologies coming about that stress fast-stepping chip architectures and networking prowess over sheer brute processing muscle, how should the savvy business user approach the selection and buying process? In our opinion, with more concern about how these systems will be applied in the field and how long they can be kept alive on battery support. With that in mind, here is our quick checklist for reviewing, comparing and selecting your next mobile computing tools:

  • Pay close attention to the processor architecture, and don't be swayed by higher speed numbers and gigahertz muscle. Sure, you can buy a notebook with a powerful and fast Intel Pentium 4 3GHz processor, but a 1.6GHz Centrino may be a better move since it is more designed for wireless applications, extended battery life and thinner and lighter systems.
  • Unless you plan to defeat the whole purpose of your mobile system and keep it tethered to a desktop its entire natural life, put battery life way up on your list of considerations when selecting a new system. Dell Computer will do its best to convince you to beef up your mobile system with add-in drives, larger LCD displays, more advanced processors and DVD recorders. However, most users of these systems will use only a handful of applications, and will rely more and more on wireless connections to the Internet (via Wi-Fi hot spots or cellular links). So, battery life is perhaps the most important aspect of the selection process.
  • You can live without a floppy drive (which is quickly becoming a Smithsonian relic), but make sure your system has enough USB ports and even a FireWire connection for all those devices you might attach to while on the road. Many systems offer just one or two USB connections, which means you must use an expander to get additional ports -- not a problem, but that also means you have to carry along the power adapter as well.
  • Do swap out your standard CD ROM/DVD player for a CD-RW/DVD drive since you can use it fro backing up critical files or handing your customer product information while on the road. Also, it wouldn't hurt to store what you need that day on a rewriteable CD ROM, since you can't always trust wireless connections or expect to be able to plug in your Ethernet cable at every stop.
  • Do select a mobile system with a built-in 802.11 wireless capability, since you will inevitably break or bend that wireless card as you rush through an airport security checkpoint, or jump into a taxi. But, be sure to carry a wireless card in your bag to use as a spare should the built-in wireless connection fail.
  • When buying a mobile PC, opt for service plans that not only offer multiple-year "at office" or "at home" service, but those plans that also protect your systems from accidental damage while on the road. The LCDs on our malfunctioning ThinkPads probably took which a beating over the past few years, and are finally beginning to show the result. Since they are off warranty, the cost of repairing these systems -- even if it involves the relatively simple task of means re-aligning the LCD connectors -- runs from just under $100 to well over $300 per system.
You might even ask if a vendor offers a loaner program to help you keep your mobile activities up and running while your ailing system is recuperating from the trials of travel.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

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