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2004 Laptop Guide
Muscle Laptops
They Still Dominate A Market That's on Hold


Reviewer Michael Tedeschi says the Toshiba Satellite A75-S206 "is a physically imposing slab of a machine. ... At 7.9 pounds, plus a whopping 1.4-pound power brick, it simply weighs too much." (Courtesy Toshiba)

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page F01

Laptop shoppers, relax: There's not a ton of innovation going on this year, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There aren't many changes going on here -- few new confusing or competing technologies or acronyms. The good news is that, without any incoming must-have features about to hit, the risk of instant obsolescence is low. Buying a television should be so stress-free.

The latest laptops, perched on the shelves of retail stores and on Web sites, are generally just refinements of designs developed after a shift that took place a couple of years ago. At that time, laptop design hit a fork in the road: thin models designed mainly for heavy-traveling corporate users on one end, and less weight-conscious versions intended for home use.

These often heavier laptops, many powered by processors engineered for use in desktop computers, now make up about 80 percent of the consumer laptop market. They don't cost much more than desktops and offer about the same level of utility.

So just as desktop PCs are no longer the most exciting corner of the computing universe, the pace of change in consumer laptops has slowed as well. Buyers don't seem to be complaining.

"First-time buyers are not necessarily interested in weight or battery life, or functionality above and beyond e-mail and Web browsing," said Mike Abarri, product manager for Sony's Vaio line.

Last year, laptop computer sales exceeded desktop sales in total dollars for the first time, though not in terms of units sold.

Without breakthrough technologies to consider, it's perhaps not surprising that many shoppers evaluate laptops much as they would compare desktops, and look at processor speed to determine how "good" a computer is. Even though most processors on the market today are more than adequate for all but the most demanding applications, "customers are still most comfortable buying on gigahertz," said Gretchen Miller, director of notebook marketing at Dell.

As a result, mobile processors -- one area that has seen some dramatic changes -- tend to suffer in comparison, because their clock speeds trail those of desktop chips (even if their actual performance often does not).

Some predict that the proportion of so-called thin-and-light computers, in the four- or five-pound neighborhood, will start to rise in the coming months. "Desktop replacement market is still extremely strong and extremely big," said Chad McDonald, senior manager for the consumer notebook division at Gateway. "[But] we're expecting [the thin-and-light] part of the market is going to grow faster over the next few quarters."

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