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."
Another possible factor in a resurgence of lighter laptops is people's own buying choices after living with desktop-replacement models. Sony's Abarri noted that many of the company's lightweight laptops are bought by second- or third-time buyers.
Some industry figures think the era of desktop-replacement machines will reach an endpoint because of the laws of physics alone. Future generations of desktop processors will probably be so much bulkier and give off so much more heat that they may not be usable in laptops at all.
"It's getting more difficult to deal with, from a development perspective," said Jonathan Kaye, manager of product line marketing for laptop computers at Hewlett-Packard.
Kaye thinks that manufacturers will eventually need to resume building laptops around processors designed for use in portable computers. He, however, doesn't expect to see this emerging as a trend for another year or two.
By then, thin-and-light laptops may face still stronger competition from increasingly capable gadgets that weigh still less and usually fit in pockets instead of briefcases or purses: cell phones and personal digital assistants.
Computer makers all say that they are more concerned about competition from other computer makers, not from such pocket-sized gadgets. Kaye cited reports from market analysts at IDC, which forecast that the laptop market will grow 21 percent this year in the United States.
"I don't see [mobile gadgets] impacting us yet. At some point, maybe," he said. As more than one marketing executive pointed out, you can check your e-mail on a BlackBerry, but can you create a PowerPoint presentation on it?
(A handful of computer manufacturers are readying ultra-light laptops; a San Francisco start-up called OQO, for example, plans to ship a paperback-sized, 14-ounce laptop this fall.)
Back in the here and now, if consumer-oriented machines generally aren't getting any smaller, they're also not likely to grow any bigger. There seems to be a limit on how much screen people want in a laptop: Despite the appearance of some models with 17-inch screens last year, 15-inch screens still hold about 80 percent of the market, according to the NPD Group, a research firm.
No one interviewed for this story brought up the prospect that users will one day lug around a laptop with a 19-inch screen.
Deep-pocketed users looking for a brag-worthy option to add to their next laptop just don't have much to choose from this year. Some makers, such as HP and Sony, are offering screens that they say are brighter and have richer color than traditional laptop displays. On one high-end laptop, Sony has included a tool that determines how dim or bright a room is and adjusts the screen brightness accordingly. Neat, but then again, this is a $2,799 machine.
Users looking for something new and different might also turn to Tablet PCs, a variety of laptop running a special version of Windows XP that allows users to write data directly onto the screen. But those computers haven't caught on among consumers yet, and most business users have shied away from them as well.
The more interesting technologies seem to be much further down the line -- to judge from the way manufacturers say they are "tracking," "working on" or "researching" them, instead of adding them to upcoming products. The most intriguing such contender: fuel cells, a new type of power source that could last far longer than the batteries in today's laptops.
But don't expect to trip over such models in the aisles of your neighborhood electronics store any time soon. The next wave, the one that will again stir up consumer confusion and purchase anxiety, seems safely distant.