Laptops elbow their way into the PC mainstream

August 16th, 2005 Tech, Tech Features, The West Australian

Unlike the DVD, the digital camera and the VCR before them, the humble laptop computer has been a long time coming.

After ten years on the market, they seem to have reached a critical tipping point that’s made them competitive, and therefore bought them into the mainstream. The price of a decent laptop is comparable to most desktop PCs now (except those package that enjoy the loud, flashy advertising by throwing in printers, cameras and modems).

The term ‘laptop’ itself is deceiving — anyone who’s ever used one knows how ungainly it is to use one perched on your knees. But they could be the desktop PC in another ten years. Laptop suppliers have been enjoying steady growth over the last few years while everyone who reads the IT press knows PC sellers have to offer high margin add-ons or go to the wall. It’s part of Apple mythology that their resellers are lucky to make $100 on the sale of an average Mac.

Anecdotal evidence bears this out — you hear plenty of people say their next computer will be a laptop even though it probably won’t travel much more than their deskbound tower does now. In today’s contract, freelance and constantly shifting work environment, it’s simply a future-proofing feature many people want.

But laptops are a specialist device to build correctly, and there are a lot of pitfalls (see adjoining story). Most people remember the stories from a couple of years back of laptops catching fire. It was no great mystery; manufacturers ‘referenced’ cheaper parts from the desktop PC world, where the fastest, hottest chip has plenty of fans to cool it and a constant power supply to run it. Put it in a laptop though, and (as many customers realised) you could fry an egg on the titanium casing.

You’d be doing yourself a favour learning a little about how chips, memory and disk speeds work in a laptop, how they drain the battery power (and how much), and what their best uses are. For example, part of the potential of a portable computer is to tap into wireless networks, and Intel have done the work for you in the Centrino chipset, which actually consists of ore than one chip — one specially designed for mobile use and another geared to the usual wireless protocols.

The crux is that you can’t have everything in a laptop — battery technology doesn’t warrant it. You might be after great graphics and widescreen technology for gaming, watching movies or video editing, or huge memory and processor for data crunching, but cramming a laptop with every possible feature would chain you to a constant power source forever and cost much more than a comparable desktop PC.

But considering many of the best laptops with only some of those features are usually between $2,000 and $3,500 at the moment, it might only be a matter of time.

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