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A new wave of lightweight notebooks promises to be more livable for the road warrior, by offering more advanced features and built-in optical drives.

Among them are new entries from Lenovo and Toshiba, each of which announced on May 31 a new business-oriented notebook line built around a 12.1-inch wide screen and an internal optical drive. The new machines each weigh about 4 pounds.

Smaller is usually thought of as better, when it comes to business notebooks. Lightweight machines are easier to tote to meetings and on planes.

But the more diminutive machines—often called ultraportables—have generally forced compromises, including asking buyers to use cramped keyboards and to carry peripherals such as CD-RW drives separately, in addition to selling for higher prices than somewhat larger notebooks.

The two newest machines, however, eliminate many of those drawbacks, observers say.

“Manufacturers are trying to attract consumers to what’s always been a highly coveted form factor” in ultraportables, said Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC in San Mateo, Calif.

“The limitation has always been price. Now with competition, prices have come down. What’s also notable is that these are coming with optical [drives] built in. That’s a very new feature. It’s not just that they’re pricing it down, but they’re actually adding innovation to the systems.”

Lenovo is aiming its Lenovo 3000 V100 mainly at small businesses. The 4-pound machine, which starts at $1,099 and ranges up to about $1,650, packages one of Intel’s Core Duo processors with a 12.1-inch widescreen display and an optical drive.

Among its other standard features are a 5-in-1 memory card reader and a built-in 1.3 megapixel camera for videoconferencing, Lenovo executives said.

Toshiba’s Tecra M6, at 4.1-pounds, offers a 12.1-inch widescreen display, an Intel Core Duo processor as well as a multi-format DVD writer drive. The machine will start at $1,059 with a Celeron M processor and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, Toshiba’s Web site shows.

Ultraportables, which generally weigh 4 pounds or less and have a 12-inch screen, have always been a relatively small niche in the overall notebook market.

The category, which historically represented around 10 percent of shipments, could benefit more than others from a changing market that’s expected to see worldwide notebook shipments rise from about 65 million in 2005 to about 140 million in 2010, by IDC’s calculations.

Generally, “We’re seeing prices come down in all notebooks as competition heats up the category,” Shim said.

However, manufacturers “are not just taking a 12-inch ultraportable from two years ago and pricing it down. They’re adding new technologies to it and they’re lowering the price. This is a sign that the manufacturers recognize…just dropping price isn’t going to be enough.”

Next Page: Hitting a nerve.

Manufacturers such as Lenovo certainly hope they hit a nerve with their new machines.

Lenovo executives in Raleigh, N.C., characterized the V100 as a no-compromise ultraportable, as it also offers options such as 100GB hard drives.

“We wanted to deliver a product that really caters to the segment…so [customers] get value—at good weight and a good price point,” said Frank Kardonski, worldwide product manager for Lenovo 3000 products.

“We really feel that this is going to be a very fast-growing [market] segment and this is going to be a successful product.”

Lenovo will offer the V100 alongside its smaller ThinkPad X Series, which offers a standard aspect ratio 12.1-inch display and weighs between about 2.7 pounds and 3.5 pounds, sans an external optical drive.

But even lighter-weight ultraportables may receive a boost, some PC executives have said.

Gateway, which began offering its 3-pound E-100M notebook March 30, believes that the combination of light weight, wide screens, WWAN (wireless WAN) capabilities and longer-lasting batteries, will all work together to foster greater growth of ultraportables.

Click here to read more about Gateway’s lightweight laptops.

Ultraportables are “positioned for growth now. It’s very reasonable to suggest that this segment could be twice as large as it is now,” said William Diehl, vice president of product marketing at Gateway, in Irvine, Calif.

“People are starting to understand the benefits of mobility,” Diehl said. “When I say mobility, I mean form factor—thin and light [weight]—wireless—with Bluetooth, wireless LAN and wireless WAN—and, lastly, battery life. Wireless is useless if the battery doesn’t work.”

Indeed, IDC’s latest forecast projects that ultraportables, which saw worldwide unit shipments of about 5 million in 2005, will increase to about 11 million by 2010.

But, even with the increase in shipments, the ultraportable category will still be under 10 percent of total notebook shipments by 2010.

The market will be continue to dominated instead by so-called thin and light models, which have 14-inch or 15-inch screens.

Still, given the trend illuminated by Lenovo’s V100 and Toshiba’s Tecra M6, there is potential for the ultraportable category to see greater-than-expected growth during IDC’s forecast period, Shim said.

IT could come in part because manufacturers have begun courting consumers more aggressively with ultraportables.

The two new machines, though designed for businesses, have many consumer-like features, Shim said. Meanwhile, Gateway offers a consumer version of its E-100M, dubbed the NX100.

“We’re still looking at slightly higher prices and, realistically, these things have always been viewed as sort of secondary systems,” Shim said.

Although, “Adding optical to the box changes that scenario. But many users will still want a bigger machine.”

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