The Transportable Laptop: New Market Heavyweight

While they're relatively large and heavy, powerful portables from Apple, Gateway and HP rival the capabilities of high-end desktop systems. Whose laptop's on top?

Todays laptop computers go to two extremes: the ultralights, of which the smallest are only available in Asia (primarily Japan); and the transportables, which are large, heavy and designed to move from station to station. While we wait for the modular computers from companies like OQO to transform the ultralights, the transportable class of machine has been evolving rapidly and is close to challenging the performance of high-end desktop systems.

Until recently, Apple set the pace with its 17-inch, 1.33GHz PowerBook G4. This was an impressive product, with 9600 ATI graphics, a DVD-Recordable drive, built-in 802.11G wireless and a $3,000 price point (See PC Magazines review of the PowerBook G4.) But the past few months have seen Dell, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard take shots at this product, and the new leaders in the segment are the Gateway 675 and the fully loaded HP Pavilion zd7000 (which recently earned PC Magazines Editors Choice Award).

To get there, both HP and Gateway used 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 processors with hyperthreading (Hyperthreading, not yet available in a mobile processor, allows a single processor to behave like two processors under certain conditions.) Both laptops pack 5,400-rpm mobile drives. (Most of the others, including Apples offerings, use the larger but slower 80GB, 4,200-rpm drives.) Where HP and Gateway differ is that HP tops out with the 128MB NVIDIA GeForce FX Go5600, while Gateway uses the ATI 9600 with 128MB of video memory (Apple uses the same graphics subsystem but with half the video memory.)

The ATI 9600 currently outperforms the NVIDIA card, which would put the Gateway product in the lead in terms of total performance; on the other hand, the HP can be fully configured as a Microsoft Media Center product with TV capability (Im not yet sold on a Media Center that could be on the road when you would rather have it taping your favorite shows.)

Unlike the PowerBook, both the HP and the Gateway laptops have 5-to-1 digital media readers, which is really important if you plan to edit pictures on them, and both price out at about $500 less than the Apple. Apple buyers are used to paying more, but they are also used to getting more—and right now they arent. (The drive speed and graphics memory alone would drop the PowerBook G4 into the also-ran category, even without the 2.5X processor-speed disadvantage.)

Rumor has it that HP or Gateway may include the new Intel Extreme Edition part as a high-end option, which would push either system to new performance heights (and give Steve Jobs fits).

Would you want a portable computer that weighs about twice as much as a standard laptop? (The Apple weighs in at 7 pounds; the Gateway, at 8 pounds; and the HP, at 9 pounds, compared with an IBM T series at 4 pounds.) Only if youre looking for a no-compromises product that can take the place of a high-performance desktop system. A wide-aspect-ratio, 17-inch screen is nearly as good as having two displays; it lets you keep your reference work on one side, for example, and the actual document you are creating on the other. Meanwhile, these systems performance allows you to approach engineering-workstation speeds for rendering; photography; sound editing; and (gasp!) gaming. It goes without saying (and if you want to use one of these at work you really should go without saying this) that—aside from the PowerBook—these systems are wonderful for LAN parties.

The Apple retains nearly twice as much battery life as the Gateway and HP; however, most users employ this class of product near a power source. These laptops are really too large and heavy to take on airplanes regularly (unless you are the California governor-elect and have your own jet); they are geared more for the developer, performance user, engineer or student, who primarily needs a machine that spends most of its time on a desk and sometimes goes to other locations, where it also remains stationary.

A year ago, we laughed at the notion of a 17-inch display on a laptop computer; now 17-inch products are defining the hottest class of laptop products in the fourth quarter. The other day I was asked about the viability of a 19-inch, wide-aspect-ratio display on a laptop, and to tell you the truth, the one thing I didnt do was laugh.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.