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Laptops: Not just for road warriors any more


Murphy Meng already had a computer. But then recently he went and bought a second PC. Not another desktop like the one he has at home. Meng, 28, bought what more and more Americans have been buying, a laptop.

Desktop computer sales remained flat in recent years, even dropping 4 percent over the past quarter, but laptop sales have boomed _ up 9 percent over that quarter, according to market researchers Gartner Dataquest. And laptop sales are expected to keep climbing in the coming years, growing twice as fast as desktops'.

Computers you can carry in your briefcase still account for less than 30 percent of computer sales, but their latest growth surge comes not from traveling salesmen or road-warrior corporate types. Regular consumers are snapping up portable computers now, according to Charles Smulders, a vice president at Gartner Dataquest.

This is happening in spite of laptops' higher prices _ their average selling price of $1,548 is almost twice the figure for desktops of comparable performance, according to NPDTechworld.

But a growing number of manufacturers have discovered something that can narrow that price gap and make almost every computer user a potential laptop convert: Many consumers only need "outlet to outlet" portability. These are generally not the road warriors but home users, who do their computing in a handful of fixed locations, all of which have a power outlet.

That realization has led to a curious hybrid machine. Starting this year, many companies have been building laptops around standard Intel Pentium 4 desktop processors. Desktop processors cost less than mobile processors, so the resulting designs have brought forth a new class of cheaper laptops that deliver performance close enough to a desktop's to tempt many buyers.

"The only thing you can't do (on a laptop) right now is DVD creation," said Andy Klopstead, Gateway's marketing manager for mobile products. (This month though, Apple Computer released a new version of its top-of-the-line PowerBook that can burn video DVDs.) Klopstead said laptops are even catching on among gamers _ a subset of computer users who once steered clear of laptops but who are now attracted to the possibility of using wireless networking to go head-to-head against their friends.

The trade-off is that these low-price, high-power machines usually have shorter battery life.

"Desktop processors eat up power like there's no tomorrow," said Alan Promisel, a technology analyst with tech research company IDC who estimates that laptops with desktop processors get about 1{ hours' worth of life, compared with the three or four hours that processors optimized for laptops get from the same battery.

Some manufacturers are using more powerful batteries to compensate for power-sucking processors, at an additional cost in dollars and weight.

Dell puts more powerful batteries in its laptops that use desktop processors. "We wanted to preserve that three-hour threshold in battery life," said Ketan Pandya, Dell's marketing manager for consumer notebooks.

Not everyone agrees that's necessary for all machines. "There is a different set of requirements when you look at commercial vs. home buyers," said Brett Faulk, director of consumer product marketing for notebooks at Hewlett-Packard. "Consumers are more forgiving than corporate or commercial users about battery life, size and weight."

HP's conclusion, Faulk said, is that battery life doesn't matter as much if most of your time on the laptop is going to be spent within reach of an outlet. And most home buyers of laptops are far more concerned with computing power than with battery life.

That was the issue facing Brittny Matthews and her mother as they looked at laptops at CompUSA in Rockville, Md. Matthews, 17, started college this fall and wanted to take a computer with her.

Her mother "wants it to be light," Matthews said, "but I want it speedy."

Promisel, however, criticizes the way PCmakers put desktop processors into laptops without informing consumers of the corresponding hit in battery life, calling it a "car-salesman technique." But he concedes, "if you know what you're getting into, it's a great deal."

Laptopmakers aren't exactly trumpeting the news lurking inside some of their products. You can identify a hybrid if its processor isn't specifically described as "mobile" or if its name isn't followed by an "M" _ for instance, "Pentium 4-M."

It's too early to tell whether these hybrid laptops will stay welcome on the laps and desks of consumers. But it's a big market, with a variety of needs. Sony, for example, has five types of laptops, ranging from a light road-warrior model to heavier desktop replacements.

While the desktop market may be somewhat saturated, there's still room for laptops to grow. The rise of cheap, relatively simple wireless networking may lead to laptops taking an even bigger chunk of the computer market down the line. Wireless networking may still be the realm of the early adopter, but it seems to be catching on. Klopstead said that a quarter of Gateway customers opt to have wireless capability added to their laptops, up from 5 percent early this year.