Enter A Low Cost Home Laptop

Toshiba's newly designed, sub-$2,000 model should shake up the market

Last year, the desktop home computer that cost less than $1,000 took the market by storm. This year, full-featured laptops that cost less than $2,000--and possibly less than $1,500--may accomplish the same thing.

These machines are aimed squarely at individuals--rather than at corporate customers, who want features, such as modular designs and docking stations, that the consumer machines generally lack. The new laptop machines will give people an appealing new option and could threaten the longstanding dominance of desktop machines in the home market.

PACESETTER. The idea of consumer laptops is not new, of course. Compaq Computer introduced its Presario line of home notebooks last year, and a small percentage of portables has always ended up in homes and students' backpacks. But until very recently, $2,500 was about the least the home user could expect to pay for an up-to-date laptop, a price that scared away many potential buyers.

Toshiba is setting the pace for the newest wave of consumer laptops with its Jan. 20 announcement of the Satellite 305CDS, starting at just $1,699. There have been laptops from top-tier brands available at this price before, but typically they have been promotions designed to dump old products. The 305CDS is a brand-new design.

Toshiba didn't have to make many compromises in design to take the price $300 to $400 below the competition. The 166-megahertz MMX Pentium processor is not state-of-the-art, but it is speedy enough for most users. Arcade-style games, the main consumer use for ultrafast computers, are ill-suited for laptops anyway.

The Satellite's design features built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives, and the base price includes a K56flex PC Card modem from Xircom. The 16 megabytes of base random-access memory is adequate, but moving to 32 MB for around $200 will enhance performance considerably.

Any sub-$2,000 notebook will use a passive-matrix, or dual-scan, display. Active-matrix displays are preferable, but the 12.1-inch screen on Satellite 305CDS is a good one: It's bright and subject to only moderate "ghosting" when the mouse pointer is moved rapidly.

One nice touch is that a little wheel on the edge of the display makes it very easy to make the adjustments to changing light conditions that passive-matrix displays need.

Toshiba is introducing two other machines also: the $2,599 Satellite 310CDT, with an active-matrix screen, 200-Mhz Pentium, and 32 MB of memory; and the in-between $2,199 310CDS, with the same features but a passive-matrix screen.

About the only thing left out of the new Satellites is a docking connector. Toshiba says that only 20% to 25% of its laptops are sold with docking stations or so-called port replicators that allow easy attachment to networks and desktop monitors, keyboards, and mice. And nearly all of those sales are corporate. Leaving the connector out allowed a significant cost saving while eliminating a component that few in the target audience for this laptop will ever miss.

Just as Compaq's release of the sub-$1,000 Presario 2100 desktop computer last spring scrambled the market, the Toshiba announcement is likely to change the competitive landscape. Compaq's cheapest consumer laptop, the Presario 1200 with a 200-Mhz Cyrix MediaGX processor and 32 MB of memory, goes for $1,999. There's going to be a lot of downward pressure on laptop prices, with models in the Satellite 305CDS class probably falling well below $1,500 by the end of the year.

FOLLOWERS. These machines are not likely to get a lot of interest from corporations, which are not as price-sensitive as individuals. "The bulk of the market is well above $2,000, with most units on the commercial side selling for $2,500 to $4,000," says Mark Vena, director of North American mobile products for Compaq. "Commercial accounts are very wary about spending as little as possible."

Retail sales, however, account for a steadily growing share of the laptop market, and I think these new models will accelerate the trend. Other manufacturers are following the lead of Compaq and Toshiba in designing models specifically for home and small-business use.

In many homes, a laptop that can be tucked into a drawer when not in use is an attractive alternative to a full-size machine that tends to dominate a room. And for home uses such as E-mail, Web browsing, and word processing, even the relatively low-powered processors in inexpensive laptops are more than adequate.

Until now, it has mostly been cost that has kept laptops out of the home market. These welcome new offerings from Toshiba will help change that.

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