From Dell, A Laptop To Make Desktops Quake

Usually a follower, Dell breaks new ground with its big, brawny Inspiron

A couple of years ago, the idea of using laptop computers to replace the desktop computers of mobile workers began to catch on in corporations. When in the office, workers would slip their machines into docking stations, which link to big monitors, regular keyboards and mice, network connections, and other accessories. Because desktops remained cheaper and more powerful than laptops, the idea wasn't as widely implemented as advocates had hoped. Still, there are plenty of IBM ThinkPads and Compaq Armadas living in desktop docks.

Now, Dell Computer Corp. is attempting to recast the laptop-as-desktop along different lines. Dell's Inspiron 7000 D300LT, starting at $2,999, features a massive 15.1-inch display that is only a hair smaller than the viewing area on a typical 17-inch monitor with TV-tube technology. Previously, 15-inch flat LCD screens have been available only as screens for desktop computers or in laptops from specialty vendors such as MetroBook.

With its display and a roomy keyboard that lacks only a separate number pad to be the equal of a desktop, the Inspiron can stand by itself on your desk. About the only add-ons you might want are a standard mouse and the optional $149 docking port, which simplifies connecting the Inspiron to the mouse, a printer, and other accessories.

The design goal is different from the older-style desktop-replacement laptops. Old-style laptops are are intended for mobile workers, designed to move easily from office to briefcase to airplane to hotel.

The premium is on size, weight, and battery life. These laptops also include software and hardware that let corporate information-technology departments keep track of and update software. But individual buyers consider these expensive features to be of little or no value.

The Inspiron weighs in at 8.9 pounds and measures a bulky 2.5 inches thick, 12.9 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep. (A version with a 14.1-inch display weighs 8 oz. less and is about half an inch smaller in each dimension.) It will take a strong shoulder and a mighty big briefcase to tote this behemoth around. It could move between home and office without too much difficulty, especially if you don't ride public transportation. But you probably wouldn't want to carry it with your luggage very often. Don't even think about trying to use it on an airplane tray table, not even in first class.

Dell sees this as a desktop replacement primarily for home and small-business use. The company has found that about one of every five laptops it sells are intended for home use.

Dell is not the first computer maker to discover a distinct home market for laptops. Compaq Computer has enjoyed strong sales of its Presario laptop line. Unlike the Dell models, the Presarios are normal-sized machines boasting multimedia and convenience features. For example, the top-of-the-line Presario 1810 is a $3,499 laptop that, like the Inspiron 7000, is built around a 300 Mhz Pentium II processor and 64 MB of memory. But it has a modest 13.3-inch display. Instead, Compaq puts its value into a DVD player (a $200 option in the Dell) and what is probably the best sound system I've heard in a notebook. It also lets you play audio CDs even while the Presario is turned off and closed.

The main appeal of the Inspiron 7000 is likely to be to people who are prepared to sacrifice portability but who want a relatively powerful home computer with a big, state-of-the-art display. What they get is a unit that will match most desktops in power and features but can fold up and almost disappear when not in use. Consumers may find it convenient to move the Inspiron from room to room, and if you go for the DVD option, a video-out connector will let you show movies on a standard TV set.

SIMPLICITY. Choosing a notebook over a desktop computer still carries a price. The 300 Mhz Pentium II--the fastest mobile processor available--is speedy enough for nearly all home-computing tasks, but it is slower than the desktop speed king, which clocks in at 450 Mhz. You can buy a 450 Mhz Dell

Dimension XPS R, including a big 19-inch monitor, the same 64 MB of RAM, and a big 10 GB hard drive, for $500 less than the Inspiron. Or, for about $2,100, you could get a Compaq Presario 5050 powered by a 333 Mhz Intel Celeron (a slightly slower version of the Pentium II) with 96 MB of memory, an 8 GB hard drive, and a 14.1-inch digital flat-panel display.

Historically, Dell has been a follower in the industry, quickly emulating other manufacturers' successful designs. But by pioneering a product category with the Inspiron 7000, Dell has broken new ground. It is an experiment that other laptop makers are watching with great interest.

Will enough people find that the simplicity and small footprint of a laptop are worth the extra cost? Dell is betting that they will, and I suspect the company may be right.

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