Could a Notebook Be Best for Your Desk?

These cut-rate computers aren't very portable, but they can be stashed in a drawer

Ever since Compaq Computer (CPQ ) brought out the first notebook PC in the late 1980s, the goal of the design has been mobility. And the demand for mobility continues to drive a notebook market that now features powerful PCs that weigh under 3 lb. and are less than an inch thick. But one of the fastest-growing segments of the notebook industry today consists of products that seem to defy all historical trends. They're big and heavy and offer short battery life, often under two hours.

The secret of these products is that they are mobile in name only. Generally, buyers who choose them are looking for a computer that will spend most of its time living on a desktop but can be closed and tucked away when not in use. Portability is a bonus, not a driving force.

Recently, designers of these laptops have gone the logical next step and substituted a Pentium 4 processor designed for desktops for the substantially more expensive Pentium 4-M chip designed for notebook use. Industry sources say using the desktop chip knocks about $100 off the cost of materials, though recent Intel price cuts have narrowed the gap.

This means that the retail cost of a laptop using the desktop Pentium 4 is likely to be $150 to $200 less than a similar product using a mobile chip. The WinBook J4 I tested starts at $1,599, including a high-resolution 15-in. display. There is a price to be paid, though. The desktop chips lack the circuitry that reduces the power consumption and heat output of the chips designed for laptops.

The short battery life of these mostly stationary notebooks is not a huge issue. The WinBook achieves decent battery life of about three hours by using a massive 23 oz. battery. But getting the heat out of the tight confines of a laptop's case is a major engineering challenge. At 45 watts, the desktop Pentium 4 generates about 50% more heat than the mobile chip. Keeping the insides of the notebook from overheating requires lots of cooling. The fans used on the WinBook, including a unit with a diameter of about 21/2-in. located just above the keyboard, make the J4 a lot noisier than most laptops, although still quieter than a typical desktop. It's also not a laptop you'll want to use on your lap. Between the weight and the toasty bottom of the case, resting it on your knees quickly becomes unpleasant.

Some relatively obscure Asian and European laptop makers started the notebook Pentium 4 trend about a year ago. At the time, Intel was not yet making a mobile version of the chip, and the performance gap between desktops and portables had grown to the widest point in recent years. Intel, which gets much healthier margins on the mobile chips than on their desktop counterparts, tried to discourage the practice. But the company failed to stop Toshiba from becoming the first top-tier manufacturer to introduce a laptop with a desktop processor. Now, every major maker of notebooks either offers such models or plans to introduce them soon. Choices range from sub-$1,500 models to $3,000-plus machines designed to appeal to gamers and serious power users. When shopping, the sign of a desktop chip is that the "Intel Inside" sticker lists the processor as a Pentium 4 rather than a Pentium 4-M.

Intel still doesn't like the practice. "I don't recommend using desktop processors in mobile products," says Don McDonald, director of worldwide marketing for Intel's mobile programs. "Realistically, the reason manufacturers are doing it is pricing." McDonald estimates that 20% of consumer notebooks contain desktop processors. "Buyers are less educated about the difference, and they are seeing these products from big brand names." Rival Advanced Micro Devices, whose market share in portables is less than in desktops, is more enthusiastic about the practice. "There are applications, like home notebooks, that a 45-watt processor is just right for," says Pat Moorhead, vice-president for consumer advocacy.

Are these computers right for you? I would think that lugging a 9-lb.-plus notebook too big to fit in most briefcases to the office and back would get old fast. But if you want a compact, hideaway PC for home or a small office, one of these desktop-based notebooks could be just the thing.


    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.