The State of Notebooks in 2008

Laptop_012001437With Steve Jobs poised to offer us new MacBooks this week the buzz around that event caused us to give some thought to how the notebook space has evolved this year.  So far we are impressed with the direction the notebook segment has taken in 2008 and what we are seeing.

In this article we’ll take a look at the three basic notebook market groups and what offerings we are seeing in each.  We’ll lay out how we see the market evolving for each of those groups and how the OEMs are addressing them.

This year has seen some definitive trends emerge in the notebooks that have been introduced by the major players in the market.  Today more than ever there are two distinct markets that the OEMs are addressing with definite features being used to appeal to each market.  Taking a look at the major manufacturers, HP, Sony, Dell and Lenovo you can easily spot the two audiences they are trying to reach, the business (enterprise) market and the consumer market.

The Business Side

This year we have seen the business notebook get thinner and lighter than in years past.  Take a look at the business lines released by the big guys and you see thin brushed metal notebooks abound.  There is no question that the OEMs have decided that professional workers want highly mobile laptops to carry around and they are now the norm.  There are many models in the marketplace today that are around an inch thin, something we haven’t seen in prior years.  Thin is in this year no question.

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Entire thin HP Business Notebook line

The business market has obviously spoken and made it clear that battery life is critical for mobile workers and a lot of engineering has gone into providing just that.  We have seen announcements by Dell of a possible 19 hours of battery life and HP claiming to have hit the 24 hour mark with a single charge.  This is a huge jump forward over prior years and it’s good to see happening.  It’s important to note that battery technology still seems very stagnant, and these extended run times are achieved through interesting options that are now available.  Most OEMs are offering different size batteries at configuration time so that buyers can shoot for the longest run time they can afford in both price and weight.  Some models are available with 6 to 12 cell battery options which we have not seen in the past.  Slice batteries are being used commonly now too.  These are super-thin batteries the size of the laptop that clip onto the bottom and add extended run time without increasing the bulk of the notebook very much.  All of these options have a cost in both price and portability which is important to take into account at configuration time.  It’s great to have all of these options however, and it’s especially great that most of today’s models are very thin to start with if extra batteries are added.

OEMs have realized that mobile connectivity is very important for users of business notebooks and this year sees far more options available in that regard.  WiFi is on every notebook offered of course but now we are seeing WiMAX start to appear.  Integrated 3G is also an option on just about every business laptop in the marketplace currently, far more than in prior years.  HP has started making 3G available using Gobi technology on just about their entire business notebook line, because they realize how important mobile connectivity has become in this era and Gobi is the best way to take advantage of it.  Gobi will work with all US 3G networks, either GSM or CDMA meaning businesses can use their existing mobile contracts.  It is clear that 3G is becoming less of an option and more of a requirement for many companies.

Not all business notebooks introduced this year are thin and svelte.  We have seen a few models that incorporate large screens, up to 18-inches, for use by CAD workers and graphics professionals.  These models have advanced features such as professional-quality color calibration and even digitizers integrated into the palm rests.

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Lenovo ThinkPad W700- 17-inch notebook wi/ digitizer

The Fun Side

The consumer side of the notebook business has taken a decided entertainment bent.  The offerings from the major OEMs are not concerned so much about thin forms, rather full high-definition displays and Blu-Ray have become the focus for the consumer market.  Market focus groups have obviously shown these OEMs that design is critical and several of them now offer fancy imprinted cases of different colors.  The days of black and beige notebooks seem to be gone.

Hp_16_18_inch_notebooksWhere the business notebooks are moving smaller and thinner the consumer notebook seems to be getting bigger.  This year has seen several notebooks introduced with over 18-inch screens, an obvious reach to the entertainment seeker in us all.  These big laptops often have Blu-Ray drives to pair with those big HD screens to provide a full entertainment experience for the consumer.  Many of these notebooks also have advanced audio systems to round out the experience, some even with sub-woofers integrated into the laptop.  Watching a Blu-Ray movie on one of these big notebooks is a breath-taking viewing experience indeed.

Lenovo_ideapad_u110Not all consumer notebooks are giant behemoths however.  There are some small ones that have been introduced, some with 13.3-inch screens.  These often have touch-sensitive controls for volume and other system functions to go with the small form.  Flashy chrome is being used in a lot of consumer laptops this year too getting back to the design is critical theme.  You can choose a consumer laptop in sizes varying from very small as mentioned to the hardly mobile giant beasts, depending on your needs.  Pricing has gotten very competitive too and it’s possible to now get a notebook with a lot of these fancy components for far less than they would cost in years past.  Just today we saw a 16-inch notebook with a Blu-Ray drive for less than $1000, which is quite a good price.  You can definitely get more bang for your buck now.

Netbooks: for the cloud seeker

You can’t look at the notebook market and ignore the newest segment, the netbook.  Netbooks are just little laptops that are designed to be useful yet stickered with the lowest prices.  Asus introduced the first netbook, the EEE PC last year and once buyers realized they could do most of what they do on a computer using one of these little laptops the market was off and running.

AceraspireoneblackMost netbooks are atomic powered with the inclusion of the Intel Atom processor, developed for lower-priced notebooks.  They have small screens that range from 7 to 10.2 inches and while initial models had small solid state drives (SSDs) we are seeing increasing numbers with traditional hard drives.  While the first netbooks all ran under Linux power we are seeing the market forcing the adoption of Windows XP home as the OS of choice.  Consumers want to use what is familiar to them and for better or worse that is the Windows platform.  Some netbooks have tiny 3-cell batteries that only provide a couple of hours of runtime and it’s clear that users want extended batteries.  There has been a shortage of 6-cell batteries due to manufacturing shortages that have caused consternation in the market.

We are starting to see netbooks appear in big box retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City in the US.  This will drive a rapidly growing market segment to grow even faster as the low prices, typically $400 or less, will appeal to consumers outside the geek community.  This segment will continue to be the dominant growth segment far into 2009 and will probably eat into the low-end notebook market as a result.

MacBooks don’t fall far from the tree

Macbook_pro_17Apple is announcing the next generation of their notebooks this week, and it’s a good thing.  The MacBook and MacBook Pro line have been predominantly unchanged for years and the faithful are hungry for some new ones.  There has never been a clear division in the business and consumer segments for Apple notebooks, although a case could be made that the Pro notebooks are more business appealing due to price.  You have to give Apple credit, the MacBook was so thin and sexy when it was released so long ago that it has held its own and even grabbed market share this year.  It is always interesting to see what Apple comes up with and this year will be no different.  Macs have been steadily increasing in market share in the US and if Apple addresses pricing concerns with the new notebooks that could become a big factor in the notebook space very quickly.

Whether Apple will introduce a netbook is anybody’s guess, their previous foray into super portable space was the MacBook Air.  The Air hasn’t reached the sales numbers that Apple likely wanted due to compromises that went into providing that super-thin form.  The rumor of a $800 notebook is out there so we’ll have to see just what Steve Jobs announces.

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