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Laptops Go Mainstream Portable Computers Invade Turf Previously Reserved For Larger Pcs

Huddled in the turrets of tanks and Humvees, troops in Fort Hood, Texas, punch commands into the Army’s latest tactical tool - laptop computers. Screens blink alive to reveal icons of enemy tanks and other war game positions.

Police in Orange County, Calif., tote laptops on the beat to interview witnesses and type up reports, paring office paperwork.

Wake Forest University in North Carolina has equipped its 900 freshmen with the portables for note-taking in class and homework.

Laptops - once a pricey tool of business travelers and workaholics - have gone mainstream, offering new high-tech freedom to people of all walks. No longer just a gadget for typing memos on airplanes, the nifty portables have become powerful and cheap enough to challenge the boxy PCs that populate the nation’s offices, homes and classrooms.

“The desktops may be $400 to $500 less expensive,” said John Anderson, vice president of Wake Forest University, which is buying 4,000 IBM ThinkPads to equip every student by the year 2000 and replace the staff’s Apple desktops. “But mobile computing has an advantage.”

That capability - to compute nearly anywhere, anytime - is fast encroaching on the once-undisputed reign of PCs.

This year, about 14.5 million executives, salespeople and others will buy laptops, according to Dataquest Inc., a research company. While worldwide sales are still only about one-fifth that of PCs, laptops are edging closer - expected to surge 17 percent higher next year, compared to only 15 percent for desktop models.

Driving demand is a steady drop in prices even as manufacturers cram more features into the notebook-sized machine. The average price of a laptop is down 15.2 percent from a year ago - compared to an only 13.7 percent drop in desktop prices, according to research firm Computer Intelligence.

“It used to be a tough decision: ‘Do I really want to give up my powerful desktop?”’ said Matt Sargent, an industry analyst at the La Jolla, Calif., firm. “Now it’s easier.”

Laptops have become more than just a tool for making workers more productive. The Army, for instance, has found that deploying them in the field to simulate battles can be cheaper, safer and strategically more effective than conventional war games.

“It’s as good as it will get without anyone real shooting at you,” said Major Marcus Sachs, a spokesman for what the Army calls its Advanced War-fighting Experiment in Fort Hood.

The Air Force is also using them to help its flight crews pinpoint their location in the air. A system pioneered by the Washington Air National Guard at Fairchild Air Force Base links KC-135 tankers to the Global Position Satellites that circle the earth.

With adjustments to off-the-shelf software and hardware, navigators can track their plane’s route, speed and distance with maps on their laptop screens. Pioneered by Spokane-area members of the guard, the system could be adapted for the nation’s big military planes.

The choice between PCs and laptop computers wasn’t always clearcut. Just four or five years ago, laptops took far longer to process information and featured dull, monotone screens. But today’s breed of faster and lighter portables, most running on Intel Corp.’s 133-megahertz Pentium chip, can do nearly everything a typical desktop can do. Makers have expanded displays from 10 inches two years ago to 12 inches or more today.

The laptops also sport nifty features such as built-in pointing devices that eliminate the need for clip-on trackballs that were once widely used.

“They are an amazing feat of miniaturization,” said Joel Tomaneng, an analyst with Zona Research, a San Francisco-based high-tech research firm. “They have squeezed just about every component and storage device in there.”

Leading the price-cutting charge, Compaq Computer Corp. this month reduced its lowest-cost Armada 1120 laptop to $1,000 and slashed prices of its more expensive Armadas. That puts its most basic laptop, with a 100-megahertz Pentium processor, well within the price range of desktops.

At the pricier end, IBM Corp., the No. 2 maker of portables, is aiming directly at powerful corporate desktops with new ThinkPads in June starting at $6,000, according to sources close to the company. The 765D features IBM’s largest laptop display ever - 13.3 inches - a 166-MHz Pentium MMX processor for better quality video, sound and pictures; and a 3-gigabyte hard disk. An IBM spokesman declined to comment.

Even more sophisticated is No. 1 Toshiba Corp.’s new Tecra 740 CDT model, featuring 13.3-inch displays as well as Intel’s MMX microprocessors. Starting at $6,500, it enables traveling executives to hold “video conferences” with a modem, video card and a tiny camera attached to the top of the screen.

Sharp Electronics has come out with its WideNote laptop that stretches horizontally like a movie screen - wide enough to view two Web pages side-by-side. Prices start at $3,500 for the Sharp WideNote Pentium, a 133-MHz machine with 16 megabytes of RAM.

Even Apple Computer, which dropped out of the market last May after its PowerBook 5300s hit huge quality snags, is back. It offers the fastest laptop available, a PowerBook 3400 that uses a PowerPC microprocessor that runs at 240 megahertz, easily beating the fastest rivals running on the Windows operating system.

Like many high-tech advances, the spread of mobile computers may be a double-edged sword. Adherents become more productive during otherwise idle time, but what’s so bad about doing nothing and relaxing? Then there’s the added risk of soreness from typing in awkward positions. A 1995 study found that people who used computers on their laps tend to contort their wrists. Those who typed into keyboards at the edge of desks or tables - another common laptop position - lacked sufficient support for their arms.

There’s also the high-tech crime wave. With the lightest laptops weighing less than 4 pounds, thieves are snapping them up from offices, cars and airports. About 265,000 were lifted last year - nearly twice the number of stolen desktops, according to Safeware, a Columbus, Ohio, insurer that charges $96 a year to cover laptops. In 1995, 208,000 laptops were taken.

Further, the lightweight computers are fragile and prone to damage - an errant swipe of the arm sends them crashing to the ground. In response, about a dozen companies now make “rugged laptops.” FieldWorks, a Minnesota-based maker of the machines, seals all openings and moving parts and uses tough materials such as magnesium frames and shock-absorbing rubber. But all that ruggedness comes at a hefty starting price of about $5,000 for low-end machines and a minimum of about 3 extra pounds.

Such drawbacks continue to give desktops an edge in many situations.

“I don’t see notebooks replacing desktops,” said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Dataquest who specializes in mobile computers. “More to the point, we’ll probably see them being viewed as alternatives to desktops.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Laptops vs. PCs

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TIPS FOR BUYING LAPTOP COMPUTERS Laptops aren’t for everyone. You pay a premium for miniaturization, so a desktop PC has more power for the buck. Laptops also are prone to crashes and other problems. But you can’t beat one if you travel a lot or have limited space and don’t mind a smaller keyboard and display. A laptop powerful enough to serve as your only PC probably will cost about $2,000 to $4,000, about twice as much as low-end portables. That should buy a CD-ROM, a 133-MHz Pentium, at least 16 megabytes of RAM and a 1.5 gigabyte hard drive. If you want a laptop as your primary machine, make sure it includes a docking station for hooking up a larger keyboard, monitor and peripherals for use when at home or in the office. If you’re planning to use a laptop as a second computer, expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. That will buy a machine with at least a 100-MHz Pentium, eight megabytes of RAM and a large-capacity hard drive. At the cheap end: Compaq’s $1,000 Armada 1120. Try them for comfort. Type at least a business letter to test the keyboards, which range from too tiny to just right. Typing on them takes some getting used to since most desktop keyboards are bigger. Active-matrix screens look the best but cost more than dual scans, which are good enough for e-mail and notes. No matter which you choose, buy the largest your budget allows. Bigger screens are on the way from manufacturers. Pointing devices come in two flavors: Touchpads, which are pressure-sensitive rectangular pads inset below the keyboard, and pointing sticks, which sit in the middle of the keyboard. Touchpads may be better for heavy typing jobs, but the choice is a personal one. Lithium ion batteries are the longest lasting, but also the most expensive. Make sure replacements for whatever you buy are readily available should they die on the road. -Associated Press

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = David E. Kalish Associated Press Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this story.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TIPS FOR BUYING LAPTOP COMPUTERS Laptops aren’t for everyone. You pay a premium for miniaturization, so a desktop PC has more power for the buck. Laptops also are prone to crashes and other problems. But you can’t beat one if you travel a lot or have limited space and don’t mind a smaller keyboard and display. A laptop powerful enough to serve as your only PC probably will cost about $2,000 to $4,000, about twice as much as low-end portables. That should buy a CD-ROM, a 133-MHz Pentium, at least 16 megabytes of RAM and a 1.5 gigabyte hard drive. If you want a laptop as your primary machine, make sure it includes a docking station for hooking up a larger keyboard, monitor and peripherals for use when at home or in the office. If you’re planning to use a laptop as a second computer, expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. That will buy a machine with at least a 100-MHz Pentium, eight megabytes of RAM and a large-capacity hard drive. At the cheap end: Compaq’s $1,000 Armada 1120. Try them for comfort. Type at least a business letter to test the keyboards, which range from too tiny to just right. Typing on them takes some getting used to since most desktop keyboards are bigger. Active-matrix screens look the best but cost more than dual scans, which are good enough for e-mail and notes. No matter which you choose, buy the largest your budget allows. Bigger screens are on the way from manufacturers. Pointing devices come in two flavors: Touchpads, which are pressure-sensitive rectangular pads inset below the keyboard, and pointing sticks, which sit in the middle of the keyboard. Touchpads may be better for heavy typing jobs, but the choice is a personal one. Lithium ion batteries are the longest lasting, but also the most expensive. Make sure replacements for whatever you buy are readily available should they die on the road. -Associated Press

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = David E. Kalish Associated Press Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this story.



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