The Notebook Revolution

The past 12 months have marked a year of sweeping changes in mobile computing, with newer form factors, longer battery life and more options for solution providers than ever before.

From Intel's delivery of a new whitebook platform for system builders to the milestone of 10 to 12 hours of battery life delivered by Dell Inc. via its new Latitude E4200 systems, the CRN Test Center has been tracking the key trends that will impact the way IT solutions are delivered during the next two years:

• Notebook vendors have pushed the throttle on battery life, with four hours or more now routine even with systems running multimedia. Some vendors, including Dell, are hitting double-digit hours of battery life on a single charge.

• Lenovo, which has been pushing the envelope throughout 2008 with form factors and performance in notebooks, delivered the ThinkPad X301 just in time to take advantage of the launch of the first formal WiMAX network in Baltimore. Early indications are that this will be a powerful form of connectivity as the buildout of WiMAX continues, and Lenovo's X301 is poised for leadership in that segment.

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• Fujitsu has pushed design limits with its first two-display unit with the LifeBook N7010, a notebook that the Test Center found could set off significant competition among vendors when it comes to user-friendliness and touch-screen capability.

• Seneca Data's delivery of the NexLink Carbon notebook, among the industry's first based on Intel's Rich Creek 2 platform, could provide the beginning of a strong challenge by system builders and the channel to grab share away from tier-one OEMs.

• The world's market-share leader, Hewlett-Packard Co., continues to deliver solid, stable, pleasing technology even with a more conservative approach to delivering new features or flashiness.

These products, and the underlying technologies on which they're built, have convinced the Test Center that significant market disruption in use patterns, pricing and new product cycles will create both opportunities and pitfalls for solution providers.

For example, there may come increasing temptation to "upsell" customers on notebooks with wireless broadband functionality—a connectivity option that could add between $40 and $60 per month to a customer's cost. But anecdotal evidence from repeated conversations with vendors over the past two years indicates that only about as many as 20 percent of all notebooks that ship with WLAN cards ever see those cards activated into full wireless broadband accounts with providers like AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. At least one tier-one vendor we've spoken to has told us the numbers are so low the vendor is considering eliminating the option from its notebook offerings.

But notebooks also provide a reminder that Moore's Law is alive and well and living remotely in front of tens of millions of PC users worldwide; notebooks this year have provided clear evidence that the performance and price curves continue to give the market an increasing bang for the buck. So as the market begins to see an increasing number of so-called netbooks, including many based on Intel's smaller, lower-end Atom processor, VARs will be challenged to keep their customers cognizant that netbooks aren't notebooks; their functionality is limited and multitasking—unlike with notebook PCs—is severely limited.

What we've found in the following strong sampling of notebooks is that the value curve continues on a strong trajectory. It's strongly evidenced by the features, performance, design and other traits we've examined in these notebooks.

Lenovo, with its X301, is moving in yet another direction. The Raleigh, N.C.-based PC maker is among the first companies to jump into the WiMAX space, providing the X301 as the initial gateway in its product line to fourth-generation connectivity.

And while those manufacturers have been pushing the envelope with new features, functionality and form factors, the worldwide market-share leader, Hewlett-Packard, has been maintaining its position with not much new in its line card—but by doing everything it had been doing better.

In this month's CRNtech, we're looking at notebooks and what they're doing differently, uniquely and, importantly, how they're delivering new technology value. Each manufacturer reviewed here brings a unique offering to the table that, in turn, could alter use models and change the way channel customers get things done.

Next: The Lenovo ThinkPad X301

The Lenovo ThinkPad X301 Lenovo's maiden voyage into the world of WiMAX—now limited to the Baltimore metropolitan area—is in the form of the ThinkPad X301. Here's everything you need to know about the ThinkPad and WiMAX: It works! We found the connectivity offered by WiMAX and Lenovo's integration of the capability to be exceptional.

The Lenovo X301, as a notebook, is terrific. With its battery installed, the notebook weighs 3 pounds, 6 ounces and it sports a nice, LED backlit, 13.3-inch screen. Using the Test Center's standard battery life test, which includes turning off all power-saving options and running a video from the hard drive until the system shuts down, the X301 lasted a respectable 2 hours and 24 minutes. After a few hours, the heat from the keyboard reached about 90 degrees, which is warmer than we'd like but not enough to be a bother.

The X301 was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo U9400 processor at 1.40GHz and preloaded with Microsoft Corp. Windows Vista Business. It delivered a Geekbench score of 1,754, which is good performance for a system with that processor class.

Lenovo's Access Control Manager is its own management application. The company has designed a nice GUI for it, too. It allows users to find both Wi-Fi and WiMAX access points, click on their choice and connect. The console then provides connectivity information including IP address.

The Dell Latitude E4200 This notebook produces an "eh" sort of feeling when you first look at it: It's got a smallish 12.1-inch screen, a full keyboard that nonetheless looks compact and a starting price of $1,999. But it's got two major selling points that make it a must-try: Its small and light form factor makes it attractive to anyone who has to be continually on the move, either on the road or back and forth inside a campus, for example. It's also got the ability, with an add-on "slice" battery that clicks onto the bottom of the unit, to provide up to 12 hours of battery life with no performance degradation.

In other words, the Latitude E4200 provides the battery life and mobility you'd get from a smartphone, with all the compute power you'd get from a desktop. But its form factor (9 x 11.5 x 1.5 inches) and weight (3 pounds, 15 ounces with all battery packs in) make it a nice, snug size to carry around for hours at a time.

Running the Test Center's standard battery test, the E4200, with the slice, lasted about six and a half hours running a video straight from the hard drive with power-saving features turned off. The system we looked at came built with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU U9400 at 1.40GHz and 3 GB of RAM, running Windows Vista Business; it rang up a Geekbench benchmarking score of 1,698—about on par with other systems in its class. The E4200 was one of the few notebooks we've seen of late without an integrated Webcam, but for standard business use that shouldn't be a problem. Overall, it's a nicely designed and engineered notebook that pushes the envelope on battery life and may actually raise the bar.

The Fujitsu LifeBook N7010 Fujitsu has long been a leader in developing notebooks with slimmer form factors, bright displays and new features, like Webcams (when they weren't ubiquitous). The company is doing it again: The LifeBook N7010 is built with two (count 'em, two) displays. The main display, which is 16 inches, is typical for Fujitsu: clean, clear and bright with nice colors. The second display, which sits between the main LCD and the keyboard, is four inches and has touch capability to allow the user to tap icons for frequently used applications in a way to quickly and easily open them up for use.

This is a first-generation touch display for Fujitsu, so we expect it to improve. The display was a little small and, at first, a little distracting. But over time it's a feature that could provide nice productivity and efficiency enhancements, especially as Microsoft gets ready to deploy touch and multitouch functionality in Windows 7, due out next year. Fujitsu is showing the innovation it could provide as the building blocks become more sophisticated.

Overall, the system was also a strong performer. It came to us built with an Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.26GHz, 4 GB of RAM (which the Test Center recommends for systems running Windows Vista), preloaded with Windows Vista Business and it scored, on Primate Labs' Geekbench, a nice rating of 2,563. Weighing in at 7 pounds, 7 ounces, the LifeBook N7010 sported a battery life that ran close to 3 hours under our standard battery testing for notebooks—not bad. Pricing was not immediately available since our review took place before Fujitsu formally launched this notebook. But we liked it for the innovation Fujitsu continues to show as much as for its nice performance.

HP Compaq 6730b The HP Compaq 6730b is not a flashy notebook, or the highest performing, or the cheapest. But it does everything better than many HP notebooks have done in the past and is a solid choice for solution providers working with SMB customers.

Using Primate Labs' Geekbench benchmarking software, the notebook delivered a score of 2,497, on par with other notebooks in its class and with those specifications.

Using the Test Center's standard battery life exam, we disabled all power-saving options on the notebook and ran a video off the hard drive, continuously, until the system shut down. With this method, the battery lasted about 3 hours and 30 minutes—much longer than many notebooks we've looked at this year.

Plugged in, the 6730b never drew more than 42 watts of power, making it nice for desktop use. It did throw 93 degrees of heat from its vent after a few hours of running, but the rest of the system managed thermals well and it never felt warm to the touch.

As far as acoustics: The speakers are located on the front of the notebook below the keyboard, and music and sounds were sharp with just enough bass. The notebook's 15.4-inch display is built with antiglare technology and it was bright and could be viewed easily enough indoors or outdoors. The LCD panel has an integrated Webcam and dual microphones, so we decided to put them to use.

Making a phone call using Skype, while the system was connected to a wireless network, the person on the other end reported hearing everything perfectly (which is often not the case with Skype even on wired desktops and a jacked-in, third-party microphone).

The integrated Webcam relayed a bright, sharp and smooth video image as well. HP has a starting list price of $1,045 for the notebook, putting it in the midrange of notebook pricing in the U.S. The system is targeted at the SMB space where, after our review, it appears likely it will play very well.

Seneca Data Nexlink Carbon The Test Center examined a pre-production unit of Seneca Data's Nexlink Carbon notebook line, slated to launch later this month. What we found was a system based on the new Intel platform that provides nice performance, a solid design and, importantly, a very competitive price that shows smaller system builders could be poised to finally dig into the market share of tier-one OEMs. The system we looked at was a Nexlink Carbon notebook PC with an Intel T9400 processor at 2.53GHz, 4 GB of RAM and an MGM45RM board. Running Primate Labs' Geekbench performance benchmarking suite, the notebook scored 2,845—on par with other systems we've looked at this year with similar specs.

Running the Test Center's standard battery test for notebooks, which includes disabling all power-saving options and running a video from the hard drive continuously until the system shut off, the Nexlink Carbon's battery lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes. It took 2 hours and 10 minutes to recharge it to 100 percent. While plugged in, the Carbon drew between 45 and 50 watts of power after it was booted up again, about equal to most other notebooks the Test Center has measured this year.

It was tough to get a good read on the thermal capabilities of the notebook since the unit we reviewed was built with a pre-production plastic case. This unit threw about 88 degrees Fahrenheit of heat out of its vents, but was slightly warmer at the trackpad, enough to notice but not enough to be a bother. The Carbon's keyboard was comfortable to the touch, with plenty of real estate (3.5 inches) for handrest. The 14.1-inch display was bright enough to be competitive with LCDs we've looked at in most other notebooks this year. Color was fine.

Next, we put the system on the scale and got back a reading of 5 pounds, 8 ounces, so it's not an ultralight.

However, it was almost exactly the same weight as a Sony Electronics Inc. Vaio BX Series notebook we had looked at in the Test Center lab earlier.

Seneca Data is pricing the system we looked at at $1,175—nicely competitive, considering the amount of memory built into the system. (The Test Center recommends 4 GB of RAM to get maximum performance out of systems running Windows Vista.) The company will also have Rich Creek 2-based systems starting below $700.

The Bottom Line Moving into 2009, the market will be as demanding as ever for ROI, price competitiveness, new functionality and productivity breakthroughs. The notebooks discussed here are all notebooks we can recommend for a variety of reasons—and should provide new avenues from which VARs can deliver value as long as they continue to keep their customer requirements and specific needs in mind.