The phrase "size does not matter" has never applied to the world of on-the-go laptop computing. Over the years PC makers have made their models increasingly sleeky and tiny in a bid to make them sexier and accessible for users.
Until now, that is. In what appears to be a strange U-turn in strategy, some PC makers have recently released "super-sized" laptops that are more like briefcases than notebooks. The world’s top PC manufacturer Dell, along with Taiwan’s Acer and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, have all announced plans to market the mega laptops with screens of 19 or 20 inches.
And the very existence of these briefcase-like machines is not the only strange thing about this super-sized phenomenon. The trend is not being driven by demand, but by technology. Liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors of 19 and 20 inches have just come on the market. Until now, the screens on the biggest models were 17 inches.
In a sector driven by profitability, experts remain unsure of the products’ potential success in the market. Many believe the new super-sized laptop will be a hit with high-performance users, such as gamers and home office users. Some also claim that, in these times of flat panel displays and wireless networking, super-sized laptops could make desktop machines obsolete – almost providing the prototype for modern desktops.
One thing is certain: laptops with 19- and 20-inch widescreen displays will sell for premium prices but at low volumes. "The cost is related to manufacture," Ranjit Atwal, PC analyst at Gartner, explained. "Large screens are more expensive than vendor-made 15- and 16-inch screens, which are cheaper as they are manufactured in large volumes."
IDC analyst Richard Shim agrees that super-sized laptops will occupy a niche corner of the market: "The industry is still digesting notebooks with 17-inch widescreen displays. As the market moves more and more towards mobile products, prices will continue to drop and these transportables (notebooks with 17-inch and bigger widescreen displays) will represent a high-margin part of the market."
The transportable PC sector is still fast on the rise. IDC estimates that it will go up from 5.5 percent of the worldwide PC market or 4.4 million units currently, to 11.3 percent of the worldwide market, or 16.7 million units, by 2010.
"The trend towards notebooks with larger displays will have the biggest impact in mature markets, such as the US, Japan and western Europe," said Shim, but added: "Whether it will take off is relative."
Adrian Horne, in-house analyst at China-based Lenovo, who declined to comment on specific future products to OPI, believes that the challenge of transporting the super-sized laptops may thwart their growth. "As a home office solution, the point of a laptop is mobility and I wonder how truly mobile these laptops will be and how often a home user will transport their ‘suitcase’ out and about."
Gartner’s Atwal is confident that these new laptops will be popular among many workers that are based either in the home or in the office and who benefit from using a larger screen – those that work regularly with spreadsheets, for example.
And at home, users will also get to use the monitor as a home entertainment system, where screen size is important. In fact, analysts are increasingly convinced that the evolution of digital entertainment will influence future PC designs.
Acer, which recently displayed its 20-inch model at the world’s second largest computer show in Taipei, Taiwan, said that the model, its biggest laptop ever, is designed to function less as an on-the-go device and is more for use within the home as a portable entertainment centre in conjunction with other devices like game consoles and TVs. "We’re building a desktop alternative," Trisha Pan of Acer’s product marketing division said.
If they are to become a veritable desktop alternative, are we likely to see super-sized computers in offices some time soon? Atwal believes that mobile workers who have become accustomed to working on a larger screen, may choose to connect their super-sized laptops with their monitors in the office. Samsung’s model, for example, comes with a detachable screen so that users can hook it up to their desktop monitors.
Whether an organisation is likely to pay more for large screens is doubtful at the moment, adds Atwal. "In some big corporate companies users are given a pot of money to get their own PC and finance its support and service, the idea being that if they have responsibility for their own PC, they will take better care of it and think more carefully about what they download, for example. If you follow that scenario then a larger screen could become more attractive, especially if some people are willing to put their own money into the pot," he added.
Shim agrees that the transportable market will help to diversify the notebook market and attract some of the desktop market. "With their large screens, transportables can make for desktop replacement in markets where space is a major concern, such as big cities."
But the super-sized market remains unpredictable. As time goes on, it may be that gamers and high-end office workers start demanding screens of 32 and 42 inches to connect their PCs to.