Return of the mini-notebook

A slew of major manufacturers are having another crack at consumers with new models this year

Mini-notebook computers, of only mini interest to consumers so far, hope a weight gain and power surge will spark new interest in the market this autumn.

Companies including Sharp, IBM, Compaq, and NEC will include improved component technologies and a new Pentium III chip for portables to take another shot at the mini market, pioneered several years ago by the two-pound Toshiba Libretto.

Although the best selling point of the mini-notebook was its small size -- some were the barely larger than a hard cover book -- the cramped keyboard, compromised processor speed and lack of expandability turned consumers off. The Libretto, for example, weighed just over two pounds and featured 7.1in display. It was 8.27 inches long, 5.19 inches wide and 1.38 inches high, in its latest incarnation. However, the notebook lagged behind larger models in processor speed, as well as in memory and hard drive size.

For Sharp Electronics, eliminating some of those compromises literally means getting bigger. The company has grown the size of its three-pound Actius 150 mini-notebook and in November will announce a 4.7lb, $2,999 Actius 800. It is also slightly thicker than its predecessor in order to accommodate a drive bay for a CD-ROM or floppy drive. While the Actius isn't as tiny as the Libretto, Sharp believes business users will put up with more weight in order to get the built-in drives. The notebook is about an inch thick and offers a 13.3in active matrix display and 366MHz mobile Pentium II chip from Intel. Sharp, however, will continue to market the earlier Actius model, now called Actius 280.

"We have a product roadmap for both of these products that includes significant improvement," said Michael Flynn, product marketing manager for Sharp's Mobile Information Systems Group. Those improvements will include support for DVD and CD-Rewritable drives, he said. The company will also support Intel's forthcoming mobile Pentium III processors.

Other portable makers are jumping in with even lighter models, in the three-pound range. IBM announced its ThinkPad 240 last summer. Dell and Compaq are developing new models as well. They will be aided by Intel, which on Monday will introduce its first mobile Pentium III chips. Among them will be a low-power 400MHz chip targeted at mini-notebooks of about three pounds, sources said. A number of notebook vendors are likely to adopt the new chip.

Dell, which had a deal to re-badge the original Sharp Actius as the Latitude LT, is designing its own mini-notebook as a follow on. It will be based on a mobile Pentium III chip and ship later this year or early next year, sources said.

Also using the new 400MHz chip is NEC Computer Systems Division, which will announce in early November a 3.5lb mini called the Versa FX, sources said. Compaq is taking another crack at the category as well. The company recently announced the 3.1lb Armada M300 with a nearly full-size keyboard and 11.3in screen. A similar Compaq Presario notebook model is also available.

While the mini-notebook will get a boost next Monday, so will more traditional-sized portables. Intel's mobile Pentium III will bring with it a higher clock speed, faster 100MHz system bus and an improved cache technology, which will increase performance over the current 400MHz Pentium II by 10 to 50 percent, depending on the application used. The mobile Pentium II utilizes a 66MHz system bus. Yet battery life will stay about the same versus current Intel mobile chips, sources said. The new mobile Pentium III chips, at 400MHz, 450MHz and 500MHz, will begin shipping Monday.

Analysts predict that the mini-notebook will represent less than 10 percent of the notebook market. A large majority of the market will, instead, purchase lower cost notebooks whose emphasis is on functionality instead of portability.