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New Laptop Trends for 2010

We are now in a PC launch window, each of the major vendors will release new products as we approach June. Among them, I see three broad trends. Two are identified by HP’s recent line refresh, and one has more to do with Apple. We’ll talk about all three and focus a little on the third, which could mean that laptops as we know them are about to change radically over the next three years.

Trend One: Metals, Finishes, and Apple Competitive Appearances Are In

While we have seen vendors try to copy Apple products at a lower price point in the past, with these new HP lines you can start to see HP both fully emulate Apple and try to improve on the theme. This is part of an embrace-and-improve strategy that resulted from Apple’s ability to increasingly define the design language for the industry. If you look at HP’s business lines, they are similar to MacBooks in terms of metal used, though they have harder lines, darker colors, and lower price points for a given performance level. In addition, they have security features like fingerprint readers and Trusted Platform Modules that Apple computers lack. They have also increased their use of liquid metal finishes, which better resists fingerprints and tend to resist scratching better, plus virtually all but the largest offerings have a very thin profile.

Consumer products now have similar cosmetic features, and are starting to include some additional security as an option and continue with color choices. (Though retailers likely will only stock one of the colors, suggesting if you want a color choice you’ll likely have to buy online, similar to what you often have to do with the iPod lines that come in a wide variety of colors.) The colors have a very rich look to them, and will be available in black cherry, champagne, and Sonoma red.

Even the HP netbooks, which were already aggressively based on designs focused on women, push that envelope further and now focus more on young women. HP is feeling the pressure to compete with the iPad in terms of battery life, as some come with six-cell batteries and potential battery life that approaches eight hours. The two new colors are preppy pink and white crystal. The flagship signature Mini 110 uses images designed by Studio Tord Boontje.

Trend Two: AMD and Graphics

AMD has historically been competitive on the desktop, but almost considered a joke when it comes to laptop computers. That changes this cycle, as around half of these new HP products are using AMD technology. Part of the reason for this is the second part of this trend includes a heavy move to graphics performance in both consumer and business lines. This is because, increasingly, people appear to favor doing things that use the GPU better like movie playback and transcoding movies so they can play them on their cell phones or other portable players, photo editing, and media consumption (including games).

These products are increasingly coming with higher resolution, built-in webcams, and the premium part of HP’s line, the Envy, is the first to use AMD’s Eyefinity technology, so you can drive up to three monitors off of it. In addition, the Envy is heavily media focused, with Beat- by-Dre-based sound capability, and built-in subwoofers (there is something kind of weird about a subwoofer in a laptop, however it does put new meaning into the old Intel tagline “put excitement into your lap.”)

Trend Three: With an iPad, I Don’t Need No Fricken’ Laptop

The third trend became evident at the recent Atom announcement by Intel. Three of the analysts in the room were using iPads and wireless keyboards, rather than notebook computers. They reported that for notes and meetings, the iPads worked fine, and they had started to leave their laptops in the office or at home and now carry the tablets instead. Analysts touch a massive amount of media, and given two of the analysts were from Gartner and the other, Tim Bajarin, arguably one of the most influential consumer analysts in the world, they set trends for both business and consumer markets.

Advantages of the iPad are extreme portability and battery life (all day), which trumped any notebook they currently have access to. That includes Apple’s MacBooks, which suggests a cannibalization problem for Apple, but a competitive displacement problem for everyone else. Disadvantages of the iPad are problems with syncing with Exchange, lack of Flash support, and the poorly made Apple cover for the iPad (it appears rushed and of poor quality). All were seen as relatively trivial and, with the exception of the Flash support, likely to be corrected over time.

A bigger problem I noted was that the iPad doesn’t run Office, nor does it run most of the existing business applications. The first turned out to be a minor issue, and the analysts were willing to learn an Apple application instead. Business applications are mostly hosted today, and folks figure they can wait until they are on a PC to use them. While it is a bigger problem, it wasn’t a deal breaker. By the way, the wireless keyboard was seen as vastly better than the Apple dock, because everyone appeared to prefer to use the iPad in landscape rather than portrait mode if you want to try this.

We may be seeing the beginning of the end for the laptop computer, and this likely goes a long way to helping explain one of the big reasons HP recently bought Palm (I’m expecting an HP branded Palm- designed webOS based HP tablet in a few months).

Wrapping Up

Better, faster, cheaper is a constant in the PC market, and one of the things that seems to make this market somewhat unique. However, this round, we have the potential of a revolution coming in a class of product I doubt many thought would really challenge the laptop this soon. This is just the start of what should prove to be an interesting hardware cycle, with Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony and others due to refresh products shortly and more tablets coming. We’ll be busy covering the launches, and hopefully you’ll have some money left to buy this stuff.