Laptop of the Month and PDA Death Match

The past few Laptop of the Month entries have been ultra-mobile machines, but beginning this month, I'm switching gears dramatically to take a look at desktop replacements. I've lined up three machines in this category so far, including a surprise entry, which I'll discuss next month. And this month's Dell was originally slated for July, but because of a scheduling snafu with IBM and a power-cordless ThinkPad, I'll cover the IBM machine in 2 months.

A Look at the Dell Latitude C800
Desktop replacements represent the laptop market's high end in terms of both size and weight. They're designed primarily for people who will use them as their primary workstations and won't be traveling often. Thank goodness for that—because the two machines I've received thus far tip the scales at about 8 or 9 pounds fully configured. Try carrying that setup around a trade show, and you'll have a permanent valley in your shoulder. But then, that's not what this class of machine is for anyway.

A desktop replacement gives you a full-sized keyboard, one that's palatial and amazingly responsive compared to the keyboards on ultra-light machines. Screens are typically 15" wide and some, including this month's Dell, offer amazing screen resolutions that rival or surpass actual desktop systems. And most desktop replacement systems offer two or three drive/battery bays, for the ultimate in inbox expandability.

The Dell Latitude C800 is a wonderful example of a desktop replacement machine. This monstrous machine includes a 15" screen with a native resolution of 1600 x 1200 (!), 256MB of RAM, a 1GHz Pentium III processor, and two optical drives, one permanent (CD-RW) and one removable (DVD). It also comes equipped with built-in networking, modem, FireWire, and two USB ports. Good stuff, served in ample portions.

On the other hand, this segment of the market is clearly not for me: I travel a lot, and the Dell doesn't fit in my laptop bag without some stretching (of the bag, not the laptop). Crammed into a typical airline seat, I was able to open it up only by sitting sideways and using the empty seat next to me. That said, I was actually able to edit digital video from a camcorder using the built-in FireWire port on one leg of a recent trip, causing much conversation among those nearby. It's a powerful machine.

Indeed, the C800 is more powerful than my desktop computer and runs at a much higher resolution. I had to bump down the resolution on the screen to 1024 x 68 to use it at all; my eyes are getting old. But I recommend a lower resolution to most users anyway because the tiny size of text and icons at the native resolution would have you in an optometrist's office in no time. And battery life is average—about 2 hours and 15 minutes of use per battery (less with the digital video editing)—but the batteries are compatible with many other Dell systems, so I had some spares. Two batteries should get you from coast to coast, assuming you have room to open the machine and work. And for those interested in DVD movies, the Dell's large screen and powerful speakers really do the job.

On the desktop, the Dell really shines, however, and for people who want only one machine and don't travel often—or perhaps just bring the machine home at night—the Dell will fit the bill nicely. In fact, I could see using this machine for daily use. It's a powerful—if humongous—computer, fully capable of taking on many desktop competitors and coming out ahead.

Another Look at the Palm vs. Pocket PC Debate
Last week, I mentioned my ongoing problems with time zones and personal information management and briefly discussed how the leading Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)—Palm and Pocket PC—handle these features. I'll recap reader response to the time-zone issue at a later date; as expected, people are generally divided about whether the time-zone issue involves a bug, but I honestly think it would be easy enough to fix.

This week, however, I'll address the PDA debate, which is largely about whether Palm's simplicity or Pocket PC's more powerful feature set wins out. One could dismiss the Pocket PC out of hand: The Palm OS has a fairly dominant market share, even given recent gains by the Pocket PC, which just celebrated its one millionth sale. I think the deeper ideological difference between these devices can be summed up simply, however: The Pocket PC tries to leverage your PC experience, whereas the Palm OS doesn't. This difference means that Windows users will typically be more at home with the Pocket PC than with the Palm. And when a learning curve is shorter, you can be productive that much more quickly.

And to me, that's game over. A year ago, I had written off the Pocket PC because the Windows CE product line had historically been too much like the PC. But today, the Pocket PC strikes the right balance between familiarity (it's like a PC where that makes sense) and format-specific differences (it's unlike a PC where *that* makes sense). I don't agree with all the design decisions, and I still think that PDAs in general are far too expensive, but when push comes to shove, the Pocket PC just makes more sense for most Windows users, especially corporate Windows users.

If you'll excuse my constant hedging, I don't think the Palm OS is doomed—and today's Palm OS devices have a certain charm that Pocket PCs simply lack. The Palm is a simpler system, and I suspect that non-Windows users will be eager to choose such a device, as will many consumers, regardless of their PC choice. But I have trouble believing that Palm will maintain a dominant foothold in the corporate arena, and if history is any guide, corporate adoption will likely determine how the overall market shakes out.

TAGS: Windows 8
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