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Latest laptops have power — for a price

VoodooPC's ENVY u:909 has all the technical bells and whistles — but users can also choose from over 20 paint jobs, including "infineon red," shown here.
VoodooPC's ENVY u:909 has all the technical bells and whistles — but users can also choose from over 20 paint jobs, including "infineon red," shown here.Voodoo
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

In late May, Dell started selling a computer complete with an eight-speaker surround-sound package, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a 20.1-inch monitor — an impressive host of extras for any desktop system. Thing is, the XPS 2010 is a notebook, a machine that can be closed shut and carried — monitor, speakers, detachable keyboard, and all — from one place to another.

More than ever, computer makers are blurring the lines between desktops and notebooks, making the latter an attractive alternative to a hulking PC. The increasing appeal of notebooks is showing up in analysts' forecasts: Gartner predicts an increase of only 1.9 percent in global desktop sales for this year, compared with an estimated 31.4 percent gain in notebooks.

What gives? For one, developing countries — where demand for computers is rising at a rapid clip to begin with — are adopting notebooks more quickly than desktops, says Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering. Many businesses are also using more notebooks, having replaced existing desktop systems, she says. For home users, it often boils down to ease of use. "There's the issue of just being able to close the lid and put it away, or put it in another room," Fiering says.

More features, more money
As far as power goes, these laptops are equal to, if not better than, many desktops. Recent entries from VoodooPC and Alienware, recently acquired by Dell, have even strapped in two of Nvidia's newest mobile graphics cards side-by-side for playing the latest graphics-intensive games or the most demanding of applications.

As one would expect, these luggables cost more than their desktop equivalents. Most of the desktop-replacement laptops are the flagship portables from their respective companies. VoodooPC's 19-inch, dual-video-card setup starts at a little under $5,000. Buyers will need to make room in their budget as well as on their desk for these monsters. Some power-hungry portables don't boast long battery life, either.

If consumers replace their desktop with one of these laptops, they may need a more portable computing option if they plan to do a lot of commuting. While still more convenient than transporting a desktop rig, carrying a close-to-20-pound notebook computer, even with a handle, to work or anywhere else could become tiresome if performed daily.

Limited capacity to customize
The ideal partner for a desktop-replacement system may actually be another in-between portable like Samsung's Q1, one of the so-called Ultramobile PCs. This would give owners of the heavier, pseudoportable notebooks a way to stay wired one way or another, while still being able to transport the less-portable laptop when necessary. Owning both kinds of portables would prove a costly option, however.

For now, desktops still win out over notebooks in the area of customizability. Adding 120GB hard drives or a next-gen DVD drive to a PC tower is no problem. The same can be done with a laptop, but it's not as easy.

Desktops hold a firm place in most PC enthusiasts' hearts, and their lower price means they won't be fading away anytime soon. But for those willing to make a few trade-offs and plunk down considerably more cash, the luggable laptop has legs.