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Lighter laptops move to flash-based drives

If you want it all, and you want it small, then you're going to have to pay a great deal more than $500.
/ Source: Forbes

The paperback edition of War & Peace, a bottle of wine, the world's smallest cat — all of these things weigh a good deal more than the Portégé R500-S5007V introduced by Toshiba last week.

The neatest trick: Unlike Apple's 3-pound MacBook Air, the 2.4-pound Toshiba includes the optical drive that the MacBook Air lacks while cramming in 128 gigabytes worth of storage, thanks to the world's largest capacity flash memory-based hard drive. All this, and it's just one hundredth of an inch thicker than the Apple.

The catch: Toshiba's new machine won't be available until the third quarter of this year, and even then it will carry a price tag that makes Apple customers look downright thrifty: $2,999.

To be sure, a new class of lightweight, cheap laptops is emerging as well. Computers such as the Asus Eee PC 900, the HP Mini-Note 2133 and the Intel Classmate PC sell for well under $500. But they also suffer from cramped keyboards, dinky screens and relatively pokey processors.

If you want it all, and you want it small, then you're going to have to pay a great deal more than $500. While notebook computer prices are falling fast, notebooks that are still able to lighten the load while packing serious computing power command a premium price.

Take the MacBook Air. In this rarefied category of ultra-thin, full-featured laptops its starting price of $1,799 is something of a bargain. But it's hard to find anything that matches the MacBook Air's style. It's thin, tapered edges are sharp enough to cut cake. Moreover, its 13.3-inch widescreen display and full-size keyboard means you won't notice you're using an ultra-light laptop until you fold it up.

If you want to get much thinner, you'll have to be very, very rich. That's where Hewlett-Packard is positioning one of its new laptops. The $2,099 Voodoo Envy 133 is just a skosh thinner than the MacBook Air. For the extra dough, however, the Voodoo Envy 133 packs plenty of extras: a carbon-fiber case, ambient sensors that adjust the display to suit the environment and a customizable finish.

(And in a sign the bragging rights on thin are hotly contested, an Apple PR rep called after this article was published to point out — quite rightly — that while the Voodoo Envy is thinner at its thickest point than the MacBook Air's thickest point, the less expensive MacBook Air remains thinner at its thinnest point than HP's offering.)

Too rich for you? Dell's M1330 offers what might be the best compromise between power, price and size. Apple's minimalist designs are in vogue, but the slick M1330 has curb appeal, too. And if you're willing to lug around just a pound more computer than the MacBook Air, you'll be able to save $800.

Plus you'll get the optical drive the MacBook Air is missing. Not a bad deal, especially considering Apple's starter MacBook will cost you another $100 for a machine that weighs more than a full pound more. It's not going to set any records for thinness or price, but laptops like this one are a big part of the reason the Round Rock, Texas-based Dell is turning in better numbers lately, and the M1330 could be a case study on how to hit a sweet spot in a fast-moving market.