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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

New notebooks tackle Apple at premium end of PC market

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver August 30-September 5, 2011 issue #1140 High Tech Office column

While Apple’s Macintosh computers remain a minority taste (about 14% in Canada), the company has a majority market share for personal computers that sell for more than $1,000.

In June 2009, market research company NPD reported that Mac sales accounted for 91% of the revenue in this “premium” price segment. Out of date but probably still the case. There’s a higher profit margin in selling a premium computer than in selling a low-priced one. As a result, PC manufacturers are refusing to cede the high-end to Apple. Here are two recent challengers.

At first glance, HP’s Elitebook 2760p ($1,499 and up) magnesium/aluminum body makes it look like a takeoff on Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro model. But a solid hinge lets Elitebook’s 12-inch-wide screen display pivot, allowing it to flip around and close over the keyboard.

Suddenly it’s a tablet – though a somewhat thick one – running Windows 7. Like earlier Windows tablets, it can be used with a stylus, but it also responds to finger taps.

Options include various Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, conventional hard drives or solid-state storage. HP also offers a close cousin, the Elitebook 2560p, minus the pivoting touchscreen, starting at $1,099. The company claims that both are built to military standards of durability and are resistant to dropping, vibration, dust and high temperatures.

The 2760p weighs in at 1.8 kilograms – just under four pounds. It’s got both a small touchpad and what HP calls a Pointstick, the small rubber-nubbin pointing device standard on IBM and Lenovo ThinkPads.

The design and built quality are solid and performance is good, with video speed benefiting from Intel’s current generation of chips. (Older Intel video chip sets were somewhat anemic performers.) Nice touch: a pop-out antenna to extend wireless range. Less nice: no USB 3.

Turn it into a tablet and you get a touch device that can run all those standard Windows applications. The problem is that Windows really isn’t designed for big fat clumsy fingertips. The upcoming Windows 8 hopefully will do a better job in this regard.

Samsung has been taking on Apple on a variety of fronts, including iPhone- and iPad-challenging smartphones and tablets. Its Series 9 laptop ($1,599) targets Apple’s light and slim 13-inch MacBook Air ultraportable laptop. Unlike HP’s Elitebook, it avoids mimicking Apple’s metallic silver look, opting for a striking brushed charcoal Duraluminum case. Samsung claims it’s aircraft-grade aluminum: light but strong.

Like Apple’s Air it’s slim and light, with ports hidden away behind little doors. (In both cases, the ports are a bit hard to access – a case of style trumping usability.)

More similarities to the Air: a big, glass-coated touchpad with integrated buttons and a backlit keyboard. Unlike the MacBook Air, the Series 9 has a wider display with a matte finish, making it more viewable in bright light. And while both the Series 9 and the MacBook Air require dongles to connect to a wired network port, Apple’s product (and HP’s Elitebook) also needs a dongle to plug into an HDMI external projector or high-def TV; the Series 9 has a mini-HDMI port built in.

The 13-inch Air has a full-sized SD card slot; Samsung’s Series 9 includes a less-useful microSD slot. Like the Air and HP’s Elitebook, the case lacks room for an internal optical drive. Samsung provides a three-year warranty standard; Apple makes that an added-cost option.

Its Intel Core i5 processor and 128-gigabyte solid-state drive provide perky performance: Windows 7 boots up in about 20 seconds.
In the spring, when Samsung released the Series 9, Apple’s MacBook Air was using Intel’s last-generation Core Duo processor. Since then, Apple upgraded its Air models to the newer Core i5 generation. And that puts Samsung in a bit of a bind: a MacBook Air with a similar processor, same-sized solid-state drive and same amount of memory costs $1,299.

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