Apple, Lenovo add categories to confusing market

Apple's rumored tablet PC, and Lenovo's smartbook and hybrid netbook-tablet muddy the waters in an already-confusing market

The Lenovo Skylight smartbook blends the best of smartphones and netbooks for a totally new device.

The Lenovo Skylight smartbook blends the best of smartphones and netbooks for a totally new device.

According to a rising chorus of rumors, Apple will announce its mythic tablet PC, possibly dubbed the iSlate, later this month. Combined with Lenovo's announcement of Skylight Smartbook, and its upcoming IdeaPad U1--a hybrid notebook and tablet PC, consumers may have a hard time making sense of the overlapping array of available gadgets.

One article on the speculation around the Apple tablet PC said "Offering a tablet PC would help Apple capitalize on demand from consumers for devices that can surf the Web and play movies and music."

Explaining the purpose behind the Lenovo Skylight, Ninis Samuel, marketing director at Lenovo said "To match that demand and growth, the consumers want innovative devices that can connect to the Internet and multimedia on the go."

We do? Don't we already have that? My smartphone and my notebook computer both provide me with the ability to connect to the Internet and interact with multimedia on the go. Am I supposed to now carry a smartbook or tablet PC as well for those instances when my smartphone screen is too small, and my notebook is too cumbersome?

It used to be much simpler to choose. Desktop computers stayed on a desk. Laptop computers were portable and sat on laps. Mobile phones made phone calls. Now, the variety of options just in the portable computer arena is staggering.

There are smartphones--mini computing platforms disguised as phones, smartbooks--Web surfing and multimedia devices disguised to look like a smartphone, netbooks--mini notebooks for an even more portable Web-based computing experience, notebooks--the power and versatility of a desktop computer you can carry with you, and tablet PC's--notebook or netbook equivalents that don't have to be unfolded.

Intel's recent announcements of new Atom processors and Arrandale processors already offer tremendous potential to enable OEM hardware vendors to create smaller, lighter, and more energy-efficient netbooks and notebooks. So, where do smartbooks and tablet PC's fit in the equation?

To be fair, each category of device has a unique set of features and benefits. What the smartbook brings to the table is faster startup and longer battery life than netbooks or notebooks in a platform rivaling the size of some smartphones. Although, to add confusion to chaos the Lenovo Skylight is actually the same size as smaller netbooks with a 10-inch screen and weighing in at nearly two pounds.

One of the differentiating factors could be price. In fact, I predict that the long-term success of niche computing gadgets like smartbooks and tablet PC's will ultimately come down to price. At $200 everybody was anxiously anticipating the CrunchPad tablet PC. When it became a $500 JooJoo it was much less exciting.

The array of possibilities has its up sides as well, though. Businesses that rely on Web-based applications, or provide remote access to applications on the internal network can save money by arming road warriors with netbooks instead of notebooks.

Smartbooks may provide businesses with a lightweight platform with smartphone-like battery life that allows roaming workers to stay in touch with Web-based e-mail using the vast multitude of free WiFi hotspots without the additional expense of the wireless service required for smartphones.

Of course, those wandering workers will most likely also have a smartphone, or at least a mobile phone, so the benefit gets murky.

Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. Assuming that axiom to be true, the portable computer gadget market is quite spicy. Finding the right device for your needs will require understanding the available options, and the ability to find the balance between price, size, and features that best meet your needs.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page .

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Tony Bradley

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