Will 3D laptops take off?

High prices and lack of content might limit the market to gaming enthusiasts

As PC makers expand their lines to include 3D laptops, analysts say these offerings are likely to interest mostly gamers, with broad adoption stymied by a dearth of content, hardware limitations and hefty prices.

Last month, companies including Asustek Computer, Toshiba and Lenovo announced new 3D laptops with screens ranging from 15.6 inches to 17.3 inches. The laptops are priced at US$1,200 and higher, and come with glasses for viewers to watch 3D content. The laptops are targeted at consumers looking for richer multimedia experiences on PCs.

However, high prices could limit their appeal to early adopters looking for the latest hardware, analysts said. There's also limited 3D movie and broadcast content available.

Laptop makers are trying to position 3D technology as a new way for users to interact with PCs, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. But gamers are likely -- as is often the case with new PC technologies -- to be the early adopters because they are willing to pay for cutting-edge hardware that gives them a more immersive experience.

"Some people will wait until there's enough content that makes it interesting for them," Kay said.

But in some cases, smaller laptop screen sizes may not appeal to gamers either, said John Jacobs, director of notebook market research at DisplaySearch.

"If the whole purpose is to get immersed in the game display, you're going to want the biggest screen possible," Jacobs said.

That won't matter to some enthusiasts who want the latest and greatest, though, said Kelt Reeves, CEO of PC maker Falcon Northwest, which sells laptops and desktops to that audience. The additional cost of a 3D screen is small relative to what the company's enthusiast audience is willing to pay for a laptop, Reeves said. The company's cheapest laptop sells for $1,500, and the most powerful desktop replacement models start at $4,000, Reeves said.

"Even if you don't use it that often, I don't see why anyone wouldn't want to have the 3D capability, whether it's for gaming or just watching 3D movies," Reeves said. "These are serious laptop users who want the kitchen sink."

One avid gamer, Amanda Farough, said a $1,000 price tag for a 3D laptop is fairly reasonable. She usually plays massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and shooters, and says that 3D adds more interactivity to the gaming experience.

"I think that 3D gaming will allow for a depth that was previously untapped, especially for genres like first-person shooters and action-adventures," said Farough, who is a Web designer and also a game editor for the Gaming Angels Web site.

But for now, the overall adoption of 3D screens -- including laptops and desktops -- is limited, DisplaySearch's Jacobs said. DisplaySearch is projecting 3D laptop screen shipments to tally 179,000 units this year, out of a total of 217.8 million laptop screens. Shipments will grow to 611,000 in 2011 and 1.7 million by 2012, but will still take up a small share of the market.

PC makers will retain 3D laptops as flagship products on their portfolios, analysts said. But for those PCs to become viable products, publishers need to be pushed to produce more content, analysts said.

There has to be a good lineup of 3D games to attract gamers to laptops, said Gina Reams, a gamer and game designer. She's a fan of role-playing and immersive gameplay, but doesn't know of any good 3D PC games yet available.

Reams said she would buy a 3D laptop "only if there's going to be proven support for it, like a lot of game developers with planned lineups or media companies backing it."

Hollywood studios and content providers like ESPN see revenue streams with 3D, but the content is mainly targeted at TVs and theaters. And recent announcements from the E3 Expo gaming conference point toward 3D development focused at gaming consoles. Nintendo debuted 3DS, a 3D hand-held game console, at the show, while Sony showed off 3D games for the PlayStation.

But some game makers announced 3D games for PCs. Game developer Crytek said that Crysis 2 would be available for PCs in 3D. The game will be published by Electronic Arts.

PC makers are adding capabilities for laptops to play back 3D movies. Nvidia is providing technology for Asus' G73Jw and G53 and Toshiba Dynabook TX/98MBL laptops to decode and play back Blu-ray 3D movies. Lenovo's new IdeaPad Y560d is based on a different technology that does not yet allow for playback of Blu-ray 3D movies, but it can convert other 2D content, such as movies, to 3D.

Samsung has also said that 3D streaming films could be available by the fourth quarter this year, and sites like YouTube have started experimenting with 3D content. Nvidia has also demonstrated 3D video streaming live over the Internet using a video player based on Microsoft's Silverlight multimedia platform.

But 3D TVs provide a more communal experience for gamers and movie-watchers alike, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at the NPD Group. Multiple people can watch movies or play games at the same time, while 3D laptops are good only for individuals, Baker said.

"We don't expect a lot of movie-watching on laptops in 3D," Baker said.

3D content also requires considerably more bandwidth than regular video feeds, analysts said. That could be a hurdle in delivering streaming 3D movies and online 3D games to homes.

There are other issues associated with 3D such as the need to wear special glasses. Companies such as RealD, Xpand and Nvidia offer different types of active-shutter and passive-polarized glasses that work with different screens. But gamers don't seem to mind the idea of wearing 3D glasses for a better visual experience.

"As a fan of role-playing and immersive gameplay, I would be all right with donning 3D shades for a good experience," Reams said.

Nevertheless, the system makers have to start somewhere, and the new laptops will spread awareness about 3D PCs.

"We're at the front edge of a 3D era," Endpoint Technologies' Kay said.

Tags notebookshardware systemslaptopsLenovogaming notebookstoshibanvidiaAsustek Computer

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service

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