November 7, 2000 1:30 PM PST

New HP laptop ready--and waiting--for wireless networking

Hewlett-Packard next week will take the wraps off one of the smallest, lightest wireless-capable notebooks available.

But wireless-capable is all the OmniBook 500--to be unveiled at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas--will be for the time being. HP has decided not to include the necessary antenna inside the box, according to sources close to the PC maker.

The decision to ship without the component demonstrates the difficulties PC companies face in embracing emerging technologies. To fully offer wireless networking, the company would have had to make compromises that could limit the modem's functionality. That, said sources familiar with the decision, was not an acceptable trade-off.

Even without wireless networking, the OmniBook has much to offer. At 1 inch thick and about the size of a hardcover book, the new portable will go head-to-head with other ultralight models, such as IBM's ThinkPad X series or the Armada M300 from Compaq Computer.

Features include a 12.1-inch display, battery life up to 10 hours when using the multimedia expansion base, two USB slots, integrated 56K modem and network adapter. HP has not finalized pricing, but sources said the entry-level 500-MHz Celeron model, without expansion base, is expected to be around $1,900.

A top-of-the-line 700-MHz Pentium III model is expected to sell for around $3,500. The expansion base, which adds room for a DVD drive, extra battery and other niceties, is tentatively priced around $240. But HP expects to offer the component in the base price of some models.

The OmniBook 500 weighs 3.4 pounds without the expansion base and just over 6 pounds with the attachment.

To accommodate businesses using larger OmniBook 6000 portables, the new notebook uses the same accessories, such as CD-RW, DVD and Zip drives, memory chips and power adapters. In a new move for HP, the OmniBook 500 sheds legacy parallel and serial connectors in favor of two USB ports.

Gateway took a similar approach to the Solo 1150, its low-end notebook.

While HP has left room inside the unit for a wireless antenna, the company does not plan to offer the feature until at least the first quarter of next year, said sources close to the company.

Difficult design
HP's problem is one facing rivals such as Dell Computer and IBM, which also offer notebooks with wireless-networking capabilities. The antenna alone is not sufficient and requires a radio transmitter that fits into the notebook's mini-PCI slot.

The whole outfit--antenna and LAN component--connects over the air to a receiver, or base station, attached to the corporate network. Using the technology, notebooks can be carted from cubicle to conference room and remain connected wirelessly to the network or the Internet.

But HP faced difficult design decisions trying to bring wireless networking to market. Currently all portables pack only two slots, which, in the case of thin-and-light models, typically are filled with a modem and wired network adapter.

Adding the wireless component meant sacrificing the hardware modem and using software instead. But HP in testing found corporate customers preferred a hardware modem, which is typically more reliable.

"They could not give up on these two components," said ARS analyst Matt Sargent. "The modem and networking are supremely important at this point. The wireless is nice to have but not at all essential to the notebook market at this point."

Dell, which is shipping two notebooks with antennas but without the mini-PCI component, has found ways around the problem HP hasn't. As its systems are built to order, customers can choose from a variety of options, including a combo mini-PCI modem/network adapter or modem PC Card that allows all three connectivity features to run off of hardware. Dell expects to ship the mini-PCI LAN component before the end of the year, when it is available from supplier Lucent.

IBM takes a similar approach to Dell, but unlike the Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker, it is already shipping one notebook with fully integrated wireless. Big Blue is selling the ThinkPad i Series 1300 with integrated antenna and mini-PCI LAN component for between $1,399 and $1,599.

While Lucent supplies wireless LAN cards to both Dell and IBM, the component for consumer portables such as the i Series was ready before the one for commercial notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude C600 and C800.

The OmniBook 500 does come with a single PC Card slot that could be filled with either a modem or a network card. But sources close to HP could not explain why the company did not take this route.

Still, Sargent isn't convinced that wireless networking is all that important for ultraportables.

"Where these things are being used is outside the office, where a wireless modem would be more exciting and make more sense," he said.

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