Laptop and notebook computers are today's fastest-selling models, with sales rising at more than 30 percent a year, compared to single-digit increases for desktop computers.
There's no secret to the portable computer's popularity.
Prices are down, with good models available for around $1,000. Yes, that's still a lot of money, but it's a lot less than the $2,000-plus price tags from a few years ago.
At the same time, these small, light computers offer more power and more user-friendly features, such as feel-good keyboards and screens with bright, crisp images.
A lowest-price, or “entry-level,” laptop meets all the needs of the vast majority of computer users, who do basic tasks like word processing, sending and receiving e-mail, and accessing the Internet.
Many people buy a laptop as a second computer, used in addition to a desktop PC in their home or office. A laptop is great to haul along on business trips or vacations to assure continued access to e-mail and the Internet. It's also great as a spare when the desktop computer is occupied.
A growing number of people, however, are buying laptops as desktop replacements - not in addition to a desktop PC, but instead of one.
What could be better for people who live in smaller homes where space is at a premium, or a college dormitory?
The convenience factor alone should be enough to win consumers over.
Desktop PCs really have the perfect name. They hog an entire desktop, with the keyboard, system unit, and monitor - not to mention stereo speakers. With the monitor alone often weighing 50 pounds, few people move a desktop system from place to place after the initial set-up.
A desktop-replacement laptop has all that power and versatility in a package that often weighs less than 8 pounds, is barely 2 inches thick, and can be tucked away in a desk drawer when not in use.
Desktop replacements, of course, are not intended only for home or office use. Yes, desktop replacements do weigh a little more than ultra-light laptops. Yet they're still wonderful for mobile computing and can be tucked into a backpack or briefcase and taken on the road.
Most laptop manufacturers offer a product line that includes several models. The major laptop manufacturers, ranked by domestic sales, are Dell, which sells 21.5 percent of all laptops; Compaq (16.6 percent), Toshiba (13.4 percent), IBM (12.2 percent), and Hewlett-Packard (5.3 percent).
Product lines begin with very light, thin computers that may sacrifice features like a built-in, or “integrated,” CD-ROM/DVD drive and 3.5-inch diskette drive to achieve low weight. The drives on ultra-light models usually are separate plug-in units.
Desktop replacements are top-of-the-line models, with all the features of a regular desktop built right in.
Those usually include a CD-ROM/DVD drive; a network interface card for high-speed Internet access; a fast processor; a high-capacity hard disk; lots of random access memory (RAM); a larger, high-quality screen and the video hardware to support it, and better audio features.
Audio is one of the few areas where laptops really pale in comparison to desktops. Plan on using headphones for listening to movies or music, and external speakers for making Power Point presentations to audiences. Connecting speakers means just plugging into one of the many jacks that laptops provide for external devices.
Some desktop replacement fans buy a docking port, which remains on the desk with permanent connections to stereo speakers, standard keyboard, monitor, and other gear. Just slide the laptop into the port and everything is connected.
Check manufacturer's Web sites (www.dell.com, www.compaq.com, www.toshiba.com, www.hp.com) for information and product reviews, and watch for future columns on individual models.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.