(STAR) By Alma Buelva - It used to be that the fastest, sleekest, and lightest notebook computer could easily tilt the market to its favor. Not anymore.

Sophisticated notebook buyers now look beyond basic hardware attributes and expect to find built-in software suites that will solve their real-life tech problems that eat away from the investments they’ve made in their notebooks.

According to analysts, 80 percent of the cost of a PC is incurred after it has been purchased. Issues involving security, access, stability and reliability surface after IT managers have assigned and deployed laptops to end-users. This obvious need to improve business user productivity and reduce the overall life-cycle costs has led major notebook manufacturers to make major hardware improvements and add software tools in their notebooks.

IBM, even before it sold its PC business to Lenovo, was doing research and development for the ThinkVantage tools, a suite of system software designed to make computing easy and simple for end-users and make deployment and administration easy and secure for IT managers. Lenovo, which inherits these technologies, picks up on the research and development started by IBM and adds its own.

The ThinkPad, which IBM always referred to as a business notebook despite its success in the personal market, too, will remain as the business notebook offering of Lenovo. In February, when the company unveiled its first-ever Lenovo-branded PCs worldwide, the Lenovo 3000 product family, it also unveiled the suite of Lenovo Care productivity tools.

Not to be outdone, HP did the same by introducing the HP Professional Innovations, a suite of over 30 unique hardware enhancements and software applications, 10 of which are offered for the first time with the recently released HP Compaq nc2400 and tc4400 series.

Software for worry-free computing

Lenovo’s concept of worry-free computing is designed to appeal to small businesses with usually no IT departments. The Lenovo Care productivity tools are to replace PC maintenance and service guesswork with automatic tools so users can concentrate on their businesses and not on managing IT.

The Lenovo Care tools aim to lessen user’s dependency on IT help desk by offering a central location for useful tools and automating many routine security and maintenance tasks. For example, it has a one-button system recovery to help users diagnose, get help and recover systems from software failures. It can also make a Lenovo computer identify and automatically do a critical system update of its own software without the user having to lift a finger.

The HP Professional Innovations, meanwhile, gives its own take on how the company’s latest notebooks will answer to new levels of security, ease-of-use and reliability concerns. One security feature is a device access manager that intelligently turns ports on or off to prevent data theft and installations of unwanted programs. The suite also includes the HP Credential Manager for easy enforcement of sound security policy while providing simple access for the client base.

Hardware improvements

With HP Professional Innovations, the new Windows Vista-capable computers of HP also get a new range of hardware features such as biometric fingerprint sensors, a hard drive locking technology and shock protection system, a tougher and spill-resistant keyboard, and improved frame and display enclosure, among others. However, HP is neither the only one nor always the first to implement improvements in many of these hardware areas as evident in the much earlier product launches of Lenovo and even of Taiwan-based Acer.

In December last year, Lenovo sold its one-millionth ThinkPad with an integrated fingerprint reader, making the company the largest provider of biometric-enabled PCs in the world. In January, the company launched select models of the ThinkPad X60 and T60 series with an integrated fingerprint reader to enable users to access password-protected data.

Early in the year when Acer came ahead of everyone in introducing an Intel dual-core notebook locally, it also showed off its own unique set of software and hardware built-in tools, including the Acer eLock Management that limits access to external storage media by locking up the removable data, optical and floppy drives to ensure that data cannot be stolen.

The latest Acer notebooks also feature the Acer GraviSense, an innovative utility designed to further protect users’ data by automatically moving the read/write heads of the Acer notebook’s hard disk away from the storage disk in the event that a sudden motion is detected. The Acer GraviSense also doubles as an alarm system in case the notebook is moved by an unauthorized person.

The IBM ThinkPad also has a so-called Active Protection System that parks the hard disk drive when it drops seven to nine inches using an algorithm that predicts the fall. Some of the newest ThinkPads also feature rubber shock mounts with two axis floating connectors to reduce shock to the hard disk drive by 50 percent. In addition, the ThinkPad R60 launched last May has the ThinkPad Shock Mounted Hard Drive, a hardware switch for wireless shutoff, and integrated WWAN.

HP, meanwhile, has a patent pending for its shock-absorbing mounting used on its latest notebooks to protect the hard drive from shock and vibration to reduce the chances of data corruption.

Laptop makers are also keen on improving the covers and casings of their notebooks. Last week’s launch of the HP Compaq nc2400 and tc4400 series had a spirited product representative showing off the new notebooks’ magnesium alloy frame and display enclosure. Magnesium alloy is a strong but lightweight material designed to physically toughen the notebook from daily use.

This same material has found its way in the five-month-old ThinkPad R60 series. Lenovo calls it the ThinkPad Roll Cage, a magnesium alloy shell that helps protect the hard drive and other internal components.

Lenovo took the cover matter one step further by using titanium material in the latest ThinkPad Z60 to make the cover scratch-resistant. On top of the titanium cover, Lenovo engineers also applied a special anti-fingerprint coating to help users keep their notebooks looking good and smudge-free.

Keyboard is also a subject of great improvement with both HP and Lenovo introducing spill-resistant keyboards. HP’s product representative made a big splash (pun intended) in spilling water on the new HP ultraportables. The new keyboard used on new HP notebooks is specially constructed with a thin Mylar film that minimizes risk of damage to sensitive, critical components underneath it. HP has also made its latest keyboards as solid and rigid as possible while giving users a soft and silent-to-the-touch keypad.

HP even showed the press a video of some of the processes being undertaken at its testing facilities abroad to effect the new hardware developments. In the video, HP showed how its multi-tiered product validation process that take about 47,000 hours of testing per platform helped the company arrived at its new innovations.

Meanwhile, at Lenovo’s R&D lab in Yamato, Japan, a series of seemingly torturous tests on ThinkPad notebooks are being done by Lenovo engineers under the leadership of no less than Arimasa Naitoh, the renowned inventor of the ThinkPad. As a result, the engineers are able to structurally improve the new and future ThinkPad series when it comes to thermal design, wireless connections and frame strength.

Continuous R&D also led to the incorporation of new ThinkPad keyboards with stronger pantograph design, two drain holes for better liquid discharge. Furthermore, Lenovo’s Yamato Labs also conduct a battery of tests on specific notebook models with the help of machines and devices that do nothing but regularly apply pressure on a ThinkPad or test its hinges for thousands of times.

Finally, there is the issue of battery life. Which brand and model got the longest battery power? HP promises up to 15 hours of battery life with the use of the HP Extended Life. The ThinkPad X60 and T60 offer up to 11 hours of battery at least.

No serious notebook user could complain about any of these major improvements on the software and hardware aspects. Businesses that have tight IT budgets would certainly appreciate getting more value for their money. There are simply more things to consider now before buying a notebook and more ways to compare apples to apples so that nobody ends up buying a lemon.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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