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John G. Spooner


ROUND ROCK, Texas–Dell is getting ready to launch a big-screen version of its Inspiron notebook.

The PC maker will soon give buyers the choice of a 17-inch display with the laptop, company executives said in an interview this week at Dell’s headquarters. The company’s largest mobile screen right now, offered on several models, measures 15.4 inches.

Notebooks with 16-inch or 17-inch displays have been available for more than a year. Apple Computer was first to market, in early 2003, with a 17-inch PowerBook, and Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Gateway now offer big-screen laptops as well. Those machines are priced higher than models with the same components but with a 15-inch or 15.4-inch display.

The time lag of Dell’s launch may well be intentional. The company often waits until it thinks a market is mature before it enters it.

Most 17-inch notebooks sell at a premium above smaller-screen models in the United States. They cost about $2,000, compared with about $1,350 for the average notebook, according to data from the NPD Group. That price difference has helped limit sales of big-display models, which accounted for only 6 percent of total U.S. retail sales in the past 15 months, according to NPD.

“It all comes down to price and value. It’s really tough to beat 15.4-inch products as a solid value, the way they’re being priced and marketed right now,” said Steve Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group. “Most of them are in the $1,000-to-$1,500 price band.”

Dell sells its products directly to customers rather than through retail outlets. Nevertheless, general trends in the retail market, including the small scope of the big-display segment, influenced Dell’s thinking, the executives said.

Another factor was that the first 17-inch displays had a limited range of brightness and resolution available, compared with smaller screens, said Jay Parker, Dell’s director of marketing for Latitude and wireless products.

“We didn’t want to jump in at the beginning of the market, in what was a small opportunity with, I won’t call it an inferior product, but something that was less than optimal, and get a black eye,” he said. “So we’ve chosen to wait a little while longer.”

The PC maker even launched its Inspiron XPS games notebook–its top-of-the-line mobile machine–with a 15.4-inch widescreen rather than with a 17-inch display.

Given this background, Dell may have its work cut out for it. For the product to catch on with customers, Dell must offer the 17-inch screen as a relatively inexpensive upgrade. In the interview, the executives declined to give details about the price and features of the new machine.

Despite this, Dell’s intention to launch a big-screen model indicates that the company has some confidence in the sector. It has even considered introducing a 17-inch screen for its business-oriented Latitude line, although that’s not likely to happen soon, Parker said.

“The bottom line is it continues to be a small part of the market. Dell, even in the consumer space, is about hitting the product categories that meet the most customer needs and have the most return for us,” Parker said. The “17-inch…is a relatively small portion of that.”

Nevertheless, analysts such as Baker identify 17-inch screen notebooks as an opportunity for PC makers. And analysts agree that given that most of Dell’s major competitors are offering 17-inch notebooks, the company needs to get into the race.

“Right now, just about every major player has a 15.4-inch display notebook. The differentiators now are 17-inch (screens), especially if you want to charge high-end prices,” said Alan Promisel, an analyst with IDC. “It’s a matter of remaining competitive in that high-end space.”

Though Dell did not give details on the upcoming notebook, it’s likely to be an Inspiron 9000-series machine that will hit shelves in time for the holiday season. It’s likely to replace the Inspiron 9100, which Dell stopped selling earlier this week.

The big-screen notebook will take on competitors such as Hewlett-Packard’s Pavilion zd7000. A zd7000 model, sold directly to customers via HP’s site, starts at $1,299 before rebates. It comes with a 17-inch WXGA+ screen, which offers a resolution of 1,440 by 900 pixels. At that price, the machine includes a 2.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive and a DVD-ROM drive, the HP site shows.