DIGITAL Equipment Corp has announced the first notebook computers engineered and designed by the firm and which it says are innovative enough to put the company at the top of the notebook market. The launch, held in San Francisco last week, will be followed by regional launches worldwide during the next two months. A Hong Kong-launch will take place later this month. The new HiNote and HiNote Ultra machines target the mid to high end of the notebook market and will likely find their main audience in corporations and large organisations where employees need to carry computing power with them. Digital has incorporated leading-edge technology and innovation to make a product that may be 'the most interesting and provocative announcement from Digital in a decade', according to Frank Fortunato, the company's vice-president and general manager for personal computers in the Asia-Pacific region. According to Winnie Briney, vice-president of mobile products at Digital, the new notebooks are designed to eliminate the common compromises made by the mobile user, including the power versus size dilemma. 'We are freeing notebook users from choosing between power and small size,' she said, adding that among the three design criteria in the new notebooks are form factor and functionality. The new HiNote is clearly positioned in the same category as today's existing notebook PCs. It offers a full-size keyboard and 23-centimetre display with processor options up to 75 megahertz, customer upgradeable hard drives, PCMCIA support, and trackball positioned in the centre of the machine. Ms Briney said the HiNote could easily act as a desktop replacement, especially because it supported built-in 32-bit local bus video and will be available next year with a half-gigabyte hard drive. The HiNote ultra appears to be aimed at creating a new market segment that can potentially eliminate sub-notebooks from the realm of computing devices, placing them more in the same class as personal digital assistants, In fact, Mr Fortunato said that the Ultra should not be classified in existing portable computer categories. 'There is no comparison for the Ultra,' he said. 'We have created a new class of notebook. It is neither a notebook or subnotebook.' The Ultra weighs in as low as 11/2 kilograms and is as little as 21/2 centimetres thick in the monochrome model. It still includes a full-size keyboard, a 23-cms display and the same trackball as the HiNote. In addition, it can accommodate up to 24 MB of RAM, up to a 75-MHz user-upgradeable CPU. It also comes with a hot-dockable zero-footprint floppy disk drive dock that adds little to the unit's weight and fits snuggly in the space created by the fold-down lithium ion battery that doubles as a keyboard tilting device. An optional combined floppy-drive PCMCIA dock gives users access to up to four Type II PCMCIA cards when combined with the Ultra's built-in slots which can make it a desktop replacement without a bulky notebook dock. According to Mr Fortunato, the new technology in the computers which has generated at least 13 patent applications, will give the Ultra leadership life of at least six months. In fact, Digital hopes it may take even longer for competitors to provide the same functionality in similar form factors. 'In some cases, the ultra is two pounds or lighter,' said Richar McPherson, mobile products marketing manager for Digital Asia-Pacific. 'Whatever might be going on with other vendors, you can't just take out weight. You have to design it from the bottom up.' Referring to a high-jump analogy, Mr Fortunato said Digital had tried to 'raise the bar' with the HiNote families. 'Six-and-a-half pounds used to be the benchmark,' he said. 'We've put it two pegs up at least.' Mr Fortunato acknowledged that Digital was likely to face its closest competition from Hewlett-Packard, which just released colour versions of its well-known OmniBook subnotebook. Mr Fortunato said he expected the HiNotes would be popular in Asia because of a growing business class that he saw as better off than middle classes elsewhere. The products should also be popular in China because they would allow the mainland to leapfrog existing portable computing technology, he said. Digital hopes to sell as many as 175,000 units during the next 12 months to give it about two per cent of the notebook market. Because of other companies' experiences with short supply following a product launch, Digital has tried to accurately forecast demand, something that has not proved easy. 'We are doing everything we can to avoid availability issues,' Mr McPherson said. Even so, Digital found that it had to increase its forecasts even before shipping the product. The new machines are all designed to be Internet-ready. While they don't ship with a PCMCIA modem, in the US they come bundled with Delphi's navigation software. According to Jeff Gustafson, Digital's PC product marketing manager for the Asia-Pacific, the company will try to find similar solutions in local Asian markets. At present, several versions of the new notebooks are available with foreign language keyboards and a Chinese version is being developed. Both the HiNote and the HiNote Ultra include five models ranging from low-end monochrome versions to high-end thin film transistor editions. The HiNotes range in price from US$1,699 to $4,399. The Ultras are slightly more expensive, starting at $2,099 and topping out at $4,999.