E3 Notebook: 17-inch laptops getting squeezed?

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As the proud user of a two-year-old 17-inch PowerBook G4, I’ve long had a bit of hubris when I haul out my big laptop in the presence of puny 15-inch or smaller laptops. Of course, as petty as it sounds, I smile inwardly when I see the user of a small PC laptop (or even a smaller PowerBook or iBook) glaring jealously at my expansive screen. Now I’ve come to find out that state of the art in gaming laptops is no longer 17-inch—19-inch is the new big.

That’s right, 19-inch.

Several manufacturers at this week’s eFocus event—an annual gathering that happens right before the E3 gaming trade show kicks off—displayed their latest laptop systems, including high-end PC gaming rig makers Alienware ( recently acquired by Dell ), VoodooPC and mainstream laptop maker Toshiba.

These new 19-inch behemoths make my 17-inch PowerBook G4 look like a PowerBook Duo by comparison—they have to be seen to be believed. They feature 64-bit AMD microprocessors and 256MB of VRAM, often paired to Scalable Link Interface (SLI)-equipped graphics hardware made by Nvidia. That’s a slimmed down version of the same dual-card technology that cutting-edge gaming desktop systems use.

So as gaming rigs, this new breed of gargantuan laptop is the absolute cutting edge. Nothing can touch them in terms of portability and performance. I got to play a few first-person shooters on them and watch some movies, and I was impressed.

Portability is a relative term, however. The laptops have a heck of an impressive presence on the desktop, but I wouldn’t want to be saddled with one. The user of a 19-inch laptop let me hold his carrying case for a minute, and my arm near fell off. VoodooPC’s top-of-the-line 19-incher, the Envy U:909, weighs 16 pounds. That’s more than twice the weight of a 17-inch MacBook Pro.

And oddly, these 19-inch displays look fantastic, but their resolution isn’t any higher than a 17-inch MacBook Pro—the screens feature a native resolution of 1,680-by-1,050 pixels. So while the image may be bigger, the resolution is just the same.

There are a few other practical reasons why a 19-inch laptop isn’t a good idea for the average road warrior. For one thing, they’re very, very expensive—upwards of $5,000 once you’ve equipped them suitably. And the other problem is battery life. While one manufacturer insisted that hers would last for one-and-a-half hours on a single battery charge, another confessed to me that a more realistic estimate was one half hour. That’s right—30 minutes. So it’s great for show, but not exactly practical for use in travel, unless you carry your own generator. Which might be a problem getting through airport security.

Still, I’d love to see the envious looks in the coach section if I ever hauled out one of those terrors on a transatlantic flight. I’d probably have to buy the monster its own ticket.

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