Intel has introduced a new set of chips that could make thin laptops more affordable. Being skinny is a good thing. At least, that's what chip and computer makers seem to think these days. Among others, Intel (INTC) on Monday said it's introducing new ultra low-voltage processors for thin laptops that will hit store shelves in June.

Because they enable laptops with smaller batteries, chips that consume less power could help laptop makers reach a long-held goal of making their offerings thinner, yet still powerful enough to run the software programs many consumers use. The goal presents a significant challenge considering that consumers are looking for more features, including better video and audio experiences, and longer battery life at the same time.

While Intel launched chips for thin laptops earlier this year, it's adding new processors to the lineup. What's also different about these new chips is that they are aiming for lower-priced laptops. In other words, the new chips could help make lighter-weight laptops -- with longer battery lives -- mainstream. Computer makers Lenovo (LNVGY), Acer and Asus plan to include the new Intel chips in laptops expected to weigh in at 5 pounds or less, with thicknesses of less than an inch.

What Consumers Want

The 2008 launch of Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air, sized at less than an inch thick and weighing a mere 3 pounds, has helped make ultra-thin laptops hip. The MacBook Air runs on a high-end Intel chip, which is reflected in the high price of $1,499 to $1,799. (For comparison, a regular MacBook retails for $999, and it has a faster processor and larger hard-drive storage capacity.)

Several PC companies, such as Dell (DELL) and Sony (SNE), offer similarly slender products. They, too, tend to be expensive, generally priced between $1,500 and $2,000.

But those high prices could change now that Intel is not only adding more ultra low-voltage chips to its the high-end Core line of chips, but it also is offering low-voltage chips from the lower-priced Celeron and Pentium lines. The company didn't say how much the new laptops will cost, but laptops featuring Celeron processors, the cheapest of the three product lines, frequently cost $500 or less today.

The iPad Factor

Aside from targeting regular laptops, semiconductor and computer makers also are gunning for the netbook and tablet market, which consists of devices designed mostly for surfing the Internet, emailing and streaming music and videos. Compared with most laptops, netbooks and tablets typically lack DVD drives, and also don't have the processing power to show DVDs or edit videos, for example.

The April launch of the iPad, which features Apple's own processor, has shined a spotlight on tablets. While many manufacturers previously produced -- or considered producing -- tablets, the concept has failed to win broad consumer appeal before now. The fanfare surrounding the iPad could indicate that consumers might be more willing to consider tablets now, especially given the growing reliance on the Internet for social networking and entertainment.

Earlier this year, Lenovo launched a netbook-tablet hybrid, called the IdeaPad S10-3t, that has a touch-screen that can swivel and fold so that the screen can function both as a netbook with a keyboard or as a tablet without a keyboard. Intel's rival Advanced Micro Devices also has been developing processors for ultra-thin laptops.


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