PluggedIn: Multifunction Devices Draw Back-To-School Crowd

By Duncan Martell

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The consumer electronics gizmo that offers many functions in a small package is what’s compelling back-to-school shoppers to open their wallets.

Tablet personal computers on which users can type or handwrite their notes, next-generation handhelds that double as video players and advanced camera phones are among the hottest sellers, analysts say.

One of the highlights is Averatec Inc.’s C3500 convertible notebook, whose display swivels back on itself and can be used to take notes longhand. While such a product isn’t new, the Averatec PC is a hit because of its comparatively low price, analysts said. It starts at $1,349.99 before a $50 mail-in rebate, according to the company’s Web site.

“I’ve been told consistently that that has been one of the hottest products,” said analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.

The C3500 is also a full-fledged computer that uses Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP (news – web sites) Tablet PC operating system software and a low-voltage Athlon processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. It has high-speed wireless Internet access, a DVD drive and a 12.1-inch screen.

Bajarin said the price is more than acceptable for college students, since most convertible tablets cost $2,300 to $2,500.

Handheld computers have long been a staple of high-school and college students, but more advanced machines that can double as a video camera are particularly popular with young people heading back to school this year.

One such device is PalmOne Inc.’s Zire 72, which starts at $299 and uses the Palm operating system software from PalmSource Inc.

With a 1.2 megapixel built-in camera, users can take pictures and, if they buy an expansion memory card, can shoot video and listen to MP3 digital music files.

“Now I’ve got all my class schedules on there, and I can even do video,” Bajarin said. “That’s much more attractive than the standard camera phones.”

That said, the more standard camera phones that are seemingly omnipresent are still a must-have for high school and college students.

“Certainly camera phones are popular, but there’s also a lot more interest in video instant messaging now,” said analyst Stephen Baker of research firm NPD Group. Students are digging deep into their closets and pulling out Web video cameras, he added.

Internet media company Yahoo Inc. and others have rolled out video instant messaging. Apple Computer Inc., with its iChat software, also offers the service.

Also combining a phone, e-mail, Web browsing, instant messaging, a digital camera, personal information management functions and games are the “hiptop” devices from Danger Inc., Bajarin said.

They’re known as the Sidekick when sold by Deutsche Telekom’s U.S. mobile operator T-Mobile USA, which has given them a suggested price of $249.99.

Actresses Jennifer Aniston and Demi Moore have whipped out their Sidekicks during television appearances, and actor Ashton Kutcher uses one. The product has also appeared in rap videos.

“It’s got the cool factor and part of that is being helped by its use on television shows,” Bajarin said.

And, of course, Apple’s iPod is still a hot seller, particularly for college students. With more than 3 million of the digital music players sold and better availability of the multicolored iPod mini players, those devices should be strong sellers during the back-to-school season, analysts said.

“That one’s somewhat of a given,” Bajarin said of the iPod.

The success of the iPod and another strong season for notebook PCs point to the importance of portability and Internet connectivity for today’s students, analysts said.

“Any notebook that gets thrown out on the shelves in August is going to sell like crazy,” NPD’s Baker said. “It looks like this year is going to be just as strong as last year.”