Laptop computers have come a long way since Toshiba Corp. introduced the first IBM-compatible machine 20 years ago, and more advances are coming in the years ahead.

However, the overriding concern for hardware makers when picking features to add to new laptops now, is price and not necessarily the latest advances in technology, according to Richard Hsu, director of BenQ's computer products strategic business unit.

For executives like Hsu, who oversees the development of BenQ's Joybook line of laptop computers, there are many new technologies to consider when planning laptop models that will be available five years from now, including low-voltage chips, new displays and batteries, and wireless technologies. But the focus on price means that those future machines are likely to closely resemble those sold today, albeit with some improvements and a few new capabilities.

Low power chips
Perhaps the most important improvement will be reduced power consumption, which means longer battery life.

Many of the laptop components developed in recent years aim to reduce the amount of power consumed by a laptop. For instance, several chip makers, including Transmeta, have developed low-power processors, but lower power consumption can mean less processing horsepower for running applications. As a result, these low-power chips are often found in niche products rather than mainstream business or consumer laptops, and Transmeta's future is in question. .

For mainstream laptops, Intel has also looked to improve power consumption with its Pentium M processor, which lies at the heart of the company's Centrino platform that pairs a processor with a Wi-Fi chipset.

Cheaper displays - not OLEDs
Another focus in the drive to reduce overall power consumption centres on the display, which can consume up to 20 percent of a laptop's power. While software-based power management can switch off a screen that isn't being used, engineers are developing LCD (liquid crystal display) panels that draw less power than existing displays. Increasingly, these screens will be offered in widescreen formats, which are more cost-effective for LCD panel makers to produce, Hsu said.

One display technology that won't make the cut into laptops any time soon because of costs is OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens, according to Hsu.

Batteries due for a change?
Another technology that hardware makers will consider adding to future laptops is fuel-cell batteries. These are able to generate electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air and are instantly rechargeable with a new cartridge of methanol. Prototypes from several companies have been able to provide about enough power to run a lap top for 10 hours on a single cartridge and, because the cartridges are small, several could easily be carried in a bag or pocket.

But the problem is cost. These batteries will be much more expensive than existing alternatives, Hsu said. "With the cost-down trend, how do you put a two-times or three-times more expensive battery cell inside a laptop?" he asked. Instead, it seems like conventional batteries are due for a boom.

Instead of fuel cells, Hsu would like to see lithium-ion batteries that could be fully charged in under 30 minutes. One possible option is a fast charging lithium-ion battery now under development by Toshiba, which can be charged to about 80 percent of its capacity in 1 minute.

Wireless links get faster?
Perhaps the biggest advance in laptop technology over the next five years will be the addition of new wireless technologies, including wireless USB and UWB (Ultra Wideband), for connecting devices over short ranges, and WiMax, for accessing the Internet over a wide area network.

"WiMax we will see in two or three years, it depends on the infrastructure," Hsu said. Chips supporting WiMax are already available but they aren't suitable for laptops. Intel and other companies don't expect to have those available until 2007 or 2008.