All I can say is, it's about time!

Rumors are flying that Apple ( AAPL) next week will announce a new slate of notebook computers, including one that sells for $800. I want to know what they've been waiting for.

Apple keeps a tight rein over its software and hardware, and that policy has served it well. But there has been a slew of inexpensive, small laptops that run on Microsoft ( MSFT) Windows that are becoming all the rage.

Companies like Asus, Dell ( DELL), H-P ( HPQ), Lenovo, Intel ( INTC), MSI and others are blazing the way with feature-loaded mini-laptop computers selling for less than $500. In some configurations, hundreds less than $500.

Dell Mini-Laptop: Big Trouble for Eee?

So, it's no surprise that blogs are reporting that a leaked price list is telling retailers that their Oct. 14 announcement will include a refreshed line of portable computers -- with a price range of $800 up to $3,100. Currently, the cheapest Apple laptop sells for $1,100.

But it's the low-priced portables that will grab all the attention of shoppers these days, with good reason. First of all: the economy. No explanation needed there.

Second, all those companies I listed above are selling their minis as fast as they can make them. They're big with schoolkids and adults who appreciate the portability. Most run on stable, easy-to-master operating systems like Windows XP and Linux.

The little computers are capable of doing most everything that a bigger laptop can do. Not everything, but enough to make them appealing to shoppers. For instance, I'm writing this on a terrific Asus Eee PC. It does everything I need when I'm on the go. Currently, there is nothing from Apple that compares -- sizewise, featurewise or pricewise.

Historically, Apple has always set the bar quite high when it comes to design and usability. But that has come with a downside: higher prices than comparable Windows computers. If these rumors are correct, this new $800 portable suffers from the same problem.

A cheaper Apple laptop comes at the right time, in time for the holiday shopping season, though it would have been better for Apple if these new designs could have been ready in time for this year's back-to-school season. I'm guessing the Cupertino crew was too busy trying to get the iPhone 3G out the door and running properly to achieve that kind of deadline.

We see what's up Steve Jobs' sleeve soon enough. I'm sure it will look great. And we'll learn what Apple had to "leave out" -- if anything -- to get the price down to current marketplace realities.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.

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