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Will Anyone Pay $2,000 (or even $1,000) for a Laptop?

Unless you’re an A.I.G. executive about to receive a bonus, chances are you don’t have two grand to drop on a new notebook. And yet here comes Dell announcing the $1,999 Adamo. At 0.65 inches thick, it’s the world’s thinnest laptop, and like Apple's MacBook Air, it’s crafted using a single piece of aluminum. I went hands-on with this machine at CES and came away impressed with its cutting-edge design, right down to the square holes on the back of the system. (Sure, circles are less expensive to punch through metal, but no detail is too small for tech fashionistas, right?)

There’s just one problem. In a year dominated by sour economic news and low-cost netbooks, premium systems like the Adamo—which joins recent notebooks like the $2,799 17-inch MacBook Pro and $2,699 Tohsiba Qosmio X305-Q725 in the sticker shock club—make vendors look almost oblivious to the recession. To be fair, all of these systems were under development long before the market tanked, but when Dell likens the Adamo to a “fine watch,” it’s hard to not feel as though you’ve traveled back in time before the latest bubble burst.

The challenge for notebook makers is a daunting one. How do you get consumers to consider a $2,000 or even $1,000 laptop seriously, when you can snag two netbooks with over 6 hours of battery life for $700? Sure, there will always be a market for high-end PCs, but these days that pool of customers is getting shallower by the second.

Playing up design is certainly one way to entice those who still have disposable incomes. Dell’s Adamo launch will be accompanied by a glitzy advertising campaign that reinforces the product’s “fall in love” message. And after all, love is blind. But creating an object of desire alone may not be enough to get cash-strapped consumers to whip out their wallets. Netbooks are stylish in their own right, and they offer good-enough performance for what users are interested in doing most: surfing the Web, updating Facebook and Twitter, and checking e-mail.

What notebook vendors need to realize is that netbooks have completely reset consumers’ expectations of what’s worth paying extra for. Even Rahul Sood, founder of boutique computer maker Voodoo PC and CTO of HP’s gaming business, blogged earlier this week that $400 is the new $900. And that’s coming from the person who brought the very Adamo-like Voodoo Envy to market.

So can the PC industry convince buyers that anything other than a netbook is worth the investment? Yes, by trumpeting design but also the performance delta between netbooks and notebooks and what you can do with that extra processing and graphics muscle, whether it’s playing the latest 3D games without a hiccup (gaming machines under $1,200 will likely sell well this year), editing and transcoding video (Nvidia is doing a good job of promoting its CUDA platform), or multitasking scenarios that netbooks just can’t handle.

The Adamo represents a good first step in reminding consumers that “luxury” and “laptop” still belong in the same sentence, but Dell and others will need to be able to justify every dollar spent over the cost of a netbook—or risk looking like they’re out of touch.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.