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SonoSite introduces high-end scanner into handheld ultrasound market


SonoSite will break new ground today, April 18, with the release of a handheld ultrasound system designed to compete in image quality and applications with high-end cart-based systems.

SonoSite will break new ground today, April 18, with the release of a handheld ultrasound system designed to compete in image quality and applications with high-end cart-based systems.

The new MicroMaxx handheld unit crams 128 channels into a 7.8-pound package that supports 2D, M-mode, Doppler, and color flow. It can be equipped with phased-array and transesophageal transducers and optimized with software for specific applications. It display images on an integrated 10.4-inch LCD screen.

The system is designed to close the gap between cart-based and "luggable" systems. Users of previous generations of SonoSite equipment have tended to use these systems for a quick look, turning to cart-based products to get a more detailed assessment when anomalies are found, according to Jeremy Wiggins, director of product management.

"We hear that they often go back to get a 'real' study on a big system," he said. "We believe MicroMaxx will reduce that practice by offering high-end/premium level performance in 2D, spectral Doppler, and color, as well as providing analysis packages right there with them."

MicroMaxx will begin shipping in June, the same month SonoSite plans to kick off a global marketing campaign, targeting major cities across the U.S. and Europe. A similar tour of Asian cities is being planned for later this year. Prices will range from $40,000 to $60,000, depending on the configuration, particularly the number and type of transducers. This range compares with the Titan, priced in the mid-$30,000s; the 180, which runs in the mid-$20,000s; and the iLook, which supports catheter insertions and is priced in the midteens.

MicroMaxx has four times the bandwidth of Titan and enough horsepower to compete with high-end radiology and cardiology systems, said Kevin M. Goodwin, SonoSite president and CEO. The company has benchmarked its new product against high-performance cart-based systems built by the three major manufacturers.

"We have been in a few labs testing different applications, and although it is early yet, we are very encouraged to see that in clinical tests, you couldn't tell the difference between our images and those on a large system," he said.

SonoSite engineers also have embedded into MicroMaxx the ability to measure intimamedia thickness (IMT) of the carotid. This function, which measures subclinical cardiovascular disease, is available on cart-based systems and even other SonoSite products as an offline feature on workstations. The mobility of MicroMaxx will change the way the application is used.

"As you take ultrasound from a large, complicated, stationary modality, shrink it down, and make it portable, you open opportunities to solve healthcare problems," Goodwin said.

Although MicroMaxx may have image quality comparable to superpremium systems, it lacks the advanced features found on these cart-based systems, such as 3D and 4D imaging. Volumetric capabilities are on the drawing board for future MicroMaxx releases, according to Wiggins, who helped develop the 3D and 4D technologies built into Philips' cardiology systems. But the company is in no rush to build them.

"Philips is still learning where these technologies are going," Wiggins said. "We want to be able to watch and see where they're headed - and not jump in too soon."

MicroMaxx already represents a leap forward in technical capability. The company reengineered the front end and beamformer, tweaking technologies addressing transmit and receive, as well as multiplexing. Adding channels and the supporting electronics not only increased the dynamic range of the system, but also enhanced the operator's control over that range.

"We have given users the flexibility to control the dynamic range in increments so they can control the image-quality settings to their liking," said Bradley Garrett, SonoSite chief operating officer.

Application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) are at the heart of much of this technical improvement. By packing more power into the ASICs that handle transmit and receive functions, SonoSite was able to reduce the number of components built into MicroMaxx.

"Having fewer parts generally means better signal integrity and less chance of something breaking," Garrett said.

The reliability of these systems has served the company well, said Goodwin, who boasts 20,000 installations of SonoSite systems in the seven years the company has been operating.

"Our products are designed for use at the point of care without compromise in quality and with tremendous resiliency and ruggedness," he said. "They don't break if they are dropped from three meters."

MicroMaxx comes with a five-year warranty, affording customers far greater protection than other ultrasound systems on the market today, Wiggins said. Competitors may be willing to cut the price of their products to compete with MicroMaxx, but they'll be hard pressed to match the service guarantees.

"We will be very aggressive on that in talking to customers not only about the performance of MicroMaxx but also about its value proposition," Wiggins said. "We plan to force the competition to come to the plate to match that and - to the best of our knowledge - they will not be able to do it."

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