Laptops

The Rise (and Possible Fall) of Ultraportable Laptops

For some users, the new generation of ultraportable notebooks comes close to embodying the Holy Grail for road warriors. Their laptop-like keyboards make them more usable for typing tasks than smart phones, but they are lighter and cheaper than traditional laptops. The original Asus Eee PC, for instance, cost about $400 and weighed about two pounds when it was introduced last October.

However, while pundits and technology journalists have lavished attention on these products, skeptics have raised questions. For instance, is there anything really special about these devices, or do they just represent old technology in new packaging? Are users as enthusiastic about these tiny laptops as the pundits are? Will they fade away like so many other "next big things"? And perhaps the oddest question: What do we call these things, anyway?

"It's way too early to talk about this being a viable product category," says Avi Greengart, mobile device research director at Current Analysis Inc. "I'm not sure how much of a market there is for them, particularly with subnotebooks like MacBook Air with [larger] keyboards and displays getting thinner and lighter. And you can get some real work done on, say, an iPhone or a Nokia E-series smart phone."

Not surprisingly, vendors and other proponents strongly disagree.

"The Eee PC has successfully explored user segments that have been ignored by other notebook vendors," says Kevin Huang, senior director of marketing at Asustek Computer Inc. "For example, a lot of kids use their parents' notebooks, but they are just too heavy to carry to school. But at two pounds, kids can easily put [ultraportables] in their backpacks." Huang insists that, over time, this product category will expand to become attractive to many types of users.

Ultrasmall Laptops -- Not a New Phenomenon

If small laptops like the Asus Eee, MSI Wind, Everex CloudBook and HP Mini-Note 2133 give you a sense of déjà vu, it's because these are hardly the first devices of that particular size and shape. For instance, Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced the 3-lb. Omnibook 300 in 1993, and that 386-based device developed a small but loyal following.

In the late '90s, several vendors released clamshell devices based on Windows CE (now called Windows Mobile), such as NEC's MobilePro series. These devices looked like tiny laptops, although they used a PDA operating system and could only handle "pocket" versions of desktop applications.

Another similar type of device is the ultramobile PC (UMPC). These devices -- such as the Samsung Q1 Ultra and OQO -- which started appearing in 2006, use a variant of Windows and typically have touch screens as small as 5 in. They have never caught on broadly, perhaps because prices initially approached $2,000 and because their keyboards are only slightly more spacious than those on smart phones. However, prices have recently dropped closer to $1,000, and they have found a home in vertical markets such as hospitals and warehouses.

The new crop of ultraportables differ from UMPCs in that they look and feel like traditional clamshell notebooks -- they're just smaller and lighter. One product that some classify as one of the first of today's ultraportables is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) device, which is aimed at children in developing nations. At one point, Intel Corp. was in discussions to provide processors for the OLPC effort; the company's ClassMate device is seen by some as both a competitor to OLPC and a prototype for its more commercial ultraportables.

The Name Game

One peculiarity of this latest generation of tiny laptops is that there's no agreement about what to call them. Intel, which wants to be the dominant chip maker for this class of devices, calls them "netbooks."

"Netbooks are for communicating with e-mail and IM, browsing and things like media streaming -- very basic things," says Anil Nandury, Intel's marketing director for netbook platforms. Intel's competitors, however, disagree.

"Netbook is an Intel term," counters Tim Brown, international marketing manager at Via Technologies Inc., an Intel competitor in Taiwan. "But they're not just about the Internet. We use the term mini-notebook." Other names that have popped up for these laptops include "mini-laptop," "ultraportable" and even "ultramobile," though that name is already used for UMPCs.

One thing that vendors and analysts do agree about is that these devices share several common traits. First, they have a maximum display size of 10.2 in., which, not coincidentally, is the screen size of some of the newest of these devices. By contrast, ultrathin laptops such as Apple Inc.'s MacBook Air typically have screen sizes of about 13 in. diagonally across.

Second, these devices are often available in Linux versions, a less-expensive alternative to Windows, although several are now available with Windows XP. (At least one, HP's Mini-Note 2133, can come loaded with Windows Vista.)

Third, they are relatively inexpensive -- as noted, the original Asus Eee PC was $400, an unusually low price for a lightweight, reasonably-featured system.

One bit of emerging technology often used in these tiny laptops -- and one that is not inexpensive -- is the use of solid-state drives (SSD) for storage. Unlike traditional hard disk drives (HDD), SSDs have no moving parts. This enables them to be lighter, run cooler with less power and boot faster. The problem with SSDs, for now, is that they are more costly and have less capacity than HDDs, issues that will surely be resolved over time. To keep prices down, ultraportable laptops that do come with SSDs tend to not have much storage capacity -- the original Eee PC, for instance, came with a 4GB SSD, barely enough capacity to handle the onboard applications and a few user files.

However, the most interesting feature of these devices may be the processors -- such as Intel's Atom and Via's C7-M and Nano -- that were specifically designed to be small, inexpensive and require low power.

New Processors, Less Power

Despite the decades-long trend toward ever more powerful processors, the processors being developed for these small computers aren't very powerful at all. In particular, Intel's Atom and Via's C7-M chips can process only a single instruction at a time and only in order, although Via's Nano can perform out-of-order processing. Intel's Nandury says the Atom processor has 47 million transistors, in comparison with as many as 820 million transistors in a high-end quad-core processor.

The simplicity of these chips makes them particularly suitable for ultraportable laptops. For one thing, the chips themselves are small. The entire Atom chip package is about 22 millimeters square; a typical quad-core chip set is as much as 37.5mm square, according to Nandury. And these processors are inexpensive to produce. Nandury says Intel sells Atom chips to laptop vendors for $44 per thousand, compared with as much as $183 per thousand for dual-core processors.

Perhaps most important for road warriors, all this simplicity means the processors draw relatively little power, which extends battery life. The original Eee PC, with its 7-in. display, used the Celeron M processor common in larger laptops and got between three-and-a-half and four hours per charge. By contrast, the more recent Eee 901, which has an 8.9-in. display and is based on the Atom processor, gets four to six hours of battery life, according to the vendor.

Success or Failure?

As might be expected, vendors insist that these small laptops are a success. "So far, Asus has shipped over 2 million Eee PCs, and demand is still strong," says Asus's Huang.

That figure, which represents worldwide sales, does not impress Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Group Inc., which monitors sales of a variety of products, including laptops.

"Two million units isn't a big chunk when the worldwide market is 160 million," Baker says. He adds that only about 200,000 ultra-portables have been sold in the U.S. since January, and many of those were returned, likely because they lack the power and display size that people expect in a laptop.

"The only ones who seem to be keeping it [after buying such a device] are early-adopter tinkerers who want Linux boxes," Baker says.

Like Greengart, Baker questions the long-term viability of the entire category, particularly with vendors increasing display sizes and prices. The newest generation of small devices from vendors such as Asustek and MSI Computer Corp. have 10.2-in. displays and prices in the $600-to-$800 range. The recently released Eee 1000, for instance, costs about $700.

"If you put one of these on the shelf in a store, it won't look so good compared to a 15-in. laptop with more power that sells for the same price or maybe just $100 more," Baker says.

But even the skeptics agree that the market is still in flux. For one thing, more tiny laptops are on the way. For example, Lenovo Group Ltd. is said to have models in the wings. And proponents of this class of devices say they will get cheaper over time.

"Right now, the prices range from $300 to $800," says Via's Brown. "In the next year, $200 to $700 will be the range."

But the biggest changes -- and what may cause tiny laptops to lose momentum or even disappear entirely -- may be in the size and shape of upcoming mobile devices. Intel says that a variant of its Atom processor is aimed at so-called mobile Internet devices, or MIDs, which are roughly the size of PDAs and have built-in Internet connectivity. So far, the best-known MID is Nokia Corp.'s N800 series of Internet tablets, but Intel claims more vendors are developing such devices. Research firm Allied Business Intelligence Inc. recently predicted sales of 50 million MIDs per year by 2013, largely using Linux as their operating system.

Also expect more connectivity. Some ultraportable laptop vendors are said to be building 3G connectivity into the devices -- one such device, the G10IIL, is already available from Taipei-based Elitegroup Computer Systems Co. According to Brown, at least one cellular carrier in the U.S. -- Sprint Nextel Corp. -- is seriously considering not just offering 3G-ready ultraportables but also subsidizing their price to make them affordable. The carriers like the idea because it will help sell their 3G data services, Brown says.

In other words, whether or not the current generation of ultraportable laptops is a success, we're just seeing the beginning of the move to smaller, more connective devices that will come even closer to the road warrior's Holy Grail.

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