The Rise (and Possible Fall) of Ultraportable Laptops

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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.

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