AMD: Creating a New Laptop Category

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Netbooks have their appeal--tiny budget machines with just enough oomph to run Windows XP. Ultraportables have horsepower in spades, but they cost too much to suit some people. This year we're going to see a whole new category of notebook take shape that falls somewhere between ultraportables and netbooks--and AMD is hot to have its processors on board.

During CES, AMD will showcase its Athlon Neo processor (the Yukon platform) designed to power a reasonably muscular ultraportable whose pricing starts at around $700 (just a hair above what some companies charge for their high-end netbooks) and tops out at $1400. Think of it as a step up from Intel's Atom and a possible competitor to nVidia's Ion platform concept--an nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU married to an Intel Atom CPU on a tiny motherboard. In AMD's case, that baseline configuration has a 1.6-GHz CPU working with ATI Radeon X1250 graphics on the motherboard. Though it's faster than Intel's integrated option, the Neo doesn't exactly light the world on fire. Partner a Neo with an ATI Mobility HD3410, as AMD is proposing, and the combination can handle 1080p high-def playback and reasonable game performance.

AMD is playing a high-stakes game, but this is a smart move at the right time. And what I've seen so far on paper looks good. Whereas nVidia is just showing off its prototype net-top boxes, AMD has a real product that will launch soon.

AMD's poster child packing Neo under the hood is HP's Pavilion Dv2. The Dv2 packs some fancy features into a 11.50-by-9.45-by-0.93-inch, 3.8-pound magnesium alloy frame. The most obvious of these is the new 1.6-GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 CPU. Besides that, the Dv2 hosts a full suite of external notebook ports (three USB 2.0 ports,VGA, RJ-45/ethernet, headphone/line out, microphone in, 5-in-1 Digital Media Reader), Wi-Fi connectivity, and optional Gobi WWAN integration. I'm especially curious to see how well the ATI Mobility Radeon HD3410 GPU will look on the machine's 12.1-inch diagonal WXGA (1280 by 800) LED.

Will it be able to handle modern games? That's the million-dollar question. As usual, nVidia was quick to demonstrate that its 9400M GPU can run Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare at 1024 by 768 pixels with a solid frame rate of 25to 30 frames per second. Once I get a little up-close-and-personal time with the Pavilion Dv2, I'll let you know how it fares.

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