AMD, Via Battle Intel's Atom

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nVidia Ion
Mark my words: 2009 will be the year of the affordable portable computer. Last year people showed that they were hungry for netbooks, but this year we'll see the birth of a new class of computer, an ultrathin laptop that can offer a little more than just basic performance. About a month ago, nVidia raised the stakes when it started to show off its Ion platform concept, an nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU married to an Intel Atom CPU on a tiny motherboard.

Earlier this week, for CES, AMD made its case with its new Neo mobile processors (code-named Yukon). Think of the Neo as a step up from Intel's Atom and a competitor to the Ion. AMD sees the Neo as part of a new class of ultraportable that could cost between $700 and $1400.

HP's Pavilion dv2 seems to be the poster child for the new AMD processor. The dv2 is fully loaded with features, all packed into a 11.50-by-9.45-by-0.93-inch, 3.8-pound magnesium-alloy frame--the most obvious feature being the 1.6-GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 CPU. In addition, the dv2 hosts a full suite of external ports (three USB 2.0 ports, VGA, RJ-45/ethernet, headphone/line-out, microphone-in, a five-in-one digital media reader), Wi-Fi connectivity, and optional Gobi WWAN integration. I'm especially curious to see how well graphics from the ATI Mobility Radeon HD3410 GPU will look on the machine's 12.1-inch-diagonal, WXGA (1280 by 800) LED screen.

Via Vies for Position

Via, which claims to hold 10 to 15 percent of the netbook market, was one of the first companies to dip a toe into the budget-processor waters. The C7-M (certainly not a speedy CPU) showed up in a couple of lightweight laptops, such as the HP 2133, early last year. And this year a few more models will be coming stateside; at CES, spokespeople are promising that several new laptops based on the C7-M are on the way. That's rather ho-hum news--unless, of course, we get to see some slick new designs. For example, I'm hearing rumblings about a company, WonderMedia, that will have ARM-based mobile products using Via chip sets, devices that will be mostly a screen and a pull-down keyboard.

The slightly more exciting bit is seeing what Via's Nano platform can pull off. One machine on hand is Dr. Mobile's FreeStyle 1300n, which breaks netbook rules (as handed down by Microsoft until now) with a 11.3-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel screen. This little number will measure 11 by 7.8 by 0.9 inches, and promises to be, as Via's Timothy Brown says, a flagship product. It'll pack in WWAN support and be WiMax-ready, and the 1.3-GHz Nano CPU will be able to run Windows XP or, Via claims, Windows Vista Home Basic. (Sorry, but I still have painful memories of watching a C7-M slog through Vista on the HP 2133. I hope never to repeat that.)

As I mentioned earlier, AMD and Via are obviously far from alone in this market--who knows how long it will be before we see a couple vendors biting on nVidia's Ion platform? (I sure hope to see some vendors demoing units behind closed doors.) That leaves the big, blue, 800-pound gorilla squatting in the middle of the room. Intel currently owns the low-end space with the Atom processor, but no news of a next-gen mobile CPU is coming out of the company during CES. Intel is, however, more than happy to show off its Personal Area Network tech, My WiFi (the artist formerly known as "Cliffside"). This technology, already built into Centrino 2 chip sets, turns a laptop into an access point--perfect if you want to do something like sync your digital camera with your laptop. The good news here: You're just a firmware upgrade away.

For more product news, see our complete coverage of CES 2009.

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