Atom-based notebooks to cost between US$250 and $300

More than 25 low-cost notebooks based on Intel's Atom chip are in the works, and will be available for US$250 to $300.

More than 25 low-cost notebooks based on Intel's upcoming Atom processor are in the works, including models from multinational PC vendors, according to the chip maker's top executive in Asia.

These Atom-based notebooks will be available in the middle of this year for about US$250 to $300, said Navin Shenoy, general manager of Intel's Asia-Pacific operations, in an interview. "We'll see some slightly richer configurations that get up to $350," he said.

The Atom processor, formerly called Diamondville, is a small, low-power chip designed for inexpensive notebooks, a class of device that Intel and others refer to as netbooks. These machines are intended for first-time computer buyers in emerging markets as well as users in mature markets willing to trade performance for a low-cost notebook that complements their existing computers -- a market that until now has been largely dominated by Asustek's Eee PC.

Atom will offer lower performance than Intel's Core 2 Duo processors for mainstream notebooks, but the Atom's performance will be good enough for browsing the Internet and sending e-mails, Shenoy said.

Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner was more specific about the processor's capabilities last month, telling reporters that a related chip, called Silverthorne, offers performance similar to Banias, the first version of Intel's Pentium M processor released in 2003. Silverthorne is designed for small, handheld computers that Intel calls Mobile Internet Devices, and will be available as part of the Centrino Atom chip package set for release during the second quarter.

The introduction of the Atom and the rush of vendors to build the chip into low-cost notebooks could mark the emergence of a new type of device, expanding on the early success of Asustek's Eee PC. But not everyone is convinced there is much demand for low-cost notebooks, either as a secondary computing device or a substitute for a more capable, and more expensive, notebook PC.

Bryan Ma, the director of personal systems research at IDC Asia-Pacific, is a self-described skeptic and doubts that low-cost notebooks will have more than a limited impact on the market for portable computing devices so long as performance and features are traded for lower prices. "I was never convinced that price was the best way to sell these products," he said.

But the marketing clout of Intel and top-tier PC vendors could alter this equation by creating additional demand among customers in both emerging markets and developing countries. "Intel, pushing this, gives it more legs," Ma said.

"There's going to be some experimentation," Shenoy said.

Most Atom-based notebooks will have screens ranging in size from 7 inches up to 10 inches, Shenoy said, adding that some models will be equipped with screens that can swivel and lay flat against the keyboard, turning the device into a tablet computer. Devices will ship with either hard disks or solid-state drives that use flash memory and offer battery life ranging from three to five hours, he said.

"Some will be really sleek and thin, some will be a bit more ruggedized," Shenoy said, adding that Wi-Fi will likely be a common feature.

On the software side, Atom-based notebooks will ship with either Windows XP or some version of Linux. "I don't think you'll see a lot of Vista in this space for cost reasons," he said.

The availability of Windows XP on low-cost notebooks set to arrive during the middle of the year is noteworthy because Microsoft has stated previously that Windows XP licenses will not be sold after June 30. Microsoft officials in Singapore reaffirmed the June 30 deadline in a statement released through the company's public-relations agency. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Windows XP will completely disappear after June 30.

"There are probably going to be certain exceptions here and there," IDC's Ma said.

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