Ultraportable laptops: Their rise and possible fall

Whether or not the current generation of ultraportable laptops is a success, we're at the beginning of the move to smaller, more connective devices.

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 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, 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 inches, which, not coincidentally, is the screen size of some of the newest of these devices. By contrast, ultrathin laptops such as Apple's MacBook Air typically have screen sizes of about 13 inches 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 US$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.

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David Haskin

Computerworld (US)
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