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.

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 US$44 per thousand, compared with as much as US$183 per thousand for duel-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.

Success or failure?

As might be expected, vendors insist that these small laptops are a success. "So far, Asus has shipped over 2 million Eee PCs, and demand is still strong," says Asus's Huang.

That figure, which represents worldwide sales, does not impress Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Group, which monitors sales of a variety of products, including laptops.

"Two million units isn't a big chunk when the worldwide market is 160 million," Baker says. He adds that only about 200,000 ultra-portables have been sold in the U.S. since January, and many of those were returned, likely because they lack the power and display size that people expect in a laptop.

"The only ones who seem to be keeping it [after buying such a device] are early-adopter tinkerers who want Linux boxes," Baker says.

Like Greengart, Baker questions the long-term viability of the entire category, particularly with vendors increasing display sizes and prices. The newest generation of small devices from vendors such as Asustek and MSI Computer Corp. have 10.2-in. displays and prices in the US$600-to-$800 range. The recently released Eee 1000, for instance, costs about US$700.

"If you put one of these on the shelf in a store, it won't look so good compared to a 15-in. laptop with more power that sells for the same price or maybe just US$100 more," Baker says.

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David Haskin

Computerworld (US)
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