Acer pushes AMD into netbook space

AMD's new Athlon 64 L110 processor is being used in a new Gateway netbook

Advanced Micro Devices has quietly released a low-voltage chip that has made its way into a new netbook from Acer, forcing the chip designer into the netbook space.

The single-core AMD Athlon 64 L110 processor is being used by Gateway in the LT3103u netbook, which was announced earlier this week. This is AMD's first chip to reach netbooks, which are laptops with small screens designed for basic tasks like Web surfing and word processing. Gateway is owned by PC maker Acer.

The low-voltage processor is a variant of the Neo chips that AMD has designed for thin and light laptops, which have larger screens and offer more functionality than netbooks. The Athlon 64 L110 chip runs at a clock speed of 1.2GHz, has 512KB of cache and draws about 13 watts of power.

Most netbooks today carry Intel's Atom chips, with Via's low-power Nano processor in a distant second place. AMD in the past has derided netbooks, saying that though the PCs were inexpensive, they didn't offer full functionality.

So the sudden emergence of an Athlon chip in a netbook comes as a surprise, especially because AMD has repeatedly said it would not enter the netbook space. The company still maintains a stance of not being interested in netbooks, but a spokesman softened that rhetoric on Thursday.

"AMD has fully anticipated that our technology would eventually appear at the upper end of the netbook space," said Steve Howard, an AMD spokesman. Though the chip was designed for ultrathin notebooks, AMD did not want to restrict the desire of PC makers to use it in different form factors, he said.

Gateway's laptop can be defined as a prototypical netbook, but with better integrated graphics than typically found in Atom-based netbooks. The US$399 laptop has an 11.6-inch display, weighs about 3.14 pounds (1.4 kilograms) and measures about an inch thick. It includes AMD's ATI Radeon x1270 integrated graphics and the RS690 chipset. The laptop is designed for Internet and basic applications like word processing, Acer America said in a statement.

AMD perhaps didn't intend for the low-power chip to be in Gateway's netbook, but it made its way there nevertheless, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Unlike Intel, which has specially designed Atom for netbooks, AMD does not want to design chips for netbooks.

If AMD had a choice, it would rather put the chip in more expensive laptops to extract better margins, McCarron said. The low margins of $400 laptops don't help AMD financially, so the company may try hard to limit the chip's usage in other netbooks, he said.

But the chip could be used in PCs or servers where power efficiency is a concern. For example, Intel's Atom is now being used in servers, so AMD's netbook chips could end up there as well, McCarron said.

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