New Intel chip for netbooks? Like it matters

Intel's Atom N450 won't create the netbooks that business customers really want to buy. Plus holiday netbook buying advice

Way, way, way too much is being made of the supposed impact Intel's new Atom N450 chip will have on the netbook and, by extension, laptop markets.

This chip, though 60 percent smaller and 20 percent lighter — like we'll notice — remains hampered by a slow 1.66 GHz. clock speed and all the other constraints implicit in the word "netbook."

Business users should wade carefully into the netbook marketplace, which I know is enticing this holiday season. The machines remain artificially constrained so as to avoid creating competition for pricier laptops.

If you need a computer with limited performance — as in basic applications running one or maybe two at a time, hampered by a lack of memory — then netbooks are an acceptable option.

Being small and light, often with excellent battery life, has its selling points. Even then, it helps to have small fingers for those tiny netbook keyboards.

I am not trying to talk you out of a netbook purchase, just trying to frame expectations. If all this is acceptable — like because it is a second or third computer — then Merry Christmas and I hope there is a netbook under the tree for you. Take it to work and have fun. Or take it out and find some mobile work tasks made more convenient.

As for the N450 processor, I am not sure it really matters that much, especially since it won't be showing up in netbooks for months. And since a $300 computer is considered almost disposable these days, you can always upgrade later.

As long as the artificial barrier of 10.2-inch screens and 1GB RAM remains, netbooks will remain fine for some users, but not up to the task of real business computing. I say this not out of PC chauvinism but because I used to use a netbook as my primary portable and abandoned it for something more powerful.

Today, I carry the netbook when I want to go someplace that I know has Wi-Fi and want to be able to check e-mail and do simple writing projects or run a couple of specialized applications I need for work. And for that, the netbook is fine. Trying to run even two apps simultaneously is, however, an invitation to slow-as-molasses performance.

Mostly, I blame this on 1GB memory, but the 1.6 GHz processor doubtless plays a part.

Need I mention that netbook performance for entertainment apps can be disappointing? Lacking DVD drives, well, you understand what that means. Hope you like Hulu, and even that can be disappointing on the netbook. Though the N450 will help with slightly improved graphics, when it arrives.

If you are willing to live with these limitations, none of which are solved by a smaller, lighter processor offering a teensy speed bump and lightly improved graphics, then enjoy a new N450-based netbook, when they finally arrive. Or buy a current model, as they aren't hugely different.

I am impressed by a blog, over at The Atlantic, which challenges the assumption that Intel/Microsoft need to cripple netbooks to protect their higher-end machines. Daniel Indiviglio makes the point that lower prices lead to more sales and in the end the two companies would end up with about the same amount of money they'd get from notebooks anyway.

I don't entirely buy that argument, but it is sad when companies that have done so much to promote "smaller, faster, cheaper" over the years are now purposely holding back.

Without Intel and Microsoft pulling the strings, we would have a nice continuum of machines starting about where netbooks are today and smoothly leading right into higher-end laptops.

Customers would be free to choose the tradeoffs they want to make, rather than being forced to accept limits that Microsoft and Intel, through control of the OS and processor, have built-into netbooks as a group.

It would be nice to think that the Atom N450 will make netbooks live up to their promise, but that is simply not the case.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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