Sunday, August 30, 2009

Netbooks Promise a Sea Change in the PC Industry


The average computer user is not a high-end gamer, not an engineer or physicist running complex analyses, and is not a professional multimedia producer. It's your spouse, your parents, your friends for whom convenience, portability, and connectivity makes the netbook "good enough".
Netbooks use very power efficient processors, often with multimedia engines designed into the silicon so that consumer-oriented tasks like movie watching or music playing work well and don't tax the more limited processing power. Netbooks are great for the vast majority of consumer-centered activities, like reading/sending e-mail, watching Hulu or listening to Pandora. The ARM-based processors that power the netbook run circles around the "battleship" Intel and AMD processors and system components that drove cost and power consumption. An entire generation of consumers has become used to smaller screens, suffering for years with small cellphone and smartphone displays. The step up to a 10-inch (26cm) high-resolution, brilliant netbook display is a breath of blue sky.
Much like what happened to GM and their reliance on trucks and SUVs, the netbook threatens major manufacturers of desktop and notebook PCs. The next few years will see huge growth in mobile internet devices, netbooks, smartbooks, connected internet companions like the Chumby and the Wayve. For the smart netbook vendor, the potential multiplication factor due to the shrinking size, cost, and complexity opens up brave new lands. For those stuck in the battleship world, there's stormy seas ahead.

Sharp unleashes Ubuntu-based Netbook

Lest you think that Netbooks are dead, Sharp is out with the PC-Z1, released under the "NetWalker" brand in Japan.

Running an Ubuntu Linux derivative, several sites have compared the PC-Z1 to the fabled Sharp Zaurus.

Ubuntu is a logical choice for Netbooks and other low-cost consumer devices. Besides being highly customizable, the open-source aspect really helps. Companies can tweak the operating system to meet their needs without having to be burdened with licensing fees. But having owned a 7" Asus Eee PC for more than a year, I can safely opine that Netbooks are not all they are cracked up to be. Between the challenging keyboard and questionable battery life, their utility varies between models and user styles.

Gizmodo doesn't think that this is a Netbook, but at this point, the whole category is so confusing, I can't figure what you're supposed to call it. (An extra batch of pictures of the PC-Z1 is available at Akihabara News.)

Odds are, you are better off with a smartphone, unless you really love this form factor or have very tiny hands for the very tiny keyboard. I find it hard to imagine people lugging these around as their main machine. Nonetheless, Sharp has raised the bar with better boot time and a claimed a 10-hour battery life. According to its release Thursday:

The PC-Z1 features a quick-launch function (approx. 3 seconds) similar to mobile phones, enabling users to conveniently check e-mail while on the road. Also, a long battery running time (approximately 10 hours) allows users to fully enjoy net services, such as videos or blogs.

The high-resolution, 5-inch touch-screen LCD enables intuitive touch operation while the full keyboard provides for comfortable text input. Additionally, in business settings, users can create documents, spreadsheets, presentation materials, etc., and edit them stress-free.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nokia Booklet 3G Refines the Netbook Design

While the original intention of the netbook form factor may have been to have a small, cheap computer for Web surfing, the Nokia Booklet 3G appears to be geared more for the worker on the go than the cash strapped student. It also is poised to create a new class of mobile worker who eschews smartphones and uses a basic phone in tandem with a netbook instead.

While Nokia isn't yet giving us the full details of its Booklet 3G computer, we do know that it's a Windows PC inside an aluminum chassis weighing 2.75lbs, with a 10-inch screen, 12 hour battery life and a scant 2cm thickness. It has your typical netbook features, such as a webcam, Atom processer, and SD card reader. It also includes a number of premium features, including 3G/HSPA networking, a GPS, an HD display, and HDMI.

[ Get the analysis and insights that only Randall C. Kennedy can provide on PC tech in InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog. | Download our free Windows performance-monitoring tool. ]

Given that it's likely to be more expensive than your typical netbook, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Booklet 3G ship with either Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional instead of the stripped starter edition. If this is the case, then this Nokia might surpass the typical 1GB memory and 160GB hard disk limitations that manufacturers using Windows 7 Starter are stuck with.

The HSPA-equipped Booklet 3G likely be packaged with a mobile data plan and subsidized accordingly. Business travelers who are frustrated with trying to use an iPhone or other smartphone as a GPS in a foreign city are likely to have a better experience on the Booklet's 10-inch screen.

Netbooks like this could create a market shift away from smartphones in general. Rather than pay for a separate data plan for both a smartphone and a netbook, it may make sense for some mobile professionals to carry a simpler phone and pull something like the Booklet 3G from their briefcases or purses when it comes time to check a map, search the Net, or write an e-mail. Certainly this would help alleviate the frustration that many experience with their smartphone's battery life.

Since Nokia's intention is to bundle its Ovi services with its netbook, I think we can expect to see some tie-ins with Nokia mobile phones. I'm sure Nokia would like to see mobile professionals carrying a Nokia phone to accompany the Booklet 3G

Nokia's netbook certainly isn't revolutionary, but its unique combination of features will meet the needs of the mobile professional better than the inexpensive plastic netbooks that are currently flooding the market.

More details will be announced at the Nokia World conference on September 2.

Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Netbooks with Nvidia's Ion wait on Windows 7

Nvidia’s Ion platform may be off to a slow start, but that could change once Windows 7 arrives in late October. To date Ion has been used only in nettops–including two new ones from Asus and Lenovo–but the first netbooks should finally arrive around the time Microsoft releases its new operating system.

Ion is supposed to be a performance-enhancing drug for netbooks. Nearly all netbooks and nettops currently use an Intel Atom processor and basic integrated graphics–a combination that is easy on the battery but lacks the performance to, for example, play high-quality video. The Ion chipset, which includes an Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU, promises to significantly boost performance.

Lenovo, which was the first to announce a netbook with Ion back in May, has confirmed that it will now ship this version of the IdeaPad S12 sometime after October 22 when Windows 7 arrives. The netbook was originally slated for late summer. The Ionized IdeaPad S12 will be priced at $549–$50 more than the current configuration. Similarly, Samsung will wait for Win7 to launch its N510, an 11.6-inch netbook with Ion, according to It is expected to sell for around $599. Digitimes reported today that HP would also release an Ion-based netbook in September, and that Asustek planned to release both an all-in-one and a nettop using Nvidia’s chipset around the same time.

Earlier this week Lenovo announced a nettop that will be available with or without Nvidia’s Ion. The IdeaCentre Q110 will have a 1.60GHz Intel Atom 230 single-core processor, 2GB of memory, 250GB hard drive, Nvidia Ion chipset and either Windows XP or Vista Home Premium. The configuration without Ion, the Q100, will have 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive. Lenovo hasn’t announced pricing, but the Q1-00 series will be available in mid-September. The Acer AspireRevo, which has the same configuration as the Q110, sells for $299. (Lenovo also announced a new home theater PC, the IdeaCentre Q700, and a home server, the IdeaCentre D400.)

Asus has started selling–at least in some markets–the Ion-based all-in-one it announced at Computex back in June. The Eee Top ET2002T has a 20-inch touchscreen, 1.60GHz Intel Atom 330 dual-core processor, 2GB of memory, Nvidia Ion chipset, 250GB hard drive and DVD drive.

Timing the release of Ion netbooks to Windows 7 make some sense. It’s hard to make the case for the added cost of Ion in a netbook running Windows XP, but with Windows 7 the GeForce GPU it should make a bigger difference. Some questions remain though. First, it’s not clear what Ion will do to battery life–one of the strengths of netbooks. Second, Intel isn’t standing still. Its upcoming netbook platform, Pine Trail-M will be out shortly after Windows 7–most likely January 2010–and it should offer better performance, including HD video playback. I’m also expecting to see more netbooks and ultraportables using AMD’s Athlon Neo processors and either Radeon X1250 integrated graphics or Radeon HD 3410 discrete graphics. All of which means Ion has an increasingly short window in which to prove its value in netbooks.

Nokia 'actively looking' at own netbook

Nokia could follow service providers into netbook territory, by offering a machine of its own.

President and chief executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo is reported to have said in India: "We at Nokia is [sic] actively looking at this converged market... We are looking at the netbook market to see what kind of opportunity is there."

If Nokia does deliver a device then it would join a trickle of other handset manufacturers also becoming netbook makers. So far, it's been OEMs like Asus and Dell, solidly versed in the build and delivery of PCs, who've made most of the running, building and selling netbooks.

A Nokia netbook would also mean the company enters a market that's being tested by the very service providers that typically sell its handsets.

AT&T and Verizon in the US and Orange and O2 in the UK have begun offering netbooks with data plans. These netbooks are from PC markers and consumer electronics companies like Samsung that make PCs and mobile phones.

Questions remain over what a Nokia netbook would literally look like - whether it would fit the template of a small form-factor notebook, or would Nokia opt for a tablet or a smart-phone inspired design with a large screen and soft keys.

Also, there'll be the question of operating system. Would a Nokia netbook run the giant's Symbian open-source operating system or would Nokia go with Windows or Linux?

It seems reasonable to assume Nokia would stick with Symbian, but try to make its netbook useful by running Microsoft applications. Nokia earlier this month announced a deal with Microsoft to put Office on its phones using native Symbian versions of Microsoft Office and also to extend web services such as SharePoint to devices. Office is due next year.

Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin has encouraged the PC markets in the past to become more like Nokia by selling customized and subsidized machines in this high-growth market. Zemlin has, naturally, championed the cause that netbooks should run Linux.

"Learn from Nokia - meld a kick ass, industrial design with customized software experience and have it subsidized by an alternative business model, be that subsidy or services offering, movies and entertainment - that's a better way to skin this cat," Zemlin told The Reg in March. ®

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Convertible netbook has high-res screen

Gigabyte says it is now shipping a netbook that offers a swiveling touchscreen and an Intel Atom N280 processor. The T1028X/G has a 10-inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, an ExpressCard slot, a HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) cellular modem, and optional WiMAX, the company says.

Netbooks whose screens flip around into a tablet configuration are still uncommon, though Asus recently entered the market with its T91, offered with single- or multi-touch displays. As far as we're aware, it's Gigabyte that first pioneered the breed with its M912 (right), released just over a year ago with an 8.9-inch screen, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, and a 160GB hard disk drive.

Gigabyte's new successor, the T1028X/G, once again offers a touchscreen that rotates 180 degrees and folds down over its keyboard. This time, however, the display has gone up to 10.1 inches in size, and the LED-backlit screen now packs 1366 x 768 pixels. Apart from the touchscreen display, the T1028X/G has a "92 percent full-sized" keyboard and a "multi-touch" mouse pad, according to Gigabyte.

In addition, the T1028X/G now offers Intel's slightly more powerful, 1.66GHz Atom N280 processor, still with the 945GSE northbridge and ICH7M southbridge. (An available T1028M configuration gets the larger display, but sticks with an N270 CPU and a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels.)

The T1028X/G's 2.5-inch, 160GB hard disk drive and 1GB or 2GB RAM are par for the course, but, unlike the majority of netbooks, the device is also said to include an ExpressCard/34 slot. Gigabyte says the T1028X/G is available with an HSDPA-compatible cellular modem and with 802.16 WiMAX on board, though there's no word on whether either of these options fills the ExpressCard slot.

Other more typical netbook capabilities include Bluetooth 2.1, 802.11b/g/n wireless networking, a 10/100 Ethernet port, and a 1.3 megapixel webcam, according to Gigabyte. The device is also said to include stereo speakers, three USB 2.0 ports, an MMC/SD/MS/MS Pro card reader, and a VGA port.

A six-cell, 7650mAh battery is standard on the T1028X/G and is said to deliver up to six hours of battery life. The T1028M gets a four-cell, 4500mAh battery that is good for four hours of operation, according to Gigabyte.

Gigabyte says the T1028 runs the Windows XP Home operating system, but no word of any supplied touchscreen-specific addons was provided. The device is also said to run Linux, though Gigabyte warns users of that operating system they may need to "download Linux drivers from chipset vendors' websites or third party websites."

Features and specifications listed by Gigabyte for the T1028 include the following:

  • Processor:
    • 1.66GHz Atom N280 (T1028X/G)
    • 1.6GHz Atom N270 (T1028M)
  • Memory -- 1GB of DDR2 RAM, expandable to 2GB
  • Storage -- 160GB SATA hard disk drive (2.5-inch, 5400rpm)
  • Display:
    • 10.1-inch touchscreen with 1366 x 768 pixels (T1028X/G)
    • 10.1-inch touchscreen with 1024 x 600 pixels (T1028M)
  • Camera -- 1.3 megapixel
  • Keyboard -- "92 percent" QWERTY keyboard and multi-touch mouse pad
  • Networking:
    • LAN -- 10/100 Ethernet
    • WAN -- HSDPA cellular modem or WiMAX (both optional)
    • WLAN -- 802.11b/g/n
    • PAN -- Bluetooth 2.1
  • Other I/O:
    • 3 x USB 2.0
    • Microphone in, earphone out
    • 1 x VGA
  • Expansion:
    • ExpressCard/34 slot
    • MMC/SD/MS/MS Pro card reader
  • Battery:
    • 6-cell 7650mAh battery (T1028X/G)
    • 4-cell 4500mAh battery (T1028M)
  • Dimensions:
    • 10.4 x 8.4 x 1.62 inches (265 x 214 x 41.4mm) with six-cell battery
    • 10.4 x 7.67 x 1.51 inches (265 x 195 x 38.5mm) with four-cell battery
  • Weight:
    • 3.26 pounds (1.48kg) with six-cell battery
    • 2.86 (1.3kg with four-cell battery)

Get a red Asus Eee PC Netbook for $189.99

New rules for Netbooks: Don't pay more than $300 for a model with a 10-inch screen, and don't pay more than $200 for an 8.9-incher.

Mwave has a pretty sweet deal on one of the latter: A refurbished red Asus Eee PC 900HDB for $189.99 shipped.

What are the specs? They are solid, starting with a 900MHz Intel Celeron M 353 processor (which may not be faster than the more common Atom CPU--I've read varying opinions), the Eee offers 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, Windows XP Home, and the aforementioned 8.9-inch screen.

And it's red! It's pretty rare to find a cheap Netbook that's anything but black (or occasionally white). This one's downright purty.

It's also a refurbished unit, meaning the warranty is a fairly typical 90 days. I'm going to state once again for the record that I don't consider that a negative, especially considering the $60 or so you're saving on a new unit.

I will, however, direct you to the return policy (at the bottom of the product page) for the Asus. It states that this is a nonrefundable item. You can return it within 30 days, but only for a replacement.

While this would make a fine portable PC for children and students, I think business users would find it a welcome travel companion as well. It's a svelte 2.5 pounds and its four-cell battery should be good for at least a couple hours' work.

Agree? Disagree? What's everyone thinking about Netbooks these days: Getting better all the time, or still too underpowered (or uncomfortable) to be practical? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Why not all 12-inch netbooks are the same

I’ve been skeptical of 12-inch netbooks, especially as prices for real notebooks continue to fall fast. At that size, netbooks start to run up against laptops, so it’s no surprise that the PC industry is feeling its way. Acer has been selling an 11.6-inch model since May, but Asus has only just released its Eee PC 1101HA. Lenovo and Samsung both sell 12.1-inch netbooks, but Dell dumped its Mini 12 over the weekend. Dell’s Chief Blogger, Lionel Mechaca, wrote that the decision “really boils down to this: for a lot of customers, 10-inch displays are the sweet spot for netbooks.” Anything smaller is a toy; anything bigger ought to be a notebook. But after spending a couple of weeks using two 12-inch netbooks, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 and Acer Aspire One AO751h, I’ve decided it’s not quite that simple.

The IdeaPad S12 comes closest to a true notebook in terms of features. It has the same 12.1-inch display found in most ultraportables, a full-size keyboard and a comfortable wrist-rest with a large touchpad and two discrete buttons. The 16:10 display has a resolution of 1280×800. Like its little sibling, the IdeaPad S10, this version is built around a sturdy barrel hinge and the case, which comes in black or white, has a solid, quality feel. Lenovo includes some extra software such as Quick Start, a version of DeviceVM’s Splashtop pre-boot environment, and VeriFace III, a facial recognition utility.

The strength of the IdeaPad S12 is also its weakness. It feels like a real notebook because it is about the same size and weight as an ultraportable, weighing 3.4 pounds and measuring 11.5 by 9.1 by 0.9-1.4 inches with the 6-cell battery. By comparison the ThinkPad X200s, an ultraportable with the same size display, weighs 3.2 pounds and measures 11.6 by 8.3 by 0.8-1.4 inches, also with a 6-cell battery. In other words, you get no advantage in terms of portability by choosing thisnetbook over a notebook.

You do, however, get the performance disadvantages of a netbook. Like most netbooks, the IdeaPad S12 is equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, Intel 945GSE chipset with GMA 950 integrated graphics, 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP. To be clear, this isn’t an issue with the IdeaPad S12–in fact, the IdeaPad S2 is even a bit faster than some netbooks (more on that below). It’s an issue with netbooks in general. I’ve previously posted performance tests results for netbooks, but the deficit is clear in day-to-day use–applications take longer to launch, Web pages load slowly and online video is hit-and-miss.

Back in May, when Lenovo announced the IdeaPad S12, it also promised a version with Nvidia’s Ion chipset–an industry first–later this summer. Several sites have reported that the Ion model has been delayed until this fall, but Lenovo declined to comment on the timing. Next month Samsung reportedly plans to release its N510 netbook with an 11.6-inch display and Nvidia’s Ion chipset. Whenever it arrives, an Ion-powered IdeaPad S12 should have better performance, though the price and battery life are still big question marks.

Though the Aspire One AO751h is technically in the same 12-inch class, it is a different beast. The 16:9 display measures 11.6 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1366×768. The keyboard is smaller, and the wrist-rest is narrower and it has a smaller touchpad with a single button. The result is a noticeably smaller and lighter netbook. The Aspire One AO 751h measures 11.2 by 7.8 by 1.0 inches, and weighs only 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery. While it doesn’t feel quite as solid as the IdeaPad S12, the build quality still seems very good.

There’s one big catch: The Aspire One uses a different chip, the 1.33GHz Atom Z520. Intel designed this chip primarily for Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs. Instead they’ve ended up in a handful of netbooks and subnotebooks, including the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 and Mini 12, and the Sony VAIO P series. The rest of the Aspire One’s specs are basically the same: 1GB of memory, Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP.

The real difference between the IdeaPad S12 and Aspire One AO751h comes down to price. The IdeaPad S12 starts at $499. (Lenovo also sells a $429 configuration with a 1.3GHz Via Nano processor and Via graphics, which performs “quite well” against Intel’s Atom, according to CNET Reviews, but most netbook buyers opt for Atom.) The Dell Mini 12 also sold for $499, while the Samsung NC20, which has a 12.1-inch display paired with the 1.3GHz Via Nano processor, is available for $490. The Aspire One AO751h-1192, the configuration I tested, is available online for $349. The Asus 1101HA, an 11.6-inch netbook which has nearly identical specs to the Aspire One AO751h, starts at $430.

The IdeaPad S12 is one of the nicest netbooks available, but it is caught between two worlds. If you are looking for a primary PC, and you really need portability, you’ll be better off spending more for a true ultraportable. The ThinkPad X200s starts at $900 with a 12.1-inch (1280×800) display, 1.2GHz Intel Celeron M 723 processor, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Vista Home Basic. The newer low-cost, ultra-thin laptops using AMD’s Athlon Neo processor or Intel’s ULV chips are also a good alternative. Last week I mentioned an HP Pavilion dv2z configuration–2GB of memory, ATI Radeon 3410 discrete graphics with 512MB, 320GB hard drive and Vista Home Premium–that is only $100 more than the IdeaPad S12. If you are purchasing a second or third PC for e-mail and browsing on-the-go, however, the Aspire One AO751h gets the job done nicely. It is thinner, lighter and costs $150 less than competing 12.1-inch netbooks.

Ion-packing Netbooks: Samsung N510 finally arrives next month

We feel like we've been waiting a long time for this, but Netbooks running Atom processors alongside Nvidia's Ion GPU are finally coming to the America...soon.

Reports from claim that the Samsung N510, an 11.6-inch Netbook, is on its way next month. Included in the N510 will be HDMI out and an "ability to handle Blu-ray," though we're not sure how that will apply in a laptop without an optical drive. We're still waiting for the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 Ion version to arrive--we reviewed the non-Nvidia Atom version of the IdeaPad S12, and found that we really missed the idea of an added graphical boost to what was otherwise a standard Netbook affair.

On the other hand, those Nvidia processors better hurry up--CULV thin-and-lights are spreading with costs in nearly the same range, and new Intel Atom processors with greater power are coming out sometime in the next year. While beefing up the graphics and HD capabilities of a Netbook is a fine idea--especially since the Ion in theory should have the power of a GeForce 9400M (the graphics in the 13-inch MacBook Pro)--the price and release date need to be right in order for this to not get lost in the shuffle. Price is reported to be $599, which is roughly a hundred-dollar upgrade from the highest-end Netbooks we've encountered. This also puts it square against the lower tier of budget mainstream laptops. $599 also gets you a Core 2 Duo Gateway NV5807u, albeit without the same level of graphics.

Our biggest questions at this point: will Ion Netbooks be more competitively priced? Will the Ion significantly drain battery life compared to existing Netbooks and thin-and-lights? And just how good are they as gaming machines? Stay tuned.

So, sound off: for the cost, would you rather have a graphically-boosted Netbook, a thin-and-light, or a budget laptop with a better core processor?

Dell's Mistake: Killing 12-Inch Netbook

Dell's dropping its 12-inch netbook raises the question of where netbooks stop and laptops begin. From a vendor profit perspective, the answer is simple: 10-inches, but for users the answer is different.

I am with TechCrunch's Michael Arrington on this one, at least in spirit. I believe Dell made a mistake and that netbooks need to be a bit larger than the standard 9 and 10-inch models.

Dell doesn't deserve too much blame, however, as Microsoft is the real force behind the intentional stunting of netbooks.

Customers want decent-sized screens on suitably powerful $300 portables, call them what you will. Nevertheless, at some point, an Intel Atom processor just doesn't have the oomph for the job and trouble follows.

Last month, I purchased an Acer Aspire One netbook with an 11.6-inch screen. The reason for the purchase was the full-sized keyboard more than the larger screen. This computer does as much as I can expect from an Atom processor and 1GB RAM and I am happy with the purchase.

Which is to say it is a tad underpowered for using multiple applications at once. However, since I can live with its limitations, this is a great $329 computer. Now, if I could get a faster processor and more RAM for another $100, I would be really happy.

Larger mouse buttons would also be nice, though I am not sure how Acer could accomplish this. I just use a Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 6000, which works great (even on a bed sheet).

Still, for not much more than what the Acer cost, especially with a $60 mouse and $60 USB DVD drive added to the price, I could purchase a more powerful, though less portable, standard-sized laptop.

I am still weighing that decision and whether the netbook's small size and weight outweigh the downside of it being a tad underpowered for how I am used to working. So far, I come down in favor of the netbook since I have other machines to use when I need to do more serious work.

The Acer is the perfect size for a netbook screen and keyboard. There is enough LED real estate to be able to see what I am working on and the keyboard is well sized for my fingers. For $329 (at Costco), it is a great deal.

Sadly, the days of such larger netbooks may be numbered. Some vendors are concerned that they cut into sales of pricier (read: more margin) laptops in the 13-15-inch range.

While it is true that I did not purchase a larger laptop, if the 11.6-inch Acer had not been available, I would have made do with what I already have. Thus, by building a machine that attracted me, Acer got margin it would never have gotten otherwise.

Intel charges more for Atom processors used on netbooks with screens larger than 10-inches. Microsoft actively pushes against netbooks with screens larger than 10-inches, more than 1GB RAM, or a hard drive larger than 160GB.

While I understand wanting to protect laptop sales, this is simply wrong. Intel and Microsoft should know better than to stand in the way of progress.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Open Source Eee PCs in October, Chrome OS Netbooks

Awesome news from Engadget about the open source future of the next generation of Eee PCs. Their 'spies' have uncovered information that the first Moblin-running Eee netbooks will be in stores come October. Asus, the Eee PC manufacturer, is apparently considering making open source OSes an option for all their netbooks in the future.

This would save consumers who dislike Windows products a bundle of money. A free operating system cuts down on cost substantially, and will give all of us a much greater choice in our future purchases. With any luck, other netbook manufacturers will take Asus's lead and start offering open source versions of their products as well.

That's not all the good news, though. Apparently Asus is working with Google to put out a Chrome OS netbook sometime in the near to immediate future. Fans of open source software had better keep their fingers crossed and a few hundred bucks stashed away so that they're ready for release. Whenever that ends up being.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nvidia's new netbook platform made for Windows XP

Computerworld - Windows 7 may loom, but Nvidia Inc. is bucking the trend, releasing a second member of its ION graphics platform targeted at netbook and net-top PCs running Windows XP.

The ION LE is technologically identical to the existing ION technology, which is an Nvidia 9400M mobile graphics chip typically paired with Intel Corp.'s Atom CPU.

The difference is that ION LE will support, at best, the DirectX 9 graphics technology in Windows XP, not Vista's DirectX 10 nor Windows 7's DirectX 11, which will be able to spread processing work better to multiple CPU cores for better multimedia performance.

That would seem to be a disadvantage, with Windows 7 launching in late October, although it plans to continue letting PC makers install XP on low-end netbooks for a year after that.

Matt Wuebbling, senior product manager for notebook GPUs at Nvidia, says that the vast majority of games still run on DirectX 9, as well as all high-definition (HD) video content.

"For a $400 netbook, does [having] DirectX 11 really matter?" he asked, because ION LE will otherwise provide the same graphic performance and 1080p HD video as ION.

Despite ION's graphical capabilities, it has had limited success due, Nvidia says, to Intel's aggressive, unfair discounts for its Atom CPU when paired with Intel's graphics chip.

ION LE doesn't solve that dilemma, but it will enable netbook makers to release XP-based netbooks that perform as well or better than Windows 7 netbooks at a cheaper price, Wuebbling said. That's mostly due to Microsoft's lower price for Windows XP than Windows 7.

Wuebbling declined to give a price for ION LE. He said the platform will be available only to PC makers, not to motherboard makers offering boards to hobbyists building their own PCs, although that could change depending on demand.

Nvidia, however, won't restrict the screen sizes of netbooks using ION like Microsoft and Intel both try do, he noted.

Wuebbling said that ION LE is not "not really an answer one way or another to Intel's Pine Trail," the next-generation Atom platform that Intel is expected to release by year's end.

Nvidia's next-generation ION 2 platform could be the answer to Intel's Pine Trail, but Wuebbling declined to comment on it.

He did say that ION LE doesn't herald any new support for netbook CPUs from Via Technologies Inc. or AMD Corp. "We haven't announced support for any CPUs but Intel," Wuebbling said. "That might be something that comes in the future."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

HP Mini 5101 netbook

It may not have Pine Trail, NVIDIA Ion or, frankly, anything out of the ordinary from netbooks we’ve seen for the past six months or longer, but you can certainly say that HP’s Mini 5101 has some reasonable style. Reminiscent of Sony’s VAIO TZ, but a whole lot cheaper, the Mini 5101 has landed on jkOnTheRun’s kitchen counter for an impromptu live photo session.

Nothing more than these live images as yet, since James Kendrick is working on the full review, but he does report that his demo model has the standard 1024 x 600 screen rather than the HD upgrade, and that the keyboard is pleasantly large. The Mini 5101 also has the 6-cell battery, so it’s good to see that it doesn’t overly bloat the netbook.

The HP Mini 51010 is available to order now, priced from $399 with Intel’s Atom N280 1.66GHz processor, a 10.1-inch 1024 x 600 display and 1GB of RAM. It comes as standard with Windows XP Home, but is also available as a custom model with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

ARM-based netbooks set to arrive on US shores this year

DigiTimes has been making the rounds of the Taiwanese OEMs, and the company claims to have the scoop on a coming wave of ARM-based netbooks, often called "smartbooks," that will wash ashore in the US in the last quarter of this year. Smartbooks based on Qualcomm's SnapDragon processor and NVIDIA's Tegra line are allegedly on deck from netbook names like ASUS, Acer, and Foxconn. Lesser-known Chinese netbook maker Compal, which was showing off products at this past CES but which doesn't yet ship to the US, is also named as an ARM netbook maker, as are Inventec and Mobinnova.

Then there's the Touch Book, from Always Innovating, which sent out a note today to everyone who contacted them via web form (including Ars) to say that the device is is now shipping. We haven't really covered the Touch Book, but boy have we been getting reader mail about it. A lot of folks want us to review it, and I've contacted the company in an effort to get a review unit. (No response so far, but I'll keep trying.) The Touch Books' main gimmick is that its screen can be detached and used as a standalone tablet, and the second gimmick is that it runs the TI OMAP 3 chip, which is looking like a killer PMP/tablet processor.

In all, it looks like by Christmas of this year, we'll have the long-awaited Intel Atom vs. ARM Cortex A8 netbook price/performance/power smackdown that the gadget press has been waiting for since 2007. There's a sizable amount of hype around the Cortex A8 parts being considerably cheaper and more power-efficient than Intel's Atom, but it's worth taking a moment to think about how the two platforms actually stack up against one another.

In terms of absolute power draw, there's no question that the sub-1W ARM A8 platforms are going to smoke Intel's Atom platform. Atom alone has a TDP of around 2W (give or take 0.5W, depending on usage), and when you factor in the other two chips that make up the current iteration of the platform, then you can tack on another zero there.

Intel's forthcoming two-chip Pine Trail will help this situation considerably, but it still relies on a separate I/O hub that will add to the power draw vs. ARM SoCs; the latter have everything from the CPU and GPU out to the USB controller on one die. So these ARM-based smartbooks will face off against Pine Trail-based netbooks, and who wins will depend on which market you're talking about.

In terms of relative performance per watt at the platform level, it's not so clear that Cortex A8 really has a considerable edge over Atom. Benchmark data is close to nonexistent, but looking at the two fairly similar CPU architectures, Atom's x86 tax may not be that severe. By the time an A8 part is clocked high enough to go toe-to-toe with Pine Trail in raw performance, it will probably also be in Intel's ballpark in absolute power draw.

It's still likely that the A8 implementations will win in performance per watt, but in any contest where Intel is in the same ballpark, the company will try to close the distance with features in price. In Atom's case, this means that it can accommodate the full range of Intel platform bells and whistles—including 64-bit processing, the full alphabet soup of Intel SIMD extensions, hyperthreading, and Active Management Technology—in a very low-power package. Depending on how you evaluate those features, they could close the relative price/performance gap.

For instance, hyperthreading's main use is to increase performance by hiding memory latency, and its success in this area is workload-dependent (in some cases it makes performance worse). I will be very interested to see how hyperthreading interacts with a sample Chrome browser workload—multiple tabs, multiple threads, branchy Javascript code, and other elements that may make hyperthreading shine.

AMT is another place where Atom has an edge, at least in the corporate market. If you outfit a fleet with Pine Trail, then you can do the kinds of remote management tricks that Intel likes to tout. If this sort of thing matters to you, then you'll be quite happy to trade 30 minutes or so of battery life for it.

In the end, I would expect smartbooks to do to netbooks what netbooks are doing to notebooks, i.e., they'll cannibalize parts of the market, but they'll also create new niches. If the ARM-based smartbooks really do deliver on all-day battery life with acceptable performance at a lower price, then Intel will be left scrambling at 32nm for whatever new niches they open up.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Verizon HP Mini 1151NR netbook with wireless 3G

When it comes to doing business, we are living in a connected and networked world. For many, continuous wireless connection is just another necessary tool of commerce. One way to always be connected is through access to a 3G broadband network. And if you not only need to be always connected, but also need computing power that is always connected, the Verizon HP Mini 1151NR netbook with wireless 3G built in may just be the device you are seeking.


  • Operating System: Windows XP Home Edition
  • Display: 10.1″ Flush Glass (1024 x 576)
  • Peripherals: Integrated Webcam VGA (640 x 480 x 30 fps), Combo SD / MMC Reader
  • Power: 3-cell Battery, 30 W AC Adapter
  • Connectivity: Mobile Broadband Built-In (EVDO Rev. A), Gobi-enabled, 802.11b/g, Ethernet, Bluetooth
  • Processor: Intel Atom N270, 1.6 GHz
  • Memory: 1 GB of RAM
  • Storage: 80 GB Hard Drive
  • Dimensions: 10.3″ (depth) x 6.6″ (width) x 1″ (height)
  • Weight: 2.4 lb
  • Price: $199 with 2-year plan (Verizon mobile broadband, $39.99/month under 250MB)
  • Additional information

Who is it for?

The Verizon HP Mini 1151NR netbook with wireless 3G built in is designed for any user who simply must be able to access the Internet or VPN to the office anytime and anywhere.

What problem does it solve?

The HP Mini with Verizon 3G wireless gives users choices when it comes to making wireless connections. With built-in WiFi, 3G, and Bluetooth, you should always be able to make a connection no matter where you are.

Standout features

  • Wireless: The Verizon connection software coupled with the radio chips from Broadcom mean that you can indeed stay connected to the Internet on a continuous basis.
  • Size: The HP Mini is light and small enough to carry with you just about anywhere.
  • Keyboard: By virtue of some positive design decisions, the HP Mini netbooks have nearly full-sized keyboards, which means typing is much more fluid than it is on many of the other netbooks we have reviewed.

What’s wrong?

  • Connection speed: While it is true that the 3G network means that you can stay connected, and while it is equally true the 3G network is a broadband technology, it is stretching the truth to say that the 3G network is fast. When they can, users are going to opt for WiFi for a connection that is truly fast.
  • Battery life: One of the drawbacks to wireless technology is that having all those radios on (3G, WiFi, Bluetooth) drains the battery much faster than offline activity.
  • Screen size: A problem with all first generation netbooks is the small screen resolution. Soon manufacturers will produce netbooks with 1024 X 768 resolution screens and the usefulness of this form factor will increase 10 fold.
  • Heat: The heat generated by this version of the HP Mini is significant. Working with this device on your lap is out of the question without an additional barrier.
  • No business software: Ships with Microsoft Works instead of Microsoft Office.
  • Windows XP Home: At the very least the operating system should be Windows XP Professional.
  • Cost: The cost structure is very steep at $199 with a two year contract. Assuming you go with the basic package, after two-years, you will pay a total of $1039 for an HP Mini with 3G capability.

Bottom line for business

The bottom line when it comes to the Verizon HP Mini 1151NR netbook with wireless 3G built in is how much continuous connectivity is worth to you and your enterprise. You are going to pay a premium for all that access, so your reasoning and ROI better be sound. For most small businesses, the cost is going to be prohibitive, but for certain niche situation the 3G netbook may be the most economical solution.

The Apple Tablet

The fabled Apple tablet, long thought to be just as fictional as jackalope or chupacabra may, in fact, be reality, so don't be frightened when that pig flies by later today.

The realness of the Apple tablet, which also recently surfaced in supposed photos, is all according to an anonymous "veteran analyst" who claims to have seen, held and touched the mysterious touch-screen tablet-style netbook that Apple has steadfastly denied is in the offing.

The tablet, or "slate-style" PC, which in many cases has been referred to as an iPod Touch on steroids, will be officially unveiled in September with a November release date, the unnamed analyst told Barron's.

The price tag will hit somewhere in the $699 to $799 sweet spot, the analyst said, meaning Apple will miss the sub-$500 mark of a true netbook, keeping true to CEO Steve Jobs' words that Apple couldn't make a $500 machine that wasn't a piece of junk.

Now, the tablet is set to go and is awaiting the final stamp of approval from Jobs himself, Barron's reported. The final design is expected to be ready in just six weeks.

Details are few and far between. So far, all that's been revealed of the supposed Apple tablet, or netbook, or "tabbook," or whatever it is, is that it's a 10-inch touch screen that can play high-definition video.

"The machine impresses with its display of hi-def video content," the anonymous analyst told Barron's. "It's better than the average movie experience, when you hold this thing in your hands."

And waiting to see what Apple has in store for the supposed tablet has put some PC makers in a holding pattern, the analyst said. Some Apple rivals have temporarily halted production on next-generation netbooks until Apple's true plans come to light.

The phantom analyst's meet-and-greet with the Apple tablet netbook is just the latest in a string of rumors surrounding Apple's supposed plans for a mini-Mac. The first Apple tablet rumors hit last year, with widespread reports that a jumbo iPod Touch was in the making. Then, the tablet rumors spawned into rumors that Apple was producing a more affordable netbook. From there, the two theories merged with reports indicating that Apple's tablet would also be a netbook.

And last week, Apple tablet rumors spun again, this time indicating that a new album-focused music service from Apple, dubbed "Cocktail," would be exclusive to its tablet offering.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lenovo IdeaPad U350

Key Specs

Processor: 1.3GHz Intel Pentium SU2700
Memory: 3GB RAM
Storage: 320GB hard drive
Optical Drive: None
Screen: 13.3 inches (1,366x768)
Graphics: Integrated Intel GMA X4500
Weight: 2.8 pounds
Dimensions (HWD): : 0.78 x 12.9 x 8.8 inches
Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium


Reviewed by: Jamie Bsales
Review Date: July 2009

Depending on how you look at it, the 13.3-inch Lenovo IdeaPad U350 is either a step up from a netbook or a step down from an ultraportable. Like a netbook, this 2.8-pound machine is easy to carry, but it’s faster and more comfortable to use than any netbook we’ve seen to date; of course, the $749 price also makes it more expensive than a netbook. Coming at it from the other direction, the U350 is much less expensive than just about any 13.3-inch ultraportable or thin-and-light, but it delivers about half the performance and battery life. The bottom line: If you want an affordable, easy-to-carry laptop without the screen and keyboard trade-offs of a netbook—and can live with merely adequate performance—the U350 is worth a look.

Picking up the IdeaPad U350, it’s like déjà vu all over again: It is so similar in design to the MSI X340, we can’t help but think there’s some platform sharing going on here. That’s not a bad thing, though, as we appreciate the ultra-slim profile (only about three-quarters of an inch at its thickest) and incredibly light weight (2.8 pounds). The physical design is similar to the groundbreaking MacBook Air, although the IdeaPad U350 (and the MSI X340 for that matter) can’t match the Apple’s modern aesthetic or sleek aluminum. Still, the IdeaPad U350’s black plastic lid has a subtle squares-in-squares texture (set on the diagonal) that looks and feels good, while also hiding fingerprints.

Under the lid, a silver plastic surround (made to at least mimic brushed aluminum) sets off a basic black keyboard. The full-size keys have a comfortable amount of up-down travel, though we sensed a small but noticeable amount of flex when typing on the center keys. We would also prefer to see dedicated multimedia-control keys, since the keyboard surround has plenty of spare room. The touch pad is large (3.25 inches by 2 inches) by ultraportable standards, and the pad’s pebbled surface makes mousing comfortable. More importantly, it is a new-generation pad that supports two-finger gestures for zooming, rotating images, and more.

In addition to the next-gen touch pad, Lenovo has included some welcome features given the price. The spacious 320GB hard drive has an active protection system, which parks the drive heads when the machine is jostled or dropped to prevent possible data loss. An ambient light sensor can adjust the screen’s brightness automatically as lighting changes, and there’s even an HDMI port for connecting to an external display. You also get a VGA port, Ethernet jack, three USB ports, Bluetooth, and headphone and mic jacks. Lenovo has included an SD/MMC memory card reader but couldn’t find space (or budget) for an ExpressCard or PC Card expansion slot. And as with other sub–3-pound notebooks (with the notable exception of the $2,999 Toshiba Portégé R600), you’ll need to provide your own external optical drive.

The U350’s 13.3-inch glossy widescreen is very bright, and the LED backlighting makes colors in Windows programs and photo images pop. The panel also did well with video, exhibiting natural, well-saturated colors and little motion blur. The screen’s 1,366x768 resolution makes for sharp, legible text. We were also impressed with the U350’s stereo speakers. At first, we thought music sounded a bit tinny but still acceptable for a machine this thin. But the included Dolby Sound Room utility let us boost the bass and expand the sound stage, delivering downright decent audio quality for the class and among the best we’ve heard from a 13.3-inch platform.

The 1.3-megapixel Webcam delivered pleasing images under bright light, with natural colors, good detail, and just the typical amount of motion blur. In a dim room, however, the camera struggled; you’ll need to have at least light from a table lamp to get a usable image. Lenovo preloads its EasyCapture utility for use with the camera. The icon-driven user interface makes capturing stills and recording video or audio easy. You can add frames or animated cartoon characters to your captures, or apply one of nine special effects such as black-and-white, negative image, and pixilated.

The U350 employs an Intel Pentium SU2700 processor working with 3GB of RAM (or just 2GB in the $699 configuration). The 1.3GHz single-core processor is an order of magnitude faster than the Intel Atom CPUs found in most netbooks but is woefully underpowered compared with the Core 2 Duo chips that power most ultraportables and even $750 budget laptops these days. The U350 scored just 1,512 on Futuremark’s PCMark Vantage benchmark, which measures overall system performace. That number is about half the average score of ultraportables we’ve tested to date—though it should be noted that the average price of those machines was north of $2,000. A closer comparison is to the HP Pavilion dv2 and the aforementioned MSI X340, which cost the same and delivered marginally better Vantage scores of 1,566 and 1,628.

Similarly, the U350’s score of 1,356 on Cinebench 10 was close enough to the HP (1,406) and MSI (1,514) competitors to be a nonissue in real-world use, but that score is half of what we saw from ultraportables on the whole. On the other hand, the U350 score was about double what we see from the typical netbook. For multimedia work, the U350 is overmatched when it comes to demanding video-plus-audio encoding. It needing nearly 22 minutes to complete our Windows Media Encoder 9 trial—about 5 minutes less than an average netbook, but twice as long as an average ultraportable (the HP dv2 took about 23 minutes, the MSI X340 about 19 minutes). The U350 fared better with straight audio encoding, requiring 9:44 for our iTunes trial; again, that’s in between the averages of a netbook (27:16) and an expensive ultraportable (5:45) and a bit slower than the HP (8:52) and MSI (8:51) competitors.

As for 3D graphics, the integrated Intel GMA X4500 graphics are fine for Windows Vista’s Aero effects and some slow-action 3D games, but its score of 670 on 3DMark06 shows it—like most ultraportables, which average 888 on this test—is not suitable for gaming. The U350’s slender 4-cell battery keeps weight down, but the machine’s runtime of 2 hours 26 minutes on our streaming-video test is well short of the 4-hour average time posted by netbooks.

Other software is fairly scant. You get Windows Vista Home Premium as the OS, plus Lenovo VeriFace for using facial recognition to log in and Lenovo Idea Central, which combines a news reader and system tools with a heavy dose of ads for third-party services. You also get a 60-day trial to Microsoft Office 2007, 60 days of Norton Internet Security protection, and a 30-day trial for the excellent Carbonite automatic online backup service.

Lenovo backs the machine with a one-year warranty with 24/7 tech support. If you’re a glass-half-empty type of person, you’ll probably focus on the U350’s low performance and dismiss it. That would be a shame, since you’d be missing out on a smartly designed, super-slim, feather-light machine with a gorgeous screen and some decent features for $750. If a netbook is too much of a toy but $2,000 is too much of a stretch, the IdeaPad U350 may be just right.

Price (at time of review): $749 (direct)