Despite the emergence of trendy new devices like Apple's iPad, netbooks will continue to be one of the fastest-growing notebook segments, according to market research firm DisplaySearch. In a December 2009 report, the company predicted that sales of what it calls "mini-notes" will increase from 16.4 million units in 2008 to 39.7 million by the end of 2010, and account for one in five portables sold.
Many of the latest netbooks are powered by Intel's Atom N450 processor, which boosts a netbook's ability to perform well while extending battery life. Called Pine Trail while under development by Intel, the Atom N450 started shipping in January and represents a major redesign from the previous N270 version of the Atom processor.
What can you expect from this chip? According to my tests, the N450 delivers 28% better processor performance and a 20% boost in computing abilities compared with the N270.
The Atom N450 has some elements in common with its predecessor, such as a single processing core, a pair of simultaneous instruction threads and 512KB of external cache for temporarily storing frequently used data and instructions. But the N450 has 123 million transistors -- more than twice the N270 -- and can take advantage of 667 MHz of RAM, versus 533 MHz for N270 systems.
The N450 also has a new register access manager that controls the flow of data into and out of the processor and a more efficient data prefetcher so the processor doesn't have to wait for needed data to be delivered. As a result, the processor spends less time spinning its wheels and more time working.
The N450 has two new sleep modes that use less power, and the chip's cache data is ingeniously transferred to lower-power RAM when it goes to sleep, cutting battery use even more. According to Intel, when the system is being used, the N450 consumes 7 watts of power (about what a child's night light uses) -- less than half the N270's 16 watts. This not only extends battery life, but also reduces the need to cool the processor.
Along with Intel's NM-10 Express Chipset, the package is barely the size of a fingernail; the two chips take up 60% less space than the N270's three-chip package. This allows the N450 to be squeezed into smaller places and could lead to more creative and thinner hardware designs.
Intel expects there will be something like 80 different devices available that use the Atom N450 by summertime.
I tested four netbooks equipped with the N450 chip: Acer's Aspire One 532h, Fujitsu's LifeBook MH380, HP's Mini 5102 and the MSI Wind U135.
At first, they appear to be like four peas in a pod, with similar -- if not identical -- hardware: a 1.6-GHz Atom N450 processor, 1GB of RAM, Intel's GMA 3150 graphics card, a 10.1-in. screen and a webcam. In fact, the only big difference is that while the HP Mini 5102 comes with a 160GB hard drive, the others have 250GB hard drives. In addition, the HP Mini comes with a standard four-cell battery while the others come with six-cell batteries. All are within a couple of ounces and fractions of an inch of one another and have three USB ports as well as connections for an external monitor, networking, audio and a flash card reader.
Unfortunately, these netbooks all come with Microsoft's bargain-basement Windows 7 Starter Edition, which means you can't share an Internet connection, connect to a domain or use any of the machines as a network bridge. Starter also doesn't let you change your desktop image, and it doesn't support multiple monitors. Finally, it doesn't come with Windows Media Center for watching TV with an external tuner.
However, despite their similarities, there are some telling differences between them.