The new faces of netbooks

After being panned for having cramped keyboards and "junky" hardware, netbooks evolved over the past month to include bigger screens, better graphics and larger keyboards. Netbooks will now be able to play full high-definition movies with Lenovo's new IdeaPad S12 netbook. Asustek Computer this month introduced the Eee PC T91, a netbook with a touch screen. Jumping outside Windows, Acer announced plans to put Google's Android on its netbooks, which should provide an Internet-savvy computing experience.

Lenovo's great graphics game

One of the knocks against netbooks was poor graphics capabilities, but Lenovo has addressed that concern with its newly announced netbook. The IdeaPad S12 netbook has a 12-inch screen that can play full high-resolution movies, thanks to a powerful chip with an Nvidia graphics processor under the hood. The processor is part of an Nvidia chip package called the Ion platform, which couples the GeForce 9400 graphics core with Intel's Atom netbook processor.

"For the first time ... users will be able to enjoy brilliant 1080p high-definition video with silky smooth playback," a Lenovo representative said. Strangely enough, Lenovo doesn't offer an optical drive, such as Blu-ray, with the netbook. But users can buy an external Blu-ray drive or download high-definition content from the Internet.

Before bringing a system with Ion graphics to market, Lenovo will first introduce an S12 netbook with Intel's integrated graphics. Those systems will become available in June, with prices starting at US$449. Models with Ion will become available a few months later, and pricing for them wasn't immediately available.

Strong graphics aside, Lenovo has added sundries such as a larger keyboard that make the netbook easier to use. Lenovo claims a six-hour battery life, though it was unclear whether this was for laptops with or without Ion graphics.

Asustek's touch-screen netbook

Only a few netbooks, such as Intel's Classmate Convertible, have touch screens. Now Asustek has joined that exclusive group. Asus finally introduced the Eee PC T91 touch-screen netbook, which was originally announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The netbook has an 8.9-inch touch-screen on which users can touch up photos or leave handwritten memos using their fingertips.

The netbook is powered by an Intel Z520 processor that runs at 1.33GHz, and it is available with as much as 1GB of memory and 82GB of storage. The T91 weighs about 0.96 kilograms (2.1 pounds) and offers five hours of battery life on a single battery charge. It comes with optional GPS and mobile broadband components. It runs Microsoft's Windows XP OS.

Acer's Android netbook dreams

Acer showed its first Aspire One netbook with the Android operating system at the Computex show in Taiwan this week. The beauty of this operating system, according to Acer, is that it offers users outstanding wireless on the go. Acer conceded that Microsoft's Windows OS will be on a majority of the laptops, but it wants to put Android for the added convenience of users.

So what can users expect with an Android netbook? It's hard to predict, but I'm expecting Android to be a bare-bones OS, much like the version you see on Android smartphones. Users will do most of their tasks, such as word processing, using online applications such as Google Docs.

Top companies including Hewlett-Packard and Dell are already investigating Android for netbooks, so it may well evolve into a OS that competes with Windows. Acer plans to launch its first Aspire One netbooks with Android in the third quarter.

HP's Minis

HP last month launched a bare-bones Mini 110 Mi, which is a netbook that behaves like a smartphone. It has a souped-up interface that provides one-click access to everyday applications such as word processing and a Web browser. The netbook's user interface was developed by HP and runs on the Linux OS. The 110 Mi has a 10.1-inch screen and is priced starting at $279.99. It can accommodate as much as 2GB of memory and 250GB of hard drive storage.

The company also launched Mi's cousin, the Mini 110 XP edition, which comes with Windows XP. It can have as much as 1GB of memory and 160GB of hard drive storage. HP says an optional Broadcom HD video accelerator could become available in July, allowing the laptop to play back full 1080p high-definition content. Pricing for the laptop starts at $329.99

The netbooks weigh about 2.33 pounds and are powered by Intel's Atom N270 or N280 processors, which run at 1.6GHz and 1.66GHz, respectively.

Fujitsu's traditional take

Fujitsu this week launched the M2010 Mini-Note, which has a 10.1-inch screen and comes with the standard components you would find in netbooks, such as integrated webcams. The system can have as much as 1GB of DDR2 memory and 160GB of hard drive storage. The base netbook comes with a three-cell battery that provides as much as two-and-a-half hours of computing, but that can be doubled with an optional six-cell battery, according to the company. It is powered by an Atom N270 processor running at 1.6GHz.

The netbook's price tag of $449 is high, but the company has built-in Bluetooth capabilities and three USB ports, which is unusual for a netbook. However, vendors such as Dell, Asus and Acer offer cheaper netbooks with integrated features such as webcams, which could be a better option for those who don't need Bluetooth or extra USB ports.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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