Ultraportable laptops: Their rise and possible fall

Are the new ultrasmall laptops like the Asus Eee PC here for the long term or a flash in the pan?

For some users, the new generation of ultraportable notebooks comes close to embodying the Holy Grail for road warriors. Their laptop-like keyboards make them more usable for typing tasks than smart phones, but they are lighter and cheaper than traditional laptops. The original Asus Eee PC, for instance, cost about $400 and weighed about two pounds when it was introduced last October.

However, while pundits and technology journalists have lavished attention on these products, skeptics have raised questions. For instance, is there anything really special about these devices, or do they just represent old technology in new packaging? Are users as enthusiastic about these tiny laptops as the pundits are? Will they fade away like so many other "next big things"? And perhaps the oddest question: What do we call these things, anyway?

"It's way too early to talk about this being a viable product category," says Avi Greengart, mobile device research director at Current Analysis Inc. "I'm not sure how much of a market there is for them, particularly with subnotebooks like MacBook Air with [larger] keyboards and displays getting thinner and lighter. And you can get some real work done on, say, an iPhone or a Nokia E-series smart phone."

Not surprisingly, vendors and other proponents strongly disagree.

"The Eee PC has successfully explored user segments that have been ignored by other notebook vendors," says Kevin Huang, senior director of marketing at Asustek Computer Inc. "For example, a lot of kids use their parents' notebooks, but they are just too heavy to carry to school. But at two pounds, kids can easily put [ultraportables] in their backpacks." Huang insists that, over time, this product category will expand to become attractive to many types of users.

Ultrasmall laptops -- not a new phenomenon

If small laptops like the Asus Eee, MSI Wind, Everex CloudBook and HP Mini-Note 2133 give you a sense of déjà vu, it's because these are hardly the first devices of that particular size and shape. For instance, Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced the 3-lb. Omnibook 300 in 1993, and that 386-based device developed a small but loyal following.

In the late '90s, several vendors released clamshell devices based on Windows CE (now called Windows Mobile), such as NEC's MobilePro series. These devices looked like tiny laptops, although they used a PDA operating system and could only handle "pocket" versions of desktop applications.

Another similar type of device is the ultramobile PC (UMPC). These devices -- such as the Samsung Q1 Ultra and OQO -- which started appearing in 2006, use a variant of Windows and typically have touch screens as small as 5 in. They have never caught on broadly, perhaps because prices initially approached $2,000 and because their keyboards are only slightly more spacious than those on smart phones. However, prices have recently dropped closer to $1,000, and they have found a home in vertical markets such as hospitals and warehouses.

The new crop of ultraportables differ from UMPCs in that they look and feel like traditional clamshell notebooks -- they're just smaller and lighter. One product that some classify as one of the first of today's ultraportables is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) device, which is aimed at children in developing nations. At one point, Intel Corp. was in discussions to provide processors for the OLPC effort; the company's ClassMate device is seen by some as both a competitor to OLPC and a prototype for its more commercial ultraportables.

The name game

One peculiarity of this latest generation of tiny laptops is that there's no agreement about what to call them. Intel, which wants to be the dominant chip maker for this class of devices, calls them "netbooks."

"Netbooks are for communicating with e-mail and IM, browsing and things like media streaming -- very basic things," says Anil Nandury, Intel's marketing director for netbook platforms. Intel's competitors, however, disagree.

"Netbook is an Intel term," counters Tim Brown, international marketing manager at Via Technologies Inc., an Intel competitor in Taiwan. "But they're not just about the Internet. We use the term mini-notebook." Other names that have popped up for these laptops include "mini-laptop," "ultraportable" and even "ultramobile," though that name is already used for UMPCs.

One thing that vendors and analysts do agree about is that these devices share several common traits. First, they have a maximum display size of 10.2 in., which, not coincidentally, is the screen size of some of the newest of these devices. By contrast, ultrathin laptops such as Apple Inc.'s MacBook Air typically have screen sizes of about 13 in. diagonally across.

Second, these devices are often available in Linux versions, a less-expensive alternative to Windows, although several are now available with Windows XP. (At least one, HP's Mini-Note 2133, can come loaded with Windows Vista.)

Third, they are relatively inexpensive -- as noted, the original Asus Eee PC was $400, an unusually low price for a lightweight, reasonably-featured system.

One bit of emerging technology often used in these tiny laptops -- and one that is not inexpensive -- is the use of solid-state drives (SSD) for storage. Unlike traditional hard disk drives (HDD), SSDs have no moving parts. This enables them to be lighter, run cooler with less power and boot faster. The problem with SSDs, for now, is that they are more costly and have less capacity than HDDs, issues that will surely be resolved over time. To keep prices down, ultraportable laptops that do come with SSDs tend to not have much storage capacity -- the original Eee PC, for instance, came with a 4GB SSD, barely enough capacity to handle the onboard applications and a few user files.

However, the most interesting feature of these devices may be the processors -- such as Intel's Atom and Via's C7-M and Nano -- that were specifically designed to be small, inexpensive and require low power.

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