Whether it's sold by generic white-box resellers or famous names like Dell and Apple, a huge percentage of PC hardware comes from Taiwan. That's why the annual Computex trade show in Taipei always generates big news -- with the biggest last year being Asus' announcement of the Eee PC at a promised price of $199.
Even though the two-pound, 7-inch-screened subnotebook's sticker had soared to $400 by the time it actually reached retailers in October, the Eee was a smash hit for its carefree combination of ultra-portability, everyday office productivity, and wireless Web and e-mail access.
As Computex 2008 opens today, two new members of the Eee family are playing a prominent role. But so are serious competitors from Acer and MSI -- with all three vendors marking the debut of Intel's newest and smallest processor. Meanwhile, VIA Technologies and Nvidia have unveiled subcompact silicon of their own.
The handheld ultramobile PC (UMPC) Windows platform that Microsoft touted in 2006 is dead, but its both Linux- and Windows-based successors -- small, affordable WiFi or 3G-wireless-broadband laptops dubbed ultra-low-cost PCs (ULCPCs) or netbooks -- are the new stars of the portable market. And today's second-generation models won't be the last.
Formerly known by the codename "Diamondville," the Intel Atom is a 45-nanometer-process CPU in a wee 22mm by 22mm (0.9 by 0.9-inch) package. It features a front-side bus speed of 533MHz and support for SSE, SSE2, and SSE3 streaming media extensions to the x86 instruction set.
The single-core processor also packs 56K of Level 1 cache (24K for data, 32K for instructions) and 512K of Level 2 cache. An enhanced data prefetcher and register access manager anticipate data the CPU is likely to need and stores it in the L2 cache to boost performance.
There are two versions of the Atom, both with a clock speed of 1.6GHz. For netbooks, the Atom N270 has a low thermal design power (TDP) of 2.5 watts, along with other battery-stretching tricks -- an enhanced SpeedStep technology that supports more voltage and frequency operating points, plus a deeper sleep mode that flushes cache data to system memory during periods of inactivity. The new Intel 945GSE integrated-graphics chipset brings its own power-saving features, including display brightness that automatically adjusts to ambient light and backlight modulation that reduces power consumption while maintaining the user's brightness preference.
Just as netbooks are the Honda Fit or Smart car counterparts to full-sized notebooks, nettops are scaled-down, affordable desktop PCs that plug into wall sockets. With so much more power available, the Atom 230 processor's TDP balloons to all of 4 watts, while the 945GC chipset integrates both high-definition audio and Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator for faster scene rendering.
Micro-Star International Corp. chose the Atom processor for the new MSI Wind, a 2.6-pound laptop available in white, black, and pink. The name is an acronym for WiFi Network Device, although "breaking Wind" jokes have already flooded the Internet.
Measuring 7.1 by 10.2 by 1.2 inches, the Wind boasts a 10-inch screen with 1,024 by 600 resolution, as well as an 80GB conventional hard drive instead of a higher-cost, lower-capacity solid-state drive (SSD) that uses flash memory. For comfortable typing, MSI says the keyboard's 0.68-inch spacing between keys comes close to most desktop keyboards' 0.75 inch.
Equipped with Windows XP Home Edition, 1GB of DDR-2 memory, and a 6-cell battery that MSI rates at 5.5 hours of use, the Wind will sell for $499 at www.msimobile.com starting June 16. A Linux-based version, priced at $399 with 512K of RAM, is due later this summer. As with all netbooks, there's no built-in optical drive -- CD and DVD fans will have to plug in an external USB device.
For its part, Acer has introduced the Atom-based Aspire One, an 8.9-inch (1,024 by 600) subnotebook -- or, to use the press-release term, "communication device" -- starting at $379 with a 95-percent-full-sized keyboard and a friendly Linux interface. The latter, which organizes the screen into Connect, Works, Fun, and Files areas, bears the unfortunate name of Linpus. Its features include an e-mail client that manages as many as six accounts, an instant messaging and Skype program, and the OpenOffice productivity suite.
Tipping the scales at about 2.2 pounds, measuring 6.7 by 9.8 by 1.1 inches, and bearing an 8GB solid-state disk, the Aspire One will be available next month in sapphire blue, seashell white, golden brown, and (you guessed it) coral pink. A Windows XP Home configuration with an 80GB hard disk, as well as 3G wireless, are promised for the not-too-distant future.