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It’s a Small (Notebook) World at Computex

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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.

Atomic Power

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.

The Challengers …

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 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.

… and the Champ

Asus will continue to sell the original, Intel Celeron-powered Eee 701, but has for all practical purposes spiked the Celeron-based, 8.9-inch-screened Eee 900 it introduced barely two months ago in favor of two Atom-based portables called the Eee 901 (with the 8.9-inch display) and Eee 1000 (with a 10-inch screen). The name, by the way, now stands for “Easy, Excellent, and Exciting” instead of the 701’s “Easy to work, Easy to learn, Easy to play.”

Unlike their finger-cramping predecessor, all the new models boast larger keyboards — 92 percent of full size for the 1000 — as well as Super Hybrid Engine technology, a fancy name for different CPU speed/voltage and LCD brightness settings when on battery power. Asus claims battery life of up to 7.8 hours for the 901 and 7 hours for the 1000, with Bluetooth as well as 802.11n wireless for all three.

Like the 900, the 901 will be available with Linux and a 12GB solid-state drive or Windows XP and (thanks to the difference in operating system cost) an 8GB SSD. The Eee 1000 comes with Linux and a 40GB solid-state drive, while the Win XP model 1000H carries an 80GB hard disk. Prices have not yet been announced, though rumor has them climbing as high as $650 for the 10-inch system, which could move the Eee brand from a near-impulse-buy bargain into direct competition with larger, better-equipped notebooks.

More CPU Choices

These new portables join a growing crop of under-four-pound, under-$1,000 alternatives to familiar, more-briefcase-ballast laptops. HP is already in the arena with its 2133 Mini-Note. And Michael Dell was spotted toting a reportedly under-$500, reportedly Atom-based, reportedly Win XP- or Ubuntu Linux-equipped mini Inspiron — which Dell referred to as a product for “the next billion Internet users” — at last week’s All Things Digital conference.

While pretty much everybody expects HP to upgrade the 2133 with an Atom processor, the current model uses VIA’s sluggish, antique C7-M chip — that’s “antique” as in Computex 2005. The C7-M also powers the OpenBook reference design that VIA made available to would-be mini-note manufacturers last month — that’s “made available” as in open source, with VIA releasing the CAD files of the OpenBook’s external design under a free Creative Commons license.

But VIA has a brand-new CPU now making the rounds of netbook and motherboard OEMs, whom it expects to ship systems in the third quarter of this year. The VIA Nano is a 64-bit superscalar processor with speculative out-of-order microarchitecture for sophisticated branch prediction and what VIA calls the lowest floating-point add and multiply latencies of any x86 processor.

Built with Fujitsu’s 65-nanometer-process technology, the Nano features an 800MHz front-side bus; two 64K Level 1 caches and a 1MB Level 2 cache; and VIA’s PadLock on-die security engine for AES cryptographic acceleration in hardware. It’s available in three mobile-focused models with idle power as low as 0.1 watt: the Nano U2300 (1.0GHz, 5 watt TDP), U2500 (1.2GHz, 6.8 watt TDP), and U2400 (1.3GHz, 8 watt TDP).

Space-saving and silent desktop or media-center PC manufacturers can choose between a 17-watt Nano L2200 (1.6GHz) and 25-watt model L2100 (1.8GHz). By the way, the Nano is a plug-in, pin-for-pin compatible replacement for the C7 in OpenBook and other designs.

Smaller, Smarter, Sexier

PC graphics heavyweight Nvidia Corp. made a splash Monday with the announcement of a mobile platform named Tegra, which is not just a CPU but a single-chip computer smaller than a dime, designed to deliver up to 10 times the power efficiency of current battery-powered platforms for visual computing applications.

Instead of shrinking down PC technology, Nvidia brags, Tegra was designed from the ground up for tiny Internet and computing devices that company president and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang says “are going to be magical.”

The Tegra 650 combines an 800MHz processor from embedded-CPU specialist ARM with graphics and video silicon from Nvidia, including a high-definition video processor with 1080p HDMI output (as well as NTSC/PAL TV-out and WSXGA+ LCD or CRT support); an ultra-low power GeForce graphical processing unit; and imaging and audio processors, plus tidbits such as WiFi, disk drive, and keyboard and mouse support.

Products based on the Tegra 650 — as well as the Tegra APX 2500, a processor designed for Windows Mobile smartphones — are scheduled to reach consumers toward the end of this year.

Finally, entry-level PCs like the Eee 701 — and ritzy PCs like the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 — have made no-moving-parts, solid-state storage an increasingly familiar part of computing performance, and Computex is crowded with examples.

Super Talent Technology has unveiled a new line of 1.8-inch SSDs based on the Serial ATA interface, with claimed maximum read and write speeds of 120MB/sec and 40GB/sec, respectively. Just 5mm thick, the MasterDrive KX drives are available in 30GB ($299), 60GB ($449), and 120GB ($679) capacities.

Focusing on the more affordable ULCPC segment, familiar flash-drive vendor SanDisk hit the show with a line of Parallel ATA (a.k.a. IDE) drives with 39MB/sec streaming read and 17MB/sec streaming write performance. The SanDisk pSSD drives will be available in August in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB sizes.

That well-known disk manufacturer Intel is showing off a Parallel ATA solid-state drive that’s four times smaller and lighter than a conventional 1.8-inch hard disk. Weighing in at 10 grams, the Z-P230 is offered with 4GB or 8GB of capacity (with a 16GB version promised for the fourth quarter). Its max read throughput is 35MB/sec and its max write throughput is 7MB/sec.

Update 6/4/08: Speaking of Dell and its “reportedly Win XP- or Ubuntu Linux-equipped” mini, both Microsoft and Ubuntu sponsor Canonical made OS announcements at Computex. Microsoft, which in April decided to stretch Windows Vista’s predecessor’s lifespan to mid-2010 for the ULCPC segment, revealed that the by-popular-demand stay of execution applied to nettops as well as netbooks.

Canonical announced that, later this year, a number of OEMs will ship subcompacts using Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a reworked image of the popular Linux distribution with faster access to the Web, e-mail, and favorite applications. Both Remix and the Linpus platform chosen by Acer draw on Moblin, an Intel-sponsored open-source project focused on Linux software solutions for Atom-based mobile Internet devices. Xandros, which supplies the Linux OS for Asus’ Eee, stated that it too will go Moblin, citing a 25-percent improvement in netbook battery life.

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