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The Future of Netbook Performance

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/1/2011

No segment of the mobile PC market was more exciting then netbooks in 2008. 2009 promises to continue the endless stream of interesting netbook hardware, including the disappearance of smaller netbooks, new mobile graphics, and netbook processors from AMD.

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    Small, But Slow?

    Netbooks have come a long way since their debut. The original Eee PC was a tiny device, hardly capable of running Windows XP (which is why many of them shipped with a custom version of Linux). But new netbooks have fairly strong performance, thanks to additional RAM, better and large hard drives, and faster processors built specifically for small, low-power devices. Most new netbooks are capable of providing all the horsepower needed to run everyday home and office tasks in Windows XP, and the best netbooks offer performance as good as or better than low-cost notebooks.

    That said, netbooks are still handicapped in some ways. Most netbooks ship with 512mb to 1GB of RAM, which isn't enough to run Vista. Hard drives remain small, and the Intel integrated graphics used by all netbooks currently available are incapable of running nearly any 3D application.

    But the computer industry is known for the speed of its advancement. It wasn't long ago that the idea of a laptop with a 10" screen and a cost of $399 dollars was inconceivable. So what might the future hold?

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    The Retirement Of The Little Ones

    One trend that will likely pick up steam is the abandonment of the smallest netbooks in favor of slightly larger models with 10" screens. Asus, who started this who genre of hardware with the Eee PC, has announced that it intends to abandon production of the Eee PC 801, and the company does not seem to have any intention of replacing it with another, similarly sized model.

    Although this seems surprising, it makes sense. The performance of the original small netbooks seemed swell at the time, but those smaller formats have quickly been overtaken by slightly larger models featuring better hard drives and more RAM. And while it is probable that Asus, or a competitor, could work to make small netbooks with performance absolutely equal to its larger brethren, such an effort would do nothing for the parts of performance that have nothing to do with what's inside. The small keyboard and screen of the Eee PC 801 made it difficult to work with anything resembling speed, and as a result, there probably won't be many 9" or smaller netbooks on the market by the end of the year.

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    Introducing Ion

    Although Intel's Atom processor is a solid piece of silicon, many reviewers have called foul on its partner, the 945G series chipset. The 945G has been around for awhile, and mating it with a brand new processor meant to be energy efficient and green is like building a Toyota Prius that is heated by a wood-burning stove. Unfortunately, disapproval of the 945G chipset has not been met with much response from Intel.

    But Nvidia can also build chipsets, and has recently announced a chipset built specifically for the Atom. Called the Ion, this chipset's major claim to fame is the inclusion of a Geforce 9400 mobile graphics processor. Considering the resolution of the screens used on netbooks, the 9400M is a very hardy graphical unit. In fact, when paired with an Atom, it is nearly overkill - many 3D applications, such as games, become limited by the processor long before the 9400M reaches its peak. Better yet, the Ion chipset also promises a more robust feature set, including up to twelve USB ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port.

    The catch? Well, there is two. One is that the Ion uses somewhat more power than the 945G. The actual difference in watts is not large, but considering that many netbooks use 3-cell batteries, it may add up. Secondly, and more importantly, there are not any netbooks available at the time of this posting which use Ion. Nvidia has a good piece of hardware, but Intel is a powerful company. In fact, they've already begun a spin campaign against the Ion, undoubtedly aimed at reducing Ion's impact on the market.

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    AMD Gets In - A Little

    So far, AMD has been noticeably absent from the netbook playground. They have not yet developed a response to the Atom, instead choosing to simply downsize their existing processors. This works well for budget notebooks, but hasn't won them any friends among netbook manufacturers. AMD also has the ability to augment netbook graphics, thanks to ATI - but of course, it is unlikely that AMD will be making a chipset for the Atom, making this a moot point.

    But perhaps AMD hasn't tossed in the towel. HP has recently announced a new netbook, called the dv2. The dv2, which should list at $699, will be powered by a single-core K8 processor at 1.6Ghz. Although this may seem similar in performance to the Atom, it should actually be a fair bit faster, as the Atom is much slower than processors originally built for desktops, even those that are several generations removed from cutting-edge tech. The processor is called the Athlon Neo. Don't expect it to be seen anywhere else, though, because HP claims that it was built specifically for them. And the processor isn't the only interesting hardware in HP's new netbook - under the hood you'll also find a Radeon 3000-series mobile GPU. This should give the dv2 a level of graphical performance roughly equivalent to that of Nvidia's Ion chipset - but since the dv2 pairs that GPU with a more robust CPU, overall performance will likely be noticeably better.

    Of course, $699 is more of a budget laptop price then a netbook price. In fact, with its 12.1" screen and large keyboard, it could be argued that the dv2 isn't a netbook at all. However, it will likely be an important example to other companies. This is because 12" laptops with netbook size and weight still cost thousands of dollars. If HP can capitalize on the Athlon Neo and create a line of sub-$1000 dollar netbooks/ultraportable laptops, it may put the final nail in the coffin of multi-thousand dollar ultraportables.

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    Expect Surprises

    Although the products mentioned above are current trend-setters, it is likely that they will be old news by the time 2010 rolls around. That said, the abandonment of small notebooks, the introduction of integrated graphics into the segment, and the crossover between ultra-portables and netbooks will all be important to netbook performance as the year progresses.

    Currently, netbooks are handicapped by inadequate graphics, poor chipsets, and tiny keyboards. There is no technical reason why these handicaps can't be removed within the year. The larger question is whether or not the concept of the netbook will survive this onslaught of improvements. It is possible that netbooks may be so improved upon that, by this time next year, the simple, cheap computers available today will seem like classic automobiles, lusted after by purists, but publicly cast aside in favor of 10" and 12" netbooks in the $400-$600 dollar range.