Sony, Lenovo look to move beyond Netbooks

Sony is apparently taking its Netbook-class laptops up-market, while Lenovo has already announced a new laptop that is more laptop than Netbook.

Sony will move beyond traditional Netbooks, a market it has never fully embraced, while Lenovo is making a case for these more powerful, but small laptops already.

Lenovo's 11.6-inch ThinkPad X120e looks like a Netbook but, like the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, offers better performance.
Lenovo's 11.6-inch ThinkPad X120e looks like a Netbook but, like the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, offers better performance. Lenovo

Sony will move its Netbook-class laptops up-market with Advanced Micro Devices newest Brazos processors, according to sources. Those AMD chips integrate two processing cores and graphics silicon with robust performance--the latter feature a major departure from Intel's Atom, the standard for Netbooks.

"Sony wants to get out of Netbooks," one source said. Intel has "created a great opening for AMD. They can now drive a big truck through that [performance] gap and gain a bunch of loyalty with" PC makers," said the source.

When contacted, Sony would not comment.

And, today, Lenovo announced what it is calling an "ultraportable"--the 11.6-inch ThinkPad X120e. "Integrating an AMD Fusion E-Series [processor] gives users 65 percent faster graphics performance," according to Lenovo's release.

These new AMD-based systems from Sony and Lenovo--expected to make an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show this week--are not labeled Netbooks. Lenovo's X120e, for example, has the same screen size as Apple's 11.6-inch MacBook Air ultraportable laptop.

Intel says the competition was not unforeseen. "We always expected to compete with AMD in this space, and I guess this is further proof that the death of the Netbook has been greatly exaggerated," said Intel spokesman Bill Kircos, in a statement. "Over the past two years, we've learned that size, connectivity, battery life and price matter most in companion PC devices like Netbooks, and that's where our priorities are," he said.

Sony has been marketing the Vaio W series of Netbooks.  But the PC maker may exit the low-cost, traditional Netbook business in the U.S.
Sony has been marketing the Vaio W series of Netbooks. But the PC maker may exit the low-cost, traditional Netbook business in the U.S. Sony

Sony currently markets the Vaio W series of Netbooks that sport Intel Atom processors and are priced from $449 on Sony's Web site.

At the high end, Sony also has the 1.6-pound Vaio X series based on Atom processors. But Sony has been careful not to call the Vaio X a Netbook. Both Vaio X models are currently being discounted. For example, the lower-end model has been cut to $1,099 from $1,299.

The new AMD-based Sony models will be dropped into a non-Netbook price band, above $500.

"Sony is more of a premium brand and this makes sense for them from that perspective," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC.

Another analyst says AMD-based systems bode ill for Netbooks using Intel's Atom chip. "These higher-end products may work to snuff out the traditional Netbook market," said Richard Shim, an analyst at DisplaySearch.

"The market liked the price [of Netbooks] but didn't like the performance," said Nathan Brookwood, the principal analyst at Insight64.

Toshiba is also set to bring out an AMD-based system--what Toshiba's European release says is "much more than a normal Netbook."

But Intel is adamant that the Atom-based Netbook still has plenty of life left. "CES attendees will see some very cool, ultra-sleek Netbooks with outstanding battery life, and plans for Intel to adopt popular and unique features like Wireless Display in future Netbooks. All told, we expect some 100 new Netbook and tablet devices coming to market in the coming months on top of all those already on retail shelves," Kircos said.

Both Intel's Atom and AMD's Brazos processors fuse the central processing unit, or CPU, with the graphics processing unit, or GPU. Intel has been doing this since last year, while AMD is doing this for the first time.

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