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What, exactly, is a smartbook? Highlights from the show floor

Along with tablets, smartbooks are one of the surging new trends in portable computers. But is it any clearer what they can actually do? We check out a few at CES 2010.

LAS VEGAS--Before CES, one of our predictions as to what would be a big story on the show floor was the emergence of smartbooks, or mini-notebooks as they're sometimes called. The term was coined by Qualcomm in referring to tiny laptop-like devices using processors that are derived from smartphone-level CPUs, but are in many cases even more powerful. The two most common CPUs seem to be the Snapdragon from Qualcomm and the Tegra/Tegra 2 from Nvidia, both using ARM-based processors.

Consider the concept, ideally, as a device somewhere between a smartphone and a Netbook--hence "smartbook." Unfortunately, it's an easier concept to buy into in theory than in practice. As another tweener device, the biggest question is how exactly its computing environment will feel. Netbooks run Linux or, almost universally nowadays, Windows. Netbooks can run a full desktop environment, just with a less powerful low-voltage processor. Smartphones run on Android, the iPhone OS, or a host of other environments--Blackberry, Palm, Windows Mobile--each with their own app stores and rules. Will smartbooks be more like Netbooks or like smartphones? So far, it's unclear, but it's likely to be either Google's Android or a variation of Linux that runs most smartbooks.

On the show floor, we saw a few smartbook-type devices make their debut. The Lenovo Skylight has a Snapdragon CPU and its own Linux-based OS, while the Mobinnova Beam, to be offered from AT&T in addition to the Skylight, promises HD video playback and cloud-based web browsing with its Tegra CPU, but no clearly specified OS. A Freescale Smartbook/tablet hybrid will run Android or Linux.

While many tablets (or, if you'd like to call them slates, slates) shown are promising similar functionality, smartbooks add a keyboard. And, of course, some hybrid devices are looking to have the best of both worlds. While we like the idea of a truly pocketable computer, the biggest concern still remains whether any of the interfaces and programs offered on these little guys will be as intuitive and productive to use as some of the more successful smartphones out there. If not, then Apple might still have the last laugh after all.

Check out the gallery for more details on the smartbooks of CES.