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The new class of affordable, portable notebooks

The introduction of AMD's Neo and HP's Pavilion Dv2 highlights that ultraportables come at many prices and with many different sets of features.

I've been following the goings on at the low end of the notebook market with considerable interest over the past year. Part of my reason is professional; the way that the most mobile client devices evolve says a lot about how we will access applications and what the infrastructure running those applications will look like.

I'm also interested on a personal level. On the one hand I travel quite a bit. On the other, when I'm not traveling, I generally work out of my home office where I have a hefty desktop rig with three monitors. As a result, I value portability far more than power in my notebook given that I mostly use it for relatively lightweight Web browsing and writing while I'm on the road.

Netbooks (to use Intel's term for ultraportable PCs) have become something of a phenomenon. This hasn't been so much because they've broken new ground in notebook features. In fact, the systems that generally get lumped in that bucket today tend to skirt the edge of the full PC experience. They're explicitly intended to access Web-based applications through a browser or to run some basic productivity software locally; they're not general purpose. And they use less power-hungry, but less powerful, processors such as Intel's Atom. They're inexpensive--under $500 in most cases--especially compared to traditional road warrior notebooks that have tended to be priced at a premium relative to the notebook mainstream.

So this trend toward smaller and cheaper is interesting for a lot of reasons. What it isn't, I've argued, is a clearly distinct class of system but rather, as I argued in November:

...a temporary phenomenon that will soften over time. Memory gets denser, processors get faster, LCDs get cheaper. Some of these Moore's Law-fueled advances could indeed continue to push the entry level of the notebook market down in price... But I strongly suspect that a lot of that technical advance will also go into beefing up the capabilities of notebooks in the sort of price band that a lot of consumer electronics sell for--say, sub-$500.

We're now seeing exactly that happen.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), AMD announced its Athlon Neo ("Yukon") platform, which will first appear in the HP Pavilion Dv2. Dan Ackerman on CNET describes it as:

Pitched as a kind of step-up from Netbooks, Neo provides for a little more processing muscle--at least enough to power Windows Vista. The CPU is called the Neo MV-40, runs at 1.6GHz, and comes paired with ATI Mobility Radeon HD3410 graphics.

Besides that, the Dv2 also has a fairly large keyboard for a 12-inch laptop, starts at about 3.8 pounds, and is 1.3-inches thick at its thickest point. The display is a 1,280x800 LED.

Pricing will start at $699, which puts its entry level at or a bit above the high-end of Netbooks such as the Asus Eee PC. But, at the same time, this is perhaps half the price of the more fully-featured ultraportables pitched primarily toward mobile professionals. AMD's and HP's intent here is to drive the price down on portability while still providing enough screen real estate and processing horsepower to handle things like multimedia and browser with lots of tabs open smoothly. "Good enough for the real world" is how AMD Chief Marketing Officer Nigel Dessau put it to me (with the implication that lower-end Netbooks are not.)

Intel also plans to enter this segment of the notebook market with its consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) platform later this year.

None of this should be taken to suggest that we won't continue to also see a class of smaller, cheaper notebooks that will continue to prioritize price and mobility over a larger screen and keyboard and better performance. But it's becoming clear that such systems aren't an isolated phenomenon, but rather part of a more generalized broadening of the notebook space that includes Netbooks, 17-inch gaming machines, and everything else in between.