If you were thinking of treating yourself or someone else to a netbook for Christmas, you might do better to wait a bit. Of course when buying technology, there’s always the fear that any time you buy you are risking instant obsolescence. But in the case of diminutive, low-cost laptops, that fear right now should be stronger than usual.
The Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of January will see a spate of announcements of netbooks using a new Intel platform codenamed Pine Trail, based on a new version of the Atom processor called Pineview (blame Intel, not me for these codenames.) The promise: higher performance without compromising, and perhaps even improving, battery life. You can expect to see Pine Trail-based netbooks from every laptop manufacturer early in 2010.
One of the big issues for netbooks has been their weak graphics performance. This has been most evident when playing high-quality video sites that run on Adobe Flash, such as Hulu. The combination of more processing power and a new 10.1 version of the Flash player are supposed to cure the problem. But we’ll have to wait to see how these new systems compared in both performance and battery life with the currently available combination of an Atom processor and Nvidia’s Ion chipset, which is found in some higher-end netbooks such s the Samsung NP-N110 or the Lenovo IdeaPad S12. These systems have typically offered much better graphic performance, but at some penalty in battery life.
A little further down the rod is a new class of laptop, sometimes called a smartbook, that is based on an ARM processor, to sort generally used to run smartphones, rather than the Atom, which uses the same x86 instructions as Intel’s laptop and desktop chips. These smartbooks won’t run Windows, which works only on x86, but some flavor of Linux, including Google’s Android. Unlike netbooks, which at least in theory have all the functionality of bigger laptops, smartbooks will be designed primarily to browse the Web and will probably offer little in the way of native applications; don;t expect to run Microsoft Word or Outlook on one.
In a slightly premature announcement, Qualcomm put out the word last month that Lenovo will show a smartbook based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor at CES. Other announcements are expected at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. Some netbooks are beginning to be sold by wireless carriers at subsidized prices in exchange for a two-year wireless data contract. This will be the dominant way that smartbooks are sold.
The products are intended to fill a niche–which may or may not turn out to exist–between small x86 notebooks and smartphones. And they are likely to end up competing in that space with Apple’s still mythical tablet.