18 July 2009
That's one SASSY laptop!
That's one SASSY laptop!

Back in the day, it was easy to select a portable computer. There was only one size: big suitcase. At that time, Apple’s portable computer was called the Macintosh Boulder, and it only weighed 1,264 ounces. Running through the airport with one of these “portable” devices was a lot of fun. Yes, life was good.

Fast forward a few decades, and laptops were just lower-powered portable computers. Then, a few years ago, something odd happened: everyone started demanding “desktop replacement laptops”. In short, everyone wanted a laptop that could do everything their desktop machine could do. The end result was a wide variety of laptops which were very powerful, but they suffered from poor battery life given the myriad of high-powered features packed inside them, like graphics chips that could let you play games on your laptop.

Enter the netbook: small, light, with up to 10 hours of battery life. But, they’re a bit on the slow side.

And today? Well, today we are on the verge of seeing a whole slew of new laptops with CULV processors. They’re going to be thin and light and have “long” battery lives… or so we’re told.

So, what the heck are you supposed to buy? Well, that depends on what you need and want. But hopefully, it will all be a bit more clear in a few minutes…

You see, there was one problem with DRNs (desktop replacement notebooks): they had so much crap packed inside them that they used a ton of power. In many cases, the processor would use 30W, the graphics chip would hover around 30W, the dual 7200RPM harddrives needed more juice, the 17″ screen needed more power, etc. In short, making a DRN didn’t magically reduce the power requirements of the laptop components, even if they were “efficient” laptop variations of desktop components. That meant that these laptops had to be plugged in most of the time.

Now, I don’t know about you, but having a laptop with a 2.5 hour battery life isn’t going to do me any good. Wanna play a game on your DRN? You have 30 minutes of battery life. Ready, set, go! DRNs defeated the main purpose, which was portability. A portable computer isn’t very portable if it has to be plugged into a power outlet 95% of the time! Want longer battery life? Fine, you can pay through the nose for a 300-cell battery that makes your laptop weigh more than the Mac Boulder.

[ad name=”square-l”] Nevertheless, Intel was happy. They were selling gobs of components, and everyone was madly rushing out to get their very own ultra-snazzy laptop so they could out-compute and out-cool their friends and coworkers. I call this The iPod Effect.

Enter the “economic downturn”. All of a sudden, buying everything on credit didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore, so people starting actually watching their budgets. That meant that those little teeny-tiny netbooks “invented” by Asus were starting to look pretty good. They were small, cheap, lightweight, and enough to get the job done. Seeing dollar signs, other companies went nuts – and today you have about 3 million different models to choose from, even though they all have pretty much the same specifications (Atom N270 processor, 1GB RAM, 160GB harddrive, Intel GMA 950 graphics, 8-10″ LED backlit display at 1024 x 600, 3 USB ports, audio ports, VGA out, Windows XP Home installed).

But, the point is that you can buy a netbook for 299 pesos and get a small, portable, powerful-enough laptop that has a useful battery life of between 3 and 10 hours – depending on model and battery size. They’re useful for things like surfing the net, e-mail, office work, and other stuff… ya know, the kind of stuff that 99% of people actually DO with their laptop when they’re truly using it as a portable computer! Suddenly, the Manhood Contest is no longer about how big and powerful it is, but about how small and efficient it is! Will wonders never cease?

If we are to believe Intel, no, they will not cease. That’s because Intel has now given us mere mortals a taste of what the Apple faithful have been enjoying for awhile with their MacBook Airs: CULV processors. CULV stands for Consumer Ultra Low Voltage. They are laptop processors that run at very low voltages (and lower speeds, often with only a single core instead of two). That means less power usage, but theoretically more power than those lowly netbooks. And, if we are to believe the marketing hype, it also means “up to 8 hours of battery life!!”

Alrighty, so, hold the phone there… I’m going to pick on Acer’s Timeline laptops. You’ve probably seen them. They’re very thin, very cool looking, and they claim up to 8 hours of battery life. Go visit Acer’s web site and check it out. Seriously cool looking. There’s only one problem: the “8 hours” of battery life are achieved by some Acer software that totally reduces the functionality of the computer in order to give you maximum battery life. If you use the machine like you normally would, you won’t see anywhere near 8 hours of battery life. According to one review I read, 3 or 4 hours is more like it. And that is still better than most inexpensive laptops… BUT – and there’s always a “but” – they cost several hundred big ones more than most netbooks and entry-level notebooks. And, with certain netbooks like the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, when they claim “up to 10 hours of battery life”, you can expect 7 or 8 hours under normal usage conditions. Furthermore, you can watch videos nonstop on a 1000HE for over 6 hours before the battery dies. Try that on a CULV notebook or a regular laptop, and you’ll see much, much shorter battery life.

So what’s happening here? Well, it’s pretty simple really: profit! You see, Intel likes the fact that their Atom netbook processor is popular. What they don’t like is the fact that in this economy, their profit margins are so low. So, they have “introduced” CULV processors. The idea is that they can sell consumers on CULV-powered laptops for $699 to $899 instead of a netbook for $299 to $399. Intel makes more money, manufacturers make more money, and everyone goes home happy. Just like the old days!! Right?

Well, not exactly. It really depends on what you want to use your laptop for. When you can get a basic laptop for $399, buying a netbook for the same price might seem foolish. The netbook gives you much longer battery life, and much better portability, but it isn’t as powerful. The basic laptop for the same price gives you things like more processing power and more RAM, but alas that 3-cell battery won’t last for more than 2.5 hours under normal usage. And a basic 15″ notebook is a LOT bigger and heavier than even an 11.6″ netbook.

Now, here’s where things get REALLY interesting. In late September, manufacturers will demo their new netbook designs based on the new Atom platform, including the Atom N450 processor, and a “new” graphics core that can handle high definition video decoding without flinching. Currently, most netbooks are rather unpowered when it comes to watching hi-def videos. The new Atom platform will be able to handle such videos without a problem, and the entire platform (processor and chipset) will use somewhere around 1/2 to 1/3 the power of the current Atom platform. What that means is that not only will you get more power in a netbook, but you could theoretically have ridiculous battery life with a 6-cell battery – or very good battery life with a lowly standard 3-cell battery. And, to top it off, more manufacturers are going to be upping the screen resolution of their netbooks from 1024×600 to 1366 x 768 pixels – a far more enjoyable and useful resolution!

In any case, a netbook will still be a netbook: good for surfing, e-mail, office work, and maybe the odd minor graphics-editing task. And yes, you can listen to your music library while surfing and reading e-mail and editing an office document – all at the same time. Just don’t expect stupid-fast performance on a netbook. Those who have installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate on their existing netbooks are generally quite impressed with the performance. Windows 7 will be released on October 22, 2009. So, if you’re in the market for a netbook, wait until October and get the new Atom platform, longer battery life, more power, a higher res screen, and Windows 7 all in one fell swoop.

If you want more juice, well then you have your choice of an entry-level laptop as always, or one of the new CULV-based laptops. With the CULV processors, you’ll see better performance than netbooks, but not as much performance as a high-end DRN. And you won’t see ridiculously long battery life like you will with the next generation of netbooks.

Well, there you have it. Hopefully all the portable computer mayhem makes a lot more sense now!

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Notebooks, Netbooks, and Hot Air: Laptops Demystified
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