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Are sub-notebooks just a fad?

by Scott Bicheno on 25 July 2008, 17:08

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Very Small Laptops

Late last year Asus came out with a PC that was small and light enough to carry in a handbag and only cost 200 quid. Seemingly overnight the Eee PC became the hottest piece of consumer technology since the iPhone as suddenly £200 became impulse purchase territory.

As a result, Asus’s sales by volume, in the UK at least, showed four figure growth and most of the other notebook vendors apparently decided they wanted some of that action. So this summer we got the MSI Wind, the new versions of the Eee PC, the Acer Aspire One and the under publicised HP PC: the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC.

Soon Dell will be following with the Dell E as will Gigabyte with its M912 and we’ve even heard rumours that display maker HannsG might be joining the party. Most of these are based on Intel’s Atom processor – a tiny, low power CPU that is tailor made for these sorts of PCs. In fact Intel has even coined a term for them: netbooks. This has yet to receive unanimous backing from the industry, so we still have terms like sub-notebook, ultra-mobile, ultra-low cost PC, etc.

In fact this lack of consensus is almost as annoying as having to choose between “laptop” and “notebook” when you write about “mobile PCs” in general, so until everyone makes their mind up I’m going to call them “Very Small Laptops” (VSLs) – so there.

Severe concessions

Unfortunately even that term is starting to lose validity. The first Eee PCs had seven inch screens – less than half of the average for a laptop of 15 inches. Now, many VSLs have 10 inch screens partly because, apparently, blokes found it hard to type on the smaller ones.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini was keen to stress that Atom is not a replacement for even the Celeron processor

Many VSLs have had to make severe concessions on their specs in order to be both Very Small and Very Cheap. The Atom processor is a good product that creates a niche of its own, or so Intel would have us believe, but it’s not going to blow you away performance wise. In fact during its Q2 earnings conference call last week, Intel CEO Paul Otellini was keen to stress that Atom is not a replacement for even the Celeron processor, let alone the company's many more powerful ones.

Other components like memory, storage graphics and connectivity are kept to a minimum and many VSLs don’t even have optical drives. As for Linux instead of Windows, that remains an acquired taste.

It looks like the end-user feedback from those first VSLs was that they were great, but would be improved by bigger screens, bigger keyboards and better specs. Sound like any other products you know? Now we have bigger, better models coming out all the time but with enhanced spec comes enhanced price.

So we now have the situation where the more fully specced VSLs, cost up to £400. For the same price you can get a perfectly acceptable laptop. Let’s compare the specs of two £369 machines:

Model Price CPU display Memory Storage Battery Weight Operating System
Asus Eee PC 1000
Atom, 1.6 GHz
10" (1024x600) 1024MB 40GB SSD
6 cell
1.33kg Linux
Dell Inspiron 1525
Celeron 550 2GHz 15.4" (1280x800)
1024MB 120GB HDD
6 cell
2.7kg+ Vista Home Premium