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Netbooks and Nettops

by Parm Mann on 20 November 2008, 00:00

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This HEXUS.help guide explains what netbooks and nettops are, how they work, where you'll find them, and what the future holds for low-cost computers.

What are netbooks and nettops?

Early in 2008, Intel announced its plans to bring low-cost and ultra-portable computers to the mainstream in the form of newly-named netbooks and nettops.

Netbooks - a name given to small, lightweight and low-cost portables - aim to provide core computing functionality such as web browsing, e-mail and word processing in a device that typically costs less than a full-size notebook.

Helping achieve a true ultra-portable design is Intel's Atom processor, launched in June 2008. Intel's primary Atom chip for netbook devices is the Atom N270 - a 1.6GHz hyper-threading-enabled CPU providing a total of two virtual cores. The chip measures just 22m x 22mm and consumes a maximum of 2.5 watts of power, making it ideal for low-power netbook purposes.

In keeping with the low-cost and ultra-portable design, a netbook generally offers a screen size of seven-to-ten inches, approximately 1GB of RAM, and a choice of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system or a Linux alternative.

So, what about nettops? Put simply, a nettop is to the desktop what a netbook is to the notebook. A nettop's purpose, therefore, is to provide core computing functionality in a small, low-cost desktop package.

Intel's primary Atom chip for nettops is the Atom 230, a single-core 1.6GHz processor not too dissimilar to the Atom N270 found in netbooks. Desktop-based nettops, however, have thus far proved to be far less popular than the ultra-portable netbooks. The Atom's limited ability could be one reason - the single-core chip is known to be unable to cope with full-HD video, for example.

Hoping to provide a significant boost to the nettop market is Intel's upcoming dual-core Atom processor: the Atom 330. This hyper-threading-enabled processor will provide four virtual cores, and its arrival in Q4 2008 should signal a barrage of nettop devices from various manufacturers.

Back in 2007, Taiwan-based ASUS managed to get itself a head start in the soon-to-boom netbook market with the launch of its Eee PC brand. The first Eee PCs, powered by Intel's Celeron Mobile processors, were limited in ability due to ageing technology, but signalled the intent of netbooks and sales proved to be strong.

In 2008, ASUS updated its Eee product range with Intel's newly-launched Atom processors and is believed to have shipped nearly two million devices in the first half of the year.

With analysts predicting 50 million netbooks to be in widespread circulation by 2011, it was only a matter of time until hoards of big-name manufacturers presented netbook offerings of their own.

Hot on the heels of ASUS were MSI and Acer, who in mid-2008 presented their Wind and Aspire One netbooks, respectively. With the same Atom processor and similar-sized screens in each device, there's little to differentiate each of the netbooks available to consumers. In an effort to improve on rival offerings, manufacturers have opted to offer features such as varying storage capacities, improved compact keyboards, and in rare-cases, touch-screen interfaces.

More recently, Dell - one of the world's largest manufacturers of personal computers - joined the netbook market with its Inspiron Mini 9.

There's clearly no shortage of players in the netbook space, but how about nettops? As you'd expect, those who've experienced success in the netbook market are first in line, and the likes of ASUS' Eee Box and MSI's Wind PC are already available. However, sales of the so-called nettops have so far paled in comparison to netbooks. Intel, and its partners, will be hoping its dual-core Atom processor will act as the catalyst for nettop growth, we believe.

The Market

The idea of a low-cost computing device with the power to carry out the most common tasks has undeniable appeal. Sales of netbooks have so far been phenomenal, and with the quickening transition from desktop PCs to portable PCs, sales will no doubt continue.

At present, the majority of netbooks are priced at around the £300 mark - higher than many had expected, and awfully close to the cost of a full-feature notebook.

However, prices are beginning to fall as production ramps up, and a wide selection of sub-£200 netbooks shouldn't be far away.

Intel's theory is to get netbooks into the hands of millions - even those who aren't computer literate. The theory isn't far-fetched, as the netbook provides functionality that'll appeal to both experienced and novice users.

It should be also noted that Intel isn't the sole chip-maker vying for portable supremacy. Following the launch of its Atom processor, a trio of rivals have announced their intentions of capturing some of the portable market with chips of their own.

VIA Technologies has announced its Atom-challenging Nano processor, AMD is preparing to offer a series of Ultra-Value Client solutions, and NVIDIA has its Tegra system-on-a-chip.


The term "netbook" has fast become familiar in the IT industry, and with many of the largest manufacturers looking to take advantage of the booming market, we can expect to see continued growth and development in the coming years.

Don't be surprised if your next computer purchase is a low-cost netbook or nettop.

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