While netbooks were a sensation when they arrived two years ago their limits are now legendary. Unless you’re happy to churn through basic Office tasks at a snail’s pace and surf the web through 10in screens with resolutions of 1024 x 600 a netbook can never be your primary computer. As for playing full HD videos or games on a netbook forget it.
This was partly rectified by the arrival of netbooks with NVIDIA’s ION graphics chipset which works with Intel Atom CPUs to deliver better graphics and multimedia. But there’s yet another category of notebooks that are nearly as affordable as netbooks yet do graphics far better.
From vendors such as Toshiba Fujitsu and Acer they’re known as ‘ultra-thins’ or ULV (Ultra Low-Voltage) notebooks and the standouts are the ones powered by AMD low-power processors and AMD’s M780G chipset. They’re only $100 to $200 more than a netbook but handle graphics as well as any full-sized notebook with integrated graphics.
Take Toshiba’s Satellite T110D/00C (above). With an 11in screen it’s the size of a netbook but has a superb 16:9 1366 x 768 resolution and the ability to easily play HD video and low-end games. With its HDMI port you can stream HD videos to your HDTV with only one cable needed.
The T110D/00C is a superior computing experience to that provided by Toshiba’s $599 NB300 netbook but at $699 retail is only around $100 more. Incorporating the ATI Radeon HD 3200 GPU the M780G chipset in the T110D/00C provides the graphics processing power that’s the equivalent of a low-end graphics card. Try getting this from a netbook. What’s the catch? Battery life. Netbooks powered by Intel’s N450 Atoms or ULV processors last significantly longer in labs tests. But if battery life is not your main concern you should seriously check out the ultra-thins.
Why netbooks aren’t for everyone
Part of the reason the multimedia performance of netbooks is so anaemic is the restrictions imposed by Intel on netbooks using Intel processors and chipsets. These are designed to ensure a balanced configuration that will deliver a reasonable battery life. For instance Intel asks netbook makers to restrict RAM to 1GB (although netbook users can manually upgrade to 2GB) and has only recently allowed manufacturers to include 1366 x 768 resolutions on 10in screens. By using AMD components the ultra-thin makers don’t have to work within these restrictions.
[#PAGE-BREAK#Toshiba Satellite T110D/00C – $699#]
When you first open it you think this is a netbook with the now obligatory imprint pattern in a glossy black case and chiclet-style keyboard that spell b-u-d-g-e-t. So it comes as a shock when you surf to YouTube and are able to watch HD videos playing smoothly on its screen or edit a graphics-heavy PowerPoint presentation without staring at the hourglass for minutes on end.
The T110D/00C uses AMD’s Athlon Neo MV-40 processor – a single-core processor that’s AMD’s equivalent of Intel’s Atom netbook processors but comes with 2GB of RAM (expandable to 8GB) and a 250GB hard drive. It also has Wireless N and Bluetooth 2.1 and runs Windows 7 Home Premium. The only flaw we could detect was a very short spacebar (make sure you try typing with it if considering it for purchase).
[#PAGE-BREAK#Acer Ferrari One 200 – from $999#]
Acer describes this as â€œthe world’s most exclusive netbookâ€ but it’s really a premium 1.5kg ultra-thin that uses the AMD combo of more powerful AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processor and M780G chipset. At $999 it’s relatively expensive but not when you consider that it comes with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive as well as an impressive 1366 x 768 resolution screen.
It has Dolby sound and manages to make the Ferrari colours and F1-style touches look stylish rather than garish. We were pleasantly surprised expecting an overpriced and underpowered device because of the Ferrari marketing connection.
[#PAGE-BREAK#Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 13 – from $979#]
Lenovo has coupled the M780G chipset with a more powerful AMD Turion Neo X2 to create the most affordable ThinkPad we’ve seen designed specifically for small businesses with tight budgets. The 13.3in $979 model comes with 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. While it has funkier glossy black or red lids compared to the matte black of traditional ThinkPads as well as a chiclet-style keyboard it’s still unmistakably a ThinkPad down to the red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard.
There’s actually an Intel version of the ThinkPad Edge 13 and it highlights the difference between the AMD and Intel platforms for ultra-thins. The Intel version is powered by a Core 2 Duo SU7300 ultra-low voltage processor which is $300 more expensive than the AMD-powered version but its battery lasts about 1/3 longer.
[#PAGE-BREAK#Fujitsu LifeBook P3010 – from $850#]
A bit too thick to disguise itself as a netbook the Fujitsu P3010 is still the most affordable lightweight notebook ever built by Fujitsu the vendor that pioneered ultra-portable and ultra-expensive PCs. Like the Toshiba the Fujitsu P3010 is powered by an AMD Athlon MV-40 Neo processor and M780G chipset and comes with 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard disk drive. Its 11.6in screen has a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels the keyboard is full-sized and the OS is Windows 7 Home Premium.