If you thought the line between netbooks and notebooks was starting to blur, wait until you see Intel’s new Ultra mobile processor.
Intel is set to announce its new chip for thin and light notebooks this month, but the processor – which we’re hearing could go by the name of Ultra – could find its way into high-end netbooks or a totally new class of laptops which could smash the netbook-notebook divide.
The chip itself isn’t slated to be available until mid-year, however, with Ultra-class laptops following shortly thereafter.
These are expected to be thin-and-light laptops (or as Intel’s mobility guru Mooly Eden rightly calls them, thin and sexy
) with screens sizes between 11 and 13 inches, but be more affordable than the current crop of premium ultra-portables such as the MacBook Air, Lenovo ThinkPad X-series, HP Voodoo Envy and co.
At the same time the laptops will be faster and more capable than netbooks, especially in the graphics required for smooth playback of HD video.
In just about every way imaginable, Ultra is about the middle ground. Intel’s aim is to engender a boom in stylishly mainstream ultraportables which give customers more performance and usability than the average netbook while ensuring manufacturers a better margin. The bottom ‘budget’ end of the notebook market should remain unsullied, or at least no more so than it has been by the success of netbooks.
So how do you build an ultra-affordable ultra-portable? Intel’s new processor will be a pared-back version of the existing ultra-low voltage Core 2 Duo ‘Penryn’ small package CPU.
Speeds and specs will be wound back to match the more modest expectations of a ‘convenience’ laptop used for similar tasks as a netbook. The processor’s price to manufacturers will follow suit, dropping from the U$289 ceiling of the Core 2 Duo SU9600 and SU9400. (By comparison, the Atom N270 netbook chip sells for a mere US$44).
Ultra is Intel’s necessary reply to AMD’s Neo
: budget-priced silicon for ultraportables, but backed by ATI graphics to boost video performance so that even the cheapest system can play 1080p HD video and indulge in low-impact ‘casual gaming’.
HP's Pavilion dv2 is the first thin, light and low-cost notebook built around AMD's Neo processor
The first Neo system, HP’s Pavilion dv2, could be considered the precursor of this new wave of notebooks. The 2.2cm-thin dv2 weighs 1.2kg with a 12.1 inch screen, discrete ATI Mobility Radeon graphics but no optical drive, and boasts a starting price of US$700. There’s no way that a similar notebook could be built around Intel’s current silicon and hit the same retail price tag.
Netbooks could even find their way into this picture. Intel can only sell chips to its customers – it can’t dictate what those customers do with them. If a manufacturer wants to slip the processor into a product at the top of its netbook family – such as a netbook with a 12 inch screen – it’s free to do so.
And this is where lines which have already been blurred by the likes of the Asus Eee PC 1000DN
and Dell Inspiron Mini 12
, start to disappear completely.