In search of the perfect ultraportable laptop

This year, the ultraportable market has seen a lot of action. The ultraportable that has been covered the most in the mainstream press is definitely the MacBook Air. However, Lenovo and Toshiba also introduced similar models recently. These machines offer nearly full-size keyboards, relatively large screens (13.3″, 13.3″, 12.1″, respectively), and each weighs 3 pounds or less. These laptops aim to provide a full computing experience in a small package, but that comes at a price: the cheapest is $1800.

I have heard it said that laptops can have only two of the following three attributes: full-featured, light, cheap. The Apple, Lenovo, and Toshiba ultraportables choose full-featured and light at the expense of, well, expense. However, it’s not really clear to me to whom these machines would appeal – they’re a little underpowered to use as a primary machine and they’re too expensive to buy as a secondary machine.

From my perspective, a better combination of attributes would be light and cheap, at the expense of full-featured. This obviously means that such computers would not aspire to be anyone’s primary computer. However, they would be affordable as secondary machines and much of what we do on computers does not require all of a computer’s features anyway. Thus, it seems to me that a sub-$500 laptop that was small and light and provided basic computing functions would find a large potential user base. Evidently, many computer manufacturers agree, as scarcely a week goes by but another computer manufacturer announces another small, cheap laptop.

The first in this barrage was the Asus Eee PC, which was introduced in mid-2007 and reported to cost $200 at launch. The machine finally launched in October in a number of different configurations, the cheapest of which costs $300. The main aspects of this machine that make it less than full-featured are its 7-inch 800×480 screen, its small keyboard, it’s slow Celeron M processor, and its lack of traditional hard disk storage. The cheapest model comes with 2GB of built-in flash memory, while models with 4GB and 8GB are available. While many have complained about the limited storage capacity on this machine, it does have a built-in SD/SDHC card reader, so a large SDHC card could substantially increase the available memory without making anything protrude out of the machine. Despite its perceived shortcomings, the Eee PC set the standard for what a machine in this class should be, leading reviewers to ask whether subsequent entries into this market segment were “Eee PC killers”. Furthermore, the machine has become a favorite of modders, who have added all sorts of additional functionality.

Not long after the Eee PC was announced, Everex announced the CloudBook, which is based on the NanoBook, a reference design by VIA. There was a lot of excitement surrounding this machine before its launch since it was the first real competitor to the Eee PC, but once it shipped it was not well-received. Everex is planning a successor to the CloudBook, known as the CloudBook MAX, which will incorporate WiMAX, but it is not scheduled to ship until the first half of 2009 and, given the spec list, will likely cost well over $500.

Since the CloudBook, many other manufacturers have been quick to announce their own forth-coming competitors to the Eee PC. Since most of these have not yet shipped, it is impossible to say how they stack up against each other. In addition, though many of them have touted a low price, manufacturers generally underestimate the price in order to get people interested and then raise the price at launch. So, it’s impossible to say what these machines will cost when they finally ship. In any case, here are the combantants:

Obviously, people have different needs and budget constraints, so there won’t be one perfect machine for everyone. However, it’ll be interesting to see how these machines stack up against one another. I’m very interested in machines in this class, so I’m watching developments in this area pretty closely. Even if none of these machines seems just right to me when the dust settles, the fact that there is so much competition in this market segment means that more good things will come along and most likely at an attractive price. Keep your eyes peeled.

(Note that I am aware of the OLPC XO laptop and the Intel Classmate PC. I haven’t included them in the discussion since they are primarily aimed at children and are not widely available through retail outlets.)

1 Response to “In search of the perfect ultraportable laptop”

  1. 1 Colin
    April 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    This market segment is also exciting for a couple of other reasons. For starters, it convinced Microsoft to hold off on axing XP, since these machines generally can’t run Vista well but people would like to run some flavor of Windows. In fact, it seems that XP will be available for budget laptops until at least 2010, depending on when Windows 7 comes out.

    Second, chip manufacturers are targeting this segment with new chips. VIA is coming out with their new Isaiah chip sometime soon and Intel’s new Atom processors will be out the door any day now. These machines will deliver adequate speed but with a very low total power consumption. This is great because it means less heat and noise, along with better battery life. All in all, this is a very exciting and dynamic segment of the market, but it makes it difficult for me to decide on actually buying one of these machines because I know that a better cheaper one will inevitably come out soon.

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