Just when I was starting to wonder what happened to all those ultra-low voltage (ULV) laptops, computer makers opened the flood gates. These laptops, which are thinner, lighter and less costly than mainstream notebooks, are now available in a range of display sizes, including some models with 11.6-inch displays that compete directly with netbooks.
First, a quick recap of ULV. Low-voltage processors only have one or two processing cores and they don't run at the same speeds, but they also don't generate as much heat, so system designers can squeeze them in thinner and lighter laptops. These are nothing new--Intel as been selling these sorts of chips for years, but only for pricey ultramobiles. At the beginning of this year, AMD introduced a low-cost alternative, the Athlon Neo, and later followed up with a dual-core version (the Neo X2). HP uses this processor in its 12-inch Pavilion dv2z, which starts at $550. In June, Intel released a series of low-cost LV and ULV processors--under the Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Solo and Celeron M brands--partly in response to AMD's strategy, but also to provide an alternative to netbooks. Acer and MSI were first with Intel ULV laptops, but now others are hitting the market.
Dell's moves illustrate exactly why Intel released the ULV chips. First, Dell killed off the 12-inch Inspiron Mini 12 netbook, which used a 1.6GHz Atom Z530 single-core processor. Then the company replaced it with the Inspiron 11z, a new ULV laptop with an 11.6-inch (1366x768) display that is as portable as a netbook (3.1 pounds and 11.5 by 8.4 by 0.9 - 1.0 inches). It starts at $524 with a 1.2GHz Intel Celeron 723 ULV processor, 2GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive, Vista Home Premium and a 3-cell battery (28Whr).
Acer is now selling an 11.6-inch ULV-based notebook in the U.S. as well. The Aspire 1410 (sold as the Aspire 1810T in other countries). The design is identical to the Aspire One 751h, Acer's 11.6-inch netbook, which I've previously tested. Both have the same WXGA display (1366x768), measure 11.2 by 8.0 by 0.9 - 12 inches and weigh only 3.1 pounds. And both are priced aggressively. The Aspire One 751h netbook starts around $380; the Aspire 1410 starts around $450 with a 1.40GHz Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500, 2GB of memory, 250GB HDD, and Vista Home Premium and a six-cell battery. The Aspire 1410 is not part of Acer's Timeline series, which includes ULV laptops at 13.3 inches (Aspire 3810T), 14.0 inches (4810T) and 15.6 inches (5810T).
Lenovo has just started taking orders for a 14-inch ULV laptop. The IdeaPad U450p is just as thin as smaller ULV laptops, measuring 13.3 by 9.3 by 0.9-1.1 inches, but it weighs 4.6 pounds. It starts at $789 with a 1.30GHz Intel Pentium SU2700 processor, 3GB of memory, 250GB hard drive, an internal DVD drive, Vista Home Premium and a six-cell battery. By comparison, Amazon.com is selling the 14-inch Acer Aspire Timeline 4810TZ-4696 with the same configuration, but with a larger hard drive (320GB), for $550.
MSI has finally released its X600 ULV notebook, which is based on a 15.6-inch display with the same WXGA (1366x768) resolution as smaller ULV systems, but with more powerful discrete graphics. The X600 is less than an inch thick (15.4 by 10.1 by 0.6 - 1.0 inches) and weighs 4.6 pounds. It has a 1.40GHz Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500, 4GB of memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics with 512MB, 320GB hard drive, DVD drive, Vista Home Premium and a six-cell battery. MSI sells the X600 for $890, but you can find it from resellers for around $800. The other models in MSI's X-Slim series include the X320, a 13-inch netbook which uses an Atom processor, and the X340, which has the same display but uses the Core 2 Solo SU3500 processor.
At this point, there are enough ULV laptops on the market--at a range of display sizes--to make this category a legitimate option. All of these models are thin and lightweight, and the battery life has generally been very good (though MSI's X600 may suffer a bit because of its more powerful discrete graphics). The performance will be better than a netbook, but nowhere near as good as a premium ultraportable, which uses a dual-core processor that runs at much higher frequencies and has a larger data cache. Overall these ULV laptops are a nice alternative, especially if portability is a priority, but they come at a tricky time since Intel is on the verge of releasing new netbook and notebook platforms, and Windows 7 is just around the corner. More: Windows 7 at the finish line