The next generation of netbooks takes shape

One of the rare success stories of a tough 2009 in tech, the netbook is set to get an overhaul courtesy of Intel's Pine Trail technology. Intel released Pine Trail earlier this week, and a few computer makers have announced new netbooks based on it.

One of the rare success stories of a tough 2009 in tech, the netbook is set to get an overhaul courtesy of Intel's Pine Trail technology. Intel released Pine Trail earlier this week, and a few computer makers have announced new netbooks based on it. The rest will surface at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. Here's what to expect from these new netbooks.

Pine Trail is a platform, not a processor, and the details of this new platform have been known since at least May 2009 when Intel held what it termed a "disclosure" (PDF here). It consists of a Pineview processor, which includes both a 45nm CPU with integrated memory controller and a 45nm GPU, the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150, in a single package. Though Intel pairs this with an NM10 Express "chipset," it's really just one chip (Tiger Point), which functions as a southbridge for I/O. In effect, Intel has shifted from a three-chip solution, such as the Atom N280 with the 945GSE chipset (consisting of a graphics/memory controller and a separate I/O controller hub) to a two-chip solution. Pineview is Intel's first CPU with integrated graphics, though it will be quickly overshadowed by the launch of the 32nm Arrandale laptop and Clarkdale desktop chips with the same level of integration, which will arrive in a matter of weeks. The advantages of this integration are obvious: it costs less to manufacture, takes up less space and requires less power. (It is also the crux of the escalating legal battle between Intel and Nvidia, which makes its own GPUs and chipsets for Intel-based PCs.)

Intel released three Pineview processors. The 1.66GHz Atom N450 is a single-core processor (two threads) that supports up to 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 memory. The current Atom platform uses slower main memory. The Atom D410 and D510 are both for entry-level desktops (Intel has apparently given up on the term nettops) and run at the same 1.66GHz. The difference is that the D410 has one core and two threads, while the D510 is a dual-core Atom capable of processing four threads simultaneously. Both the D410 and D510 support up to 2GB of either 667MHz of 800MHz DDR2 memory (though most coverage has focused on the N450 and new netbooks, tested a whitebox using the D510).

Intel says that there are more than 80 Pine Trail netbooks and entry-level desktops in the works from Asus, Acer, Dell, Toshiba, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Samsung and MSI. Asus was first of the mark, and several sites have posted reviews of the Eee PC 1005PE (links to reviews below). This upgrade has the same basic design as the popular 10-inch Eee PC 1005HA, but with the Atom N450. The Eee PC 1005PE starts at $379 with 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive and Windows 7 Starter. Dell announced an update to its Mini 10. The Pine Trail version will start at $299 with Ubuntu Linux (1GB and 160GB hard drive) and $399 with Windows 7. The design is also different--this version is smaller and lighter with a battery that doesn't jut from the back--and, unlike the Eee PC 1005PE, it will offer an optional, higher resolution (1366 by 768 pixels) display. Fujitsu also announced its Lifebook MH380 Mini-Notebook (Atom N450, 1GB, 250GB hard drive and Windows 7 Starter for $449), and there are rumors of Pine Trail netbooks from HP and Lenovo (which I'm sure we'll hear about at CES in early January, if not sooner). Though Intel is still pushing Moblin, the vast majority of these Pine Trail netbooks will come with Windows 7.

Though there was a lot of talk about Pine Trail giving a boost to netbook performance, and in particular playback of high-quality video, the gains here look pretty modest. That's not terribly surprising since Intel essentially shifted from the Atom N280, a single-core processor (two threads) running at 1.66GHz to the Atom N450, also a single-core processor (with two threads) running at the same frequency. Intel says the new graphics core is up to the task of playing 720p video, and that generally seems to be the case though some reviewers had better luck with YouTube HD clips than others. Where Pine Trail really stands out, however, is battery life. With a 6-cell battery, the Eee PC 1005PE was good for anywhere from 8 hours on torture tests to more than 10 hours under typical usage. That's a compelling reason for owning a netbook.

Since Pine Trail doesn't change much in terms of performance, the door is open a bit for other chipmakers to come up with ways to speed up netbooks. Intel has been working with Broadcom on a single video decoder chip, the BCM70015 Crystal HD, which will be an option for some netbooks to enhance performance with high-definition video. Meanwhile Nvidia looks set to release a new version of its ION chipset, which will not only bring 1080p video support, but also Blu-ray playback and better gaming performance. Intel execs say this is overkill for netbooks, but Nvidia believes there's real demand for better performance in this class. At the opposite extreme, I also expect to see lots of smartbook designs using less powerful chips from Freescale, Nvidia (Tegra) and Qualcomm at CES.

This is the time of year for tech predictions, and there is no shortage of netbook prognosticators. Some pundits predict that the fad is over, and netbooks are set to cool off. Others suggest that Intel's new platform could spark a second wave of rapid growth. My guess is the truth is somewhere in between and netbook unit sales will continue to grow at a decent pace. The new models may be slightly larger than current ones, and laptops using ultra low-voltage (ULV) chips will almost certainly siphon off some sales. But ultimately it doesn't really matter whether you call them netbooks or notebooks. There will continue to be strong demand for highly-mobile computing at lower prices.

Asus Eee PC 1005PE reviews: