Netbooks: What You Need to Know About the Next 6 Months

A bunch of great netbook upgrades are on the way—next-gen Intel processors in January; smooth HD video playback—but to spare you the brain hemorrhage of keeping track, we've laid it all out. Here's what you need to know.

Netbooks with Intel's next-gen Pineview Atom N450 CPUs arrive in January, and the faster N470 chip may hit in March. There are also more netbooks with Ion graphics coming down the pipe, including the first Ion-based Eee PC. AMD is still kicking around the netbook space, too.

Little netbook keyboards will still make you feel like a basketball player driving a Mini Cooper, but the damn things are just so cute and cheap we can't stay away. (It's a love / hate relationship). And though HD video is most definitely a reality for netbooks, not all the new models will give you that smooth HD Hulu loving you crave.

Next-Gen Intel Chips

As our break down of Intel's line-up explains, "Pineview" Atom processors (like the single-core N450 or the eventual dual-core 510) integrate the CPU, GPU, and memory controller on the same chip. The benefits: Better graphics, and according to MSI, at least 20 percent better power consumption.

MSI previously gave us the scoop that Pine Trail-M netbooks, using Pineview processors, are slated for a big CES debut. Their upcoming 10-inch convertible touchscreen U150 with Windows 7 will use one. Though Intel still hasn't set an official date (publicly at least), DigiTimes is reporting today that the launch date will be January 10. That means Asus, Acer, Lenovo and MSI, which had planned to launch Atom N450-based netbooks in December, are all now expected to make their new models available from January 11 onwards. As mentioned, we expect to preview them at CES the week before.

DigiTimes goes on to say that the follow-up N470 chip (likely 1.83GHz) is expected to land in March. That syncs with apparent leaks of the Pine Trail-M roadmap that have floated around. And even though netbook makers already ship machines with more than 1GB of RAM, word is that Intel will actually encourage 2GB of memory for the N470. An upgrade over previous Microsoft/Intel limitations imposed to prevent cannibalization of ultra-portable notebooks.

So will N450-based netbooks handle HD video? According to Engadget, not without an extra chip like the Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, which should add about $30 to the overall price. Apparently, native HD video is still a little down Intel's roadmap path.

Netbooks: What You Need to Know About the Next 6 Months

So What About Nvidia Ion Netbooks?

I'll be very interested to see just how close Pine Trail-M netbooks get to Ion performance, and for those with an HD video chip, how well they handle high-definition video, too. The integrated nature of Pine Trail-M could give it an advantage in price. But will the price/performance ratio be enough?

Nvidia also has a little ace in the hole called Flash video acceleration. They recently demonstrated an Ion-powered HP Mini 311 playing stutter-free YouTube HD video on an external monitor. Watch the demo below. The final version of Flash 10.1 will make this an everyday occurrence sometime mid-next year. And you can try the Beta now.

News also dropped today that Asus' 12.1-inch Eee PC 1201N, its first Eee PC with Ion graphics, is finally up for pre-order over at Amazon for $500. It'll be available in January, and join existing Ion-based netbooks like the HP Mini 311 (11.6-inch), Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (12.1-inch), and the Samsung N510 (11.6-inch). But here's the thing: they all use existing Diamondville-class Atom processors.

The good news is that Intel has actually pointed out that despite having integrated graphics, Pineview processors are compatible with Ion. We've not seen such a netbook with both yet, but CES is just around the corner. Nvidia has also reportedly said that its Ion 2 (yep, gen 2) chipset for Atom netbooks will arrive by the end of the year. I'm betting we'll see some Ion 2-based netbooks at CES in January, but my guess is we won't be able to buy one until March or April at the earliest.

A netbook with Ion graphics and an Intel Pineview processor like the N450 sounds pretty sweet, right? Hopefully that's what we have to look forward to.

Click to view
Next Gen Flash Runs 720p Movie Smoothly on a Netbook, Demo -

Distractions, Distractions

Real quick: I'm not ignoring AMD. Having left it too late to join the netbook fray, their upcoming Congo platform will instead mostly complete with Intel's ultra-low voltage processors. We're talking about notebooks with 12 to 13-inch displays. I say mostly, because Asus is readying an AMD Congo-based version of that 12.1-inch Eee PC I mentioned above. The unit's ATI Radeon HD3200 graphics will handle 1080p video.

It's going to be one hell of an interesting Consumer Electronics Show. ARM and VIA are still trying to get inside netbook trousers: Asus has an Android-based "Smartbook" planned for early next year, and Nvidia is pushing its competing ARM-based Tegra chip. Asus also wants to be first with a Chrome OS netbook when Google completes it in the second half of 2010. Finally, there are a ton of interesting eReaders and touchscreen tablets on the horizon...and don't even start me on the Apple Tablet.

A number of these devices might replace what you thought would be your next netbook. Either way, whatever we see, you'll hear about them here in almost pornographic detail. Personally, the tech behind my next $500 netbook—still no small investment—will almost certainly be something we first see under the bright lights of Vegas. Hopefully they'll be better-looking by then, too.