Intel Adds to the Naming Confusion in Portable PCs

Intel, which helped shake up the PC industry last year by promoting low-priced laptops called netbooks, is at it again. But there’s not such a memorable name this time.
The chip giant is expected to use the Computex trade show this week to discuss a category of portables that fall in a price band between netbooks–which can start at less than $300–and full-featured notebooks, which often cost more than $1,000. Price is not the only distinguishing feature; these ‘tweener portables also will be touted as sleek and stylish–think of Apple’s MacBook Air, but with a starting price of $600 to $700 instead of $1,799.

“Thin is in,” summed up Sean Maloney, Intel’s top salesman, during a speech to analysts in May that provided a sneak preview of the strategy. He predicted a steep sales ramp for the new category, which he labeled on one slide as “ultra-thin affordable.” Just to confuse things, many analysts refer to the niche as CULV, which stands for “consumer ultra-low voltage.” (Instead of Intel’s Atom, a microprocessor used in most netbooks that starts at a list price of $29, the new systems are expected to be based on price-reduced versions of its Core 2 design, which now starts at $113 and).

Maloney argued that netbooks have screens measuring about seven to 10 inches, and are mainly used to consume Internet content. Other kinds of laptops–including this new, thin category–have larger screens and more power to do more complicated things, like create digital content, he said.

If it were only so simple as that, or as easy for one company to control. One complication is that Intel didn’t invent this concept; arguably the first system in this more-capable segment was the Hewlett-Packard dv2, which uses Advanced Micro Devices chips and was announced in January at a starting price of $699.

Then there is the fact that graphics is a crucial capability for gaming and other consumer internet tasks, and both AMD and Nvidia have strong credentials in this field. Dell last week announced a $649 laptop called the Studio 14z that has a 14-inch screen and uses Nvidia graphics along with an Intel Core 2 microprocessor. Lenovo also announced its Ideapad S12, that has an Intel Atom along with an Nvidia chip called Ion.

More broadly, Nvidia and some other rivals argue that the attempt to create neat segments in laptops will fade as hardware companies try to attract consumers by adding more features at ever-lower price points. “One segment is just low-cost computing,” says Mike Hara, an Nvidia senior vice president who heads investor relations.

It should be noted, however, that Nvidia, Qualcomm and others are also trying to invent a separate niche based on microprocessor designs licensed by ARM Holdings. These systems run Linux and can’t easily match the key attribute of conventional PCs, the ability to run hit programs like Apple’s iTunes. But their chips were designed for use in cellphones, so they have very low power consumption; Warren East, ARM’s chief executive, said at Computex that these “smartbooks,” as some are calling them, have all the features of netbooks along with “always connected” Web and email and all-day battery life.

Whether or not ARM-based portables really create yet another product category may come down to pricing. Bob Morris, ARM’s director of mobile computing, says he expects to see five or six such systems on the market before the end of the year, with some costing as little as $150. “You end up with a consumer device that can really hit some nice price points,” he says.

BY Don Clark

Copyright ©2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



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