Opinion: Mini Mobile PCs: Now Comes the Hard Part

By Eric Grevstad

July 07, 2008

HardwareCentral's Eric Grevstad takes a good look at a new crop of ultra mobile PCs--aka "netbooks."

Is anybody going to be in Germany Thursday? I ask because a Web site there named UMPC Portal reports that Aldi, a 3,600-store warehouse supermarket chain, is going to have one of its twice-weekly special promotions, this one offering a Medion Akoya Mini notebook for 399 euros. If you believe the site, eager buyers may camp out the night before and tear the doors down on the morning of the 3rd.

Akoya sounds Japanese -- pearls from the Akoya oyster are popular exports from Japan and China, putting a literal spin on the common phrase "clamshell" for a traditional, screen-folds-down-over-keyboard laptop design.

Medion, however, is not an Asian but a German electronics giant that sells everything from HDTVs and GPSes to laptops and digital cameras. It's virtually unknown in the U.S. unless you count -- Medion would just as soon you didn't -- 2004's Disney Dream Desk PC, an Intel Celeron desktop for kids with a 14-inch LCD monitor fitted with Mickey Mouse ears containing speakers.

To add one more degree of separation, the Medion Mini hails from neither Tokyo nor Berlin but from Taipei -- it's an OEM version of the MSI Wind U100 from the Taiwanese server, motherboard, and graphics-card heavyweight Micro-Star International. The Wind, if you haven't been paying attention, is one of the stronger candidates in one of the bigger new-product waves of the year: the crop of challengers to Asus's trendsetting low-cost, lightweight, light-duty Eee notebook.

Messing with the recipe

Last November I swooned over the original Eee PC 4G, gushing that its trivial two-pound weight, nifty 4GB solid-state disk (SSD), and impulse-buy $400 price offset its drawbacks for users seeking a simple traveling companion for e-mail, Web surfing, and workaday office jobs.

Those drawbacks? A variant of Xandros Linux that limited your selection of and made it tricky to install new applications; a miniscule 7-inch display, with 800 by 480 resolution that means clumsy horizontal scrolling on most Web pages; and an equally miniscule keyboard, learnable by careful and dedicated users but offputting to most.

This year's crop of what's commonly called netbooks -- I call them wanna-bEees, but it hasn't caught on -- sets out to solve those problems. The challenge, one tough enough for even the biggest and cleverest manufacturers, is to do so without making an ultraportable that's too heavy and/or too expensive.

Microsoft has helped with the latter by extending the availability of Windows XP Home, rather than Windows Vista, to 2010 for what it's dubbed ultra-low-cost PCs or ULCPCs. And Intel has made an even bigger splash with last month's release of its Atom N270 processor, a power-sipping (2.5 watts) single-core CPU with 512K of Level 2 cache and a clock speed of 1.6GHz.

An Atom under the hood has become a must for an up-to-date netbook, which is bad news for the HP 7133 that debuted in April -- what might be the classiest fit-and-finish mini is saddled with an outdated VIA C7-M that provides roughly the processing power of a Roomba.

Pre-Atom processing has also put paid to Asus' second-generation model, the Eee 900, which provided a larger 8.9-inch, 1,024 by 600-pixel display and a roomier 12GB or 20GB solid-state drive for Win XP and Linux configurations, respectively, but kept the 7-inch model's form factor and humble Celeron CPU. Though the 900 is still the freshest model on Asus's and its resellers' Web sites, it's already been replaced by the Eee PC 901, which bolts an Atom into the same 2.2-pound chassis. For the conclusion of this article, click here.

Article courtesy of HardwareCentral.com.

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