Analysis: netbook, laptop or MID?

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Analysis: netbook, laptop or MID?

The battle between portable devices is heating up.

The lines are growing ever more blurred between mobile internet devices, netbooks and traditional laptops and, with the latter two growing ever closer in terms of price and specifications, it is not unreasonable to ask which platform has the best shot at long-term success?

In today's crippled economy, netbooks, or ultra portable notebooks, make up the bulk of PC market growth, and desktop PCs are seeing a major decline in interest.

Buyers are increasingly turning to downsized CPU and portable devices with longer battery life and a lower price tag.

Cutting back on CPU horsepower, however, does not mean that users are happy to make sacrifices regarding user experience or graphics simply for the sake of a smaller form factor.

A basic, cheap, unsophisticated, 9in, 1024 x 600 machine with a tiny keyboard and only 1Gb of RAM may be fine as a backup machine during the credit crisis, but manufacturers and analysts alike are beginning to wonder whether the platform has any real reach beyond the next year or so.

AMD chief executive Dirk Meyer said as much in a phone call with analysts and media last week. "The distinction between a netbook and a notebook is going to go away," he said.

Meyer believes that upcoming inexpensive ultra-thin notebooks would satisfy customer demand for small, thin, lightweight laptops, but would be volumes more powerful than any available netbook.

AMD's position is that ultrathin notebooks will allow for both integrated and higher performing discrete graphics, along with a multitude of CPU options, to compete with market leader Intel's Atom processor for netbooks.

AMD is not the only firm to believe that poor graphics could be fatal to longer-term notebook sales. Nvidia has also jumped into the fray, announcing its Ion platform, a chipset which can be combined with Intel's Atom to deliver a richer graphical experience and more advanced multimedia capabilities to smaller form factor notebooks.

Even with better graphics, however, it remains to be seen whether people will continue to show an interest in netbooks long term. Analysis website Biz360 has already noted that "consumer advocacy for the netbook category lags behind consumer advocacy for all laptops".

Laptops and netbooks aside, what of mobile internet devices (MIDs)? Will these much hyped, always connected machines ever feasibly take their place in the notebook/netbook market?

David Kanter, an analyst from Real World Technologies, told that he thought it unlikely. " I do not think MIDs are really sensible," he said, noting that, despite a whole range of devices from smartphones to GPS systems using more power than mobile phones, but less than laptops, consumers have not demonstrated an interest.

Intel, however, may seek to give MIDs a bit more of a push, possibly even at the expense of future netbooks. The Atom processor has enjoyed huge success, but there is much evidence to suggest that the diminutive chips could be somewhat cannibalising Intel's more powerful, and more expensive, CPU line up, which doubtless causes some concern at the firm.

Evidence that Intel may be thinking of reining in the Atom/netbook phenomenon came at this year's Consumer Electronics Show where Intel admitted that its next-generation Atom would probably offer only a very small increase in processor speed and a very slight improvement in graphics.

There are also rumours that Intel will release new mainstream Core architecture chips for inexpensive thin notebooks later this year, which could really put a dampener on the whole netbook market.

For an Intel-based CPU to get a good shot at integration into a 4G smartphone or MID, the firm will have to rely on the strong x86 ecosystem. MIDs, while good in theory, are problematic in that most device manufacturers want a system on a (single) chip (SoC), so Intel would have to incorporate third-party intellectual property, something it has never done before.

MIDs have to include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, 2D and 3D graphics, antennas for wireless, a baseband processor and more, something Intel just cannot do alone. The company could license designs from other firms, move the designs to Intel's process and then integrate them into a SOC, but this could take two to three years.

Firms like Qualcomm, which just acquired AMD's handheld assets, already have products like the Snapdragon SOC, attractive to firms like Apple and RIM, but the architecture is not x86 compatible, it is ARM.

This could prove an advantage for Intel, as its process technology is thought better than anything Qualcomm has to offer, by bringing the x86 software ecosystem to the embedded world.

For now, however, it seems that MIDs are more of a pipe dream, and Intel and AMD are set to go head-to-head in a battle which will ultimately decide the netbook/notebook trend very soon indeed.

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