The usage model for a netbook is to wed it with a desktop computer to get the best of both worlds: a mobile computer that is light, capable and very portable, and a desktop that is powerful, but in which both together are affordable.
Traditional notebook computers are typically designed to be a blend of desktop performance and portability. But to get there, you end up with either a notebook that is too big and heavy to carry easily, or performance that significantly lags that of mid-range desktop computers. If you close the performance gap, the weight becomes unacceptable to most people, and battery life drops to unacceptable levels. If you optimize on the portability side, your performance drops, and in both cases, the cost of the notebook gets up into nose-bleed territory, between $1,800 and $4,000.
This is where AMD’s Dragon, Nvidia’s Ion, and Intel’s Atom come in to create what may be the “Perfect Storm” of blended hardware offerings. Put on top of this Microsoft’s Live Mesh or SugarSync and you have a very livable solution. But Apple’s MobileMe anticipates this future as well, so could Snow Leopard coupled with some Apple magic actually have an Apple desktop/laptop/smartphone solution to stores first?
AMD’s Dragon: Why Three Cores Rule
To make this solution work, you need to be able to stay within hard cost limits, yet still get enough performance for things like gaming and transcoding. Right now, the way software is written, four cores simply are not fully utilized, and most applications, with the exception of photo or movie editing, only use one or two. AMD has priced the three-core solution on top of Intel’s dual core, making it a good value. You kind of get the third core for free, for headroom.
In addition, by getting a solution that is largely from one vendor, there is less chance of driver conflicts or bottlenecks. Those are typically resolved before the OEM gets the solution, and there is less opportunity for problems. The result should work more reliably, because you have fewer vendors pointing fingers at each other when there is a problem: AMD owns the related problems.
This is what powers the new Dell XPS Dragon, and brings the cost of that system down to an affordable $999.
I’ve been running an AMD-Dragon-based system similar to the XPS for about a week now. It is quiet, it is very fast (not as fast as some of my heavily loaded i7 rigs, but fast enough for anything I’ve done with it) and Vista seems to really love the platform. This last note is important, because many of my desktop systems don’t suspend properly with Vista, but this Dragon system has worked flawlessly.
But Dragon is only part of this solution.
Atom and Ion
A couple of weeks ago I wrote on the HP Mini 1000, and how well it worked with Windows 7. But you do run into performance bottlenecks if you want to run World of Warcraft, or watch HD video (it actually did OK with standard definition, but it dropped frames like crazy if you did high definition). With more and more video coming out in HD, and the need for many of us to get our MMO fix while traveling, the platform fell a little short of something you could live on while traveling.
Enter Nvidia and its Ion platform. This offering, which was widely demonstrated at CES, takes the performance of a netbook and boosts it to near laptop levels (in fact, with graphics, it may actually be better than some). Unfortunately this offering won’t show up in hardware for a couple of months. It was also recently enhanced by an endorsement by Microsoft: Windows 7 Premium will work on it with all the bells and whistles turned on (my test with Windows 7 shut down the Aero interface in order to get performance up to acceptable levels).
The end result is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of product, with rumors of screen sizes ranging up to 13.3 inches in the works for future netbooks. Of course, this kind of blurs the line between notebooks and netbooks, and I wonder how long before we simply start looking at these as a more affordable notebook computer.
Sync and Maybe Some Apple Magic
What makes this all work is Sync. And if we add in a next generation operating system from Apple, Snow Leopard, which should advance MobileMe, Apple’s Sync platform, you get something that really could be interesting: a blending of desktop, laptop (netbook), and smartphone, where your stuff is with you regardless of how portable you want to get.
Now two Sync products, one in market (SugarSync) and one in Beta (Microsoft Live Mesh) address all three platforms. But you need a vendor that has all three hardware products (desktop, netbook, and smartphone) to get it all to work. Dell doesn’t yet have a phone in market (though one is rumored to be coming), HP has a phone line, but it has more of a corporate focus, Asus has a phone in market, and Acer has a phone coming.
The trick is not just to have a phone, but to have a blended solution, so someone wants the desktop, laptop, and phone from the same vendor to work seamlessly together. Apple is the only vendor that has something in market that can do that, with MobileMe. This offering was recently enhanced, and now it is vastly faster with Exchange, though it’s drifting to more of a cloud-based application (which isn’t a bad thing, it just changes the usage model somewhat) it does link the three product categories very nicely.
I think we are beginning to see the birth of a blended computing experience, one that gives us the performance we need on the desktop, and the portability we need with a variety of smartphone and notebook offerings, all at a pricing level that rivals what fully configured notebook computers used to cost. You can anticipate this expanding to Wi-Fi TVs, game consoles, and possibly even cars in the future as our stuff increasingly migrates to the Web, and is accessed by one of these devices. It is a brave new world coming, with AMD’s Dragon, Intel’s Atom, Nvidia’s Ion, and even Apple blazing the way.