Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

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How the lowly Netbook forever changed the laptop game!

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Just over a year ago I wrote my first post here on Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights. That was just after buying my third Netbook. Yes, you read that right: third.

I bought an EEE PC within a few weeks of first release, in November of 2007: the Linux version (Windows XP was not even an option at that point) with the 7 inch, 800×600 screen and the 4Gig SSD. I loved it. It was so tiny, and so fast, and I had a blast finding apps to do all the things I wanted to do with it. Linux apps. GIMP. LightZone. (I am a photographer.) Open Office. FireFox and Thunderbird. It was fun.

However, it would not run Lightroom, and I really, really depend on Lightroom. I could not even find anything close on Linux. GIMP and LightZone were able editors, if idiosyncratic, but there simply was not a capable image cataloging system for the Linux OS…not that I found anyway. Still, I was hooked on the Netbook form factor: so portable, so handy…but I wanted it to be able to do the day-in/day-out stuff I do on a laptop while traveling. So when I saw a EEE PC 900 16G with XP on sale at Best Buy one day, for not much more than I had paid for my 7 inch Linux machine six months before, on impulse (or because I really really needed to run Lightroom), I bought it. Great little machine. One of the last with a Celeron processor but lots of room on that 16GB SSD (or so I thought). And easily enough processing power to run Lightroom. I was a happy man.

Unfortunately, Lightroom and Windows XP, I concluded all too soon, do not like SSDs. Lightroom does a lot of writing to disk to maintain a catalog that seems to contain 4 or 5 separate files for every image you own, and within six months, the SSD simply died…just suddenly, right after a Lightroom update and a subsequent Lightroom crash, XP would no longer boot. I tried everything. To make it worse, I was on a business trip, far away from home in a strange city, as they say. I was devastated. I went into Staples to see what one of those Windows repair CDs and an external DVD drive would cost me, and there, on an end-cap, for not much more than the cost of the stuff that might or might not repair my EEE PC, (and more than $100 less than the EEE PC 900 had been just six months before), was an Acer Aspire One with Atom processor and a 120Gig HD. Yes.

You know what happened.

I loved the Acer Aspire One. It was the first of my Netbooks that really, truly did all I hoped for. It ran Lightroom, and ran it well (no more library related crashes). It ran PhotoShop Elements (though not well if you tried to have both Lightroom and PhShEl open at the same time). It played Hulu streaming TV (if you did not attempt to view full screen, and were patient with it). And, of course, it ran Office like a champ. I discovered Google Chrome about the same time, and moved my life pretty much into the cloud…inspired by having to rebuild everything from the ground up when my EEE PC had to be replaced. That experience, moving into the cloud, got me started writing Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights.

(By the way, I tried everything to resurrect that EEE PC. Reinstalled Windows. Installed Linux in several flavors. Or attempted to. The SSD kept turning up bad sectors and no OS would boot. I eventually sent it to Asus for repair and they confirmed that it was totaled, so totaled that the computer had to be replaced outright…which Asus did, after a very, very long time. I set the replacement up for my wife when it finally came back, and it has served her well: for web surfing, email, and a little light word-processing, which is all she really wants a computer for anyway.



Just establishing my bonafides I guess.

It is a year later: a little over two years since the first Netbooks appeared on the market, and I have been on board the whole time. I recently, after a misfire with the HP Mini 311 ION based super-netbook (see Atom+ION: empty promise?), replaced the Aspire One with an Aspire Timeline 1810TZ, one of the first affordable thin and light, sort of, kind of, Netbooks powered by the CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) processors. It is the same size as the largest Netbooks, and priced not much above them, but, with its dual core Pentium processor and GM4500 integrated graphics, it is in a whole different class, performance wise.

I wrote an early piece here called Netbooks: too good for their own good, (which is still one of my most read pieces, every week, even a year later). That was, if you remember, just about the time all the pundits were saying that the Netbook would kill the laptop industry, and maybe bring down the whole silicon empire. Too cheap. Too limited. Too cheap.

No one, the wise commentators said, could make any serious money off them, and they would undoubtedly force down the price of conventional laptops (the bread and butter, high calorie products then keeping the industry fat) so that the makers would bankrupt themselves trying to stay in the game.

Or, others predicted, as soon as early adopters and geeks realized that these were not real computers…like you couldn’t do any real work on them or play any real games or do anything much beyond surf the net and check your email, or geekwise, install alternative OSs and hack around with hardware mods…I mean, not real computers!…once the geeks got tired of playing with the new toys and regular folks realized their limitations the Netbook would die a natural death. Early adopters’ machines would clog ebay and shoppers would return to their senses and plunk down the considerably more calories…er, cash…for a real laptop.

If, of course, any of the real laptop makers were still in business by then.

Gloom. Doom. Gloom and doom.

And look what happened!

We experienced a slight hiccup in our economy (thanks to some greedy bankers, may they enjoy their just rewards) and suddenly everyone discovered their Scottish ancestry: we all became bargain hunters, Value Conscious Consumers, thrifty even.  Not just a few, but a lot of people, literally droves of people, looked at the price/ performance ratio in the laptop market and decided “you know what, a Netbook is just fine for the computing I really do.” And weary road warriors (among whom I count myself), tired of lugging 5 pounds of ugly everywhere they went, lined up at Netbook counters to buy them. Suddenly the Netbook was all that was keeping the computer industry alive. Relative upstarts like Asus and Acer and MCI were taking significant market share from more established and more conservative companies. Acer grew to #2 in laptops purely on the strength of a single Netbook offering (the Aspire One 250), and Asus seemed intent on creating a whole new industry all on its own, releasing a bewildering array of different EEE PC models with what amounted to indecipherable numerical code names, which seemed to change month to month, sometimes day to day.

Of course everyone had to get into the game. Pretty soon you could by a Netbook from anyone you wanted…all cookie cutter similar: 10 inch, 1024×600 screen, Atom processor, 945 graphics, 1 gig ram, Windows XP on a 160Gig HD…so alike you needed a program to tell them apart, and even then, if someone scraped off the logos and turned them all lose in a mall, even their own mothers could not have sorted them. This very similarity spawned a whole blogging industry with the sole purpose of trying to discover some difference between the machines. They failed, but the blogs thrived.

Oh Sony did produce a long thin job, with an atypical Atom processor: “not at Netbook. NOT a Netbook” according to Sony, but no one was fooled, and since they forgot to price it like a netbook, the results were predictable, especially in a tanking economy.

And Apple, being Apple, decided if upstarts like Acer and Asus (who was actually still producing laptops under contract for Apple) where going to change the rules and threaten everyone’s profits, then Apple would not play at all. So there! That’ll fix you. Their answer was the Mac Air: a completely different kind of machine, thin and light, based on an all but afore mentioned ULV processor (which is CULV without the C for Consumer and the ultra long batter life) and priced slightly above current full sized laptops. No one was fooled. Okay, maybe, like, very few were fooled…well, maybe, quite a few, but nothing like the numbers buying real cookie cutter Netbooks.

And the pundits were right in at least one way. The very existence of the capable Netbook forced the prices of full-sized laptops down. Late this summer, at the nadir, you could buy a full-sized laptop with a real, if not latest and greatest and most powerful, processor, a 15 inch standard resolution screen, a couple of Gigs of ram, a decent sized hard-drive, wifi, and Vista Home for under $500…under $400…even under $300 in one memorable WalMart door-buster special. After Thanksgiving sales repeated those price-points and there are now any number of full-sized entry-level laptops regularly available in the $400 price range. They are not, in reality, much more able than a Netbook that sells for slightly less, but they are full-sized! And to date, Silicon Valley has not closed down…and the factories in China seem to keep going strong.

Within the past months also, several attempts have been made to break out of the Netbook mold at, or just above, traditional Netbook price-points. Everyone agrees that Netbook graphics leave a lot to be desired, so nVidia proposed to do something about it by pairing an Atom with their ION graphic processor for accelerated graphics. The first out the door was the HP Mini 311, mentioned above. We will see more. Whether this is actually a good idea  or not will have to wait the verdict of the consumer, but my vote, as one who does not ever play games which require 3D video effects, is already in. (Again, see here.)

The second break-mold move was inspired, of course, at least in part, by the Mac Air. Apple generally actually knows what they are doing, often foresees a market that no else knows is out there, and produces a product that no one is actually ready for…at a price very few are willing to pay…but with enough adopters so that other companies take note, come in at lower prices points with similar offerings and attempt to eat Apple’s lunch (the hyena metaphor is hard to resist here). (Other companies do not always succeed: Apple still has the magic touch…the combination of functionality, elegance, and cool that often carries the day even at substantially higher prices: take the iPod/iPhone for example.) Just substitue a Consumer Ultra Low Voltage processor (slightly slower, slightly lower voltage) for the ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processor in the Air, slap in Windows 7 Home Premium instead of OS10, and you are good, in theory, to go.

We are seeing an increasing number of CULV machines, the best with dual core Pentium or Core2 Duo processors, 2-4 gigs of ram, generous hard drives, decent integrated graphics, and, as above, Windows 7 Home Premium (the first Windows I can actually say I have liked, which comes to me as a considerable surprise). Not all are as thin and light as the Mac Air but the ones with 11.6 and 12.1 inch, 1366×768 wide (HD, 16/9 form factor) screens and are small and light enough to just about qualify as Netbooks. And they are getting 7 to 8 hours of battery life! These little machines are, to my way of thinking, exactly what the road warriors among us have been waiting for. Priced between $500 and $600, you pay a substantially more than for a 10 inch Netbook (which are going this Christmas season for under $300) but you get a fully functional, no significant compromise (unless you are a gamer), eminently portable machine which is able to do just about anything you would want to do on the road. They run Lightroom and PhotoShop (at least Elements which is what I have on mine) as fast as a full sized laptop (faster than my 18 month old Dell). They will play HD video just fine (which my Dell will not), and even stream Hulu in high-res if you have the new beta Adobe Flash plug-in. They will even run the latest HD capable video editing apps and do a decent job of on-the-spot HD editing. And of course, Office simply flies, and your browser catches every curl and rides the pipe-line all the way to shore.

So, how did the Netbook phenomena change the laptop game?

1) it revealed a unsuspected market for good enough computing at the under $400 price point. I say unsuspected, but clearly at least Intel suspected there was some market there, or they would not have built the Celeron and Atom platforms on which the Netbook revolution is based. But I doubt even they suspected the size of the market, or how fast it would grow. Because of the Netbook, millions of people around the world (okay, mostly in developed countries, but we are trying here) have entered the computer age for the first time. Millions have discovered the internet: social networks, email, and Hulu who otherwise would have still been closed out of the cloud. Life is good!

2)  To remain competitive, computer companies have had to reposition their full-sized entry-level laptops, which, honestly, had always been designed for not much more than good enough computing and were always ridiculously overpriced. They are now priced where they belong…where the average householder who just needs a computer for the internet, taxes, iTunes and Hulu can justify buying one…and families can seriously consider getting one for each of their children. This gives consumers two good enough options: a full-sized, affordable laptop, or a slightly smaller, slightly less expensive, but still able Netbook. Life is good!

3) Turns out, a portion of Netbook users and buyers actually intended to do real work on the machines. They bought them because they were the first really affordable portable alternative to the full-sized laptop. Remember, two years ago the makers were charging a $1000 premium for a screen under 13 inch…and that was on top of the $1000 entry point for any laptop. The Netbook, along with the Mac Air, demonstrated that there was a market among mobile professionals and serious students for fully capable, small, light, thin laptop at an affordable price. The Mac Air proved the concept. The Netbook provided the price-point. And the makers have responded with affordable CULV machines that make the heart of any road warrior beat a little faster, and have seriously mobile students salivating. Life is good! And it is only going to get better as this new class of machines heats up, and competition gets more intense, and the machines get even better. Imagine a CULV machine with discrete graphics. Oh, wait, that would be the Mac Air…but I really meant an affordable CULV machine with discrete graphics. Then, for most consumers, life will be really good.

4) Netbooks kept Windows XP alive until MicroSoft was forced to develop Windows 7, and to develop it intelligently as one of the largest live tested efforts in recent memory. Life is, OS wise, good!

But what, you ask, does the future hold for Netbooks? Will they survive in the face of just slightly more able full-sized laptops at the same price-point? Will they survive in the face of way more able, but slightly more expensive CULV machines the same size and weight? Clearly Intel thinks they will, or they would not be developing Pinetrail.

Me, I have my doubts. Certainly there will continue to be a market for small, portable, good enough computers with great battery life, but I suspect it will not continue to grow (explode) as the Netbook market has over the past two years. A lot of potential Netbook buyers will opt for the larger screen of the full-sized entry-level laptop, as long a prices remain comparable, even if they pay a bit more. And I see the CULV machines sucking off all of the mobile professional and student market. Why would any road warrior buy a Netbook when, for a few hundred dollars more (but still way less than a compact laptop of two years ago) you can a real portable computer, with a real processor, enough memory, storage, and power to completely replace your full sized work laptop. Even mobile photographers and videographers have to think about size and weight when traveling these days. The CULV platform, with decent 1366×768 screen, simply makes a lot of sense.

But no matter! The point is that the lowly Netbook has, all on its own, completely revolutionized the laptop game…the game will never be the same, and life is, in my humble opinion, a better for it.

Or at least that’s what I think.

Written by singraham

December 17, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Atom + ION: empty promise? Certainly compared to CULV!

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CULV Acer Aspire 1810TZ trounces HP Mini 311 ION in every way that matters to me

Straight up: despite the hype, while the Atom/ION platform provides some advantage over a conventional netbook on at least some real world applications, it does not begin to compare to the dual core CULV machines that share the same form factor and similar pricing.

The CULV Aspire Timeline 1810TZ with a dual core Pentium U4100 and Windows 7 Home Premium is two to three times faster than the HP Mini 311 with Atom 270, W7HP, and the full ION, on all of the things that matter to me…and it does, with ease, things the HP Mini still simply can not do well, or do at all.

Pairing the nVidia ION graphics accelerator with an Atom 270 is like pairing an energetic professinal sprinter (nVidia ION graphics acceleration) with a six-year-old (Atom processor) for the three legged race. There are portions of the course where the sprinter carries most of the weight and they go faster than the six-year-old can on his own, but for most of the course, the pair are pretty much limited to the six-year-old’s pace…certainly, tied leg to leg, they never achieve the pace you would expect, or hope for, from a professional sprinter.

Of course, if you allow the sprinter to pick the 6-year-old up and carry him, they do go, at least for a short time, faster. You see a lot of bench-marks published for the HP Mini 311 where that is essentially what they have done. In the real world the course is much more varied, and very few programs are written to allow the sprinter to do all the work.

On the other hand, in the CULV machine, you have an enthusiastic 14-year-old gamer (the GM4500 integrated graphic acceleration) paired leg to leg with a talented advanced amateur sprinter (child of a pro, maybe not turned pro yet but showing the breeding of one: the ULV processor, often dual core). They might not match the speed of the pro-sprinter, and they might not even match the full possible speed of the amateur, but they certainly will, and do, run circles around the Atom/ION pair. At least, as I say, in any three legged race that matters to me.

If you want to know how I came to this conclusion: read on.


If you are in the market for a slightly bigger, more powerful, higher resolution, alternative to a conventional Atom Netbook, as I recently have been, you have basically two choices:

1) An ION powered super netbook like the 11.6 inch, 1366×768 resolution, HP Mini 311…or…

2) A CULV powered, 11.6 or 12.1 inch mini-laptop (thin-and-light) with the same screen resolution, like the Acer Aspire One 1410s/Timeline 1810s, or the Asus U20.

The ION platform pairs a conventional netbook Atom 270 or 280 processor with the nVidia ION Graphics Accelerator. This combination, in theory, should boost performace just where netbooks are weakest, in the graphics department.

The CULV machines (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) come with low voltage versions of the processors that power real computers: single and dual core Centrinos, Pentiums, and Core2s, paired with integrated GM4500 graphics acceleration. The low voltage requirement means they do not have the full processing power of their larger siblings, but they do provide incredible (by last year’s standards) battery life, and large bump up in general processing power from the Atoms.

On the graphics front, there is no doubt that the discrete ION acceleration engine is much more powerful, and potentially considerably faster, than the integrated GM4500 graphics engine that runs with the CULV machines.

I recently, kind of by accident, ended up testing both an HP Mini 311 ION based machine and a CULV Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ. Long story, but the gist is that I installed all my work-a-day applications on both machines and compared performance side by side, doing the kinds of things I do everyday on my netbook/laptop, and the kinds of things I want to be able to do, but could not on my trusty netbook.

My previous travel workhorse was the 10 inch, Atom based, Windows XP Acer Aspire One 250, about which I have nothing but good to say, and I have owned and used two other Celeron based netbooks from Asus, a 7 inch Linux machine, and a 10 inch XP, both with SSDs instead of hard drives.

What I need my travel computer to do is:

1) all my net based stuff, surfing, twitter, facebook, smugmug, flickr, gmail, google reader, etc. etc: so basically the machine must run Chrome really well. Adobe AIR is a strong second since I use some AIR based twitter and facebook clients.

2) process and catalog my images on the road: it has to run Lightroom, and should run PhotoShop Elements (ideally at the same time).

3) display decent quality steaming video from Hulu and I don’t watch TV…but I do follow some shows on the internet.

4) open and do some light editing on MicroSoft Office documents: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Office, or one of the immitations, must run at least okay.

5) manage my iTunes library and my iPhone apps: iTunes 9 is right at the limits of what an Atom processor is up to, believe one who has a lot of experience.

My Aspire One handles all that relatively well. Lightroom and PhShEl at the same time is painful, but marginally possible. Editing a PPT on a screen that small can be done…just.

What I want my new machine to do, that the Aspire One could never handle, is:

6) play 720 HD video from my camera: QuickTime? Windows Media Player? Media Player Classic? Don’t care. It just as to work. (My Aspire One could just about manage Media Player Classic…if I shut down everything else, and ignored the occasional abrupt jump in the video.)

7) edit 720 HD video: much harder. I never did find a program that would come even close on the Aspire One.

So, with those needs in mind, and mindful of the new ION and CULV offerings, along about Thanksgiving, I went shopping. I spent two days reading reviews and studying specs, and then ordered the HP Mini 311 with ION graphics and Windows 7 Home Premium 32bit. Again, part of the long story, but a week later I ordered an Aspire Timeline 1810TZ with dual core Pentium su4100, with integrated GM45oo graphic acceleration, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit.

I now have both machines, and I have installed all my software on each. I upgraded the HP to 3 Gigs of memory, and the Aspire came with 3 Gigs. I enabled ReadyBoost on both, using identical SanDisk Cruzer flash drives. And I have run tests on the things that matter to me. Not scientific. Not bench-marks. Just press Start on an action and the stopwatch on my iPhone at the same time, and hit stop when the action finishes. Twice. Once on each machine using identical files and identical actions. I also tested HD video in various players, Hulu full screen, and garnered an impression of routine acts like sliding the sliders in Lightroom, scrolling in Adobe AIR apps and Chrome, etc.

Results, in no particular order. And remember, the HP Mini is already faster than the Aspire One 250 in almost every action, by at least a noticeable amount.

PhotoShop Elements 7.o

Smart Adjust action on same image
HP: 10 sec./Acer: 4.8 sec.

Unsharp Mask, radius 30, amount 18
HP: 8 sec./Acer: 1.3 sec.

Adjust colors: + 2 blue:
HP: 2.8 sec./Acer: 1.1 sec.

Filter: Brush strokes; ink outline
HP: 12.5 sec./Acer: 9 sec.

export jpeg to disk: (includes rendering changes on original file as well as saving to disk)
HP: 12.5 sec. /Acer: 3.9 sec.

edit psd copy with Lr changes in PhShEl
(from pressing start to image open in PhShEl, includes time to render copy, open PhShEl, load image)
HP: 33 sec. /Acer: 10 sec.

Switch modules and load image for development.
HP: 7.3 sec. /Acer: 2.4 sec. (takes longer the first time the Dev. module is used)

Windows Movie Maker
2 min. video from 720 HD file, with title, save to disk as .avi
HP: 11:50 sec. / Acer: 5:06 sec.

Cyberlink Director 8
same vid with transition saved as .avi
HP: 4:54 sec. /Acer: 1:39 sec.

In addition:
The Acer plays 720p HD video in QuickTime Player without stutters. HP will not.

There is a very slight delay in Lightroom sliders on the HP. None on the Acer.

The Acer plays 720p HD clips in the edit module of Corel VideoStudio 2x just fine. HP will not. In fact, HD video editing is very possible on the Acer using either Corel or Cyberlink. It is problematic on the HP at best.

Both machines play Hulu streaming video at full screen very smoothly.

Scrolling in Seesmic Desktop (Adobe AIR app) is noticeably faster and smoother on the Acer, as is scrolling in Chrome…but both are enough better than the Aspire One to make the differences between the HP and Acer insignificant.

It is not that the HP Mini 311 is slow…it is significantly faster than a conventional Atom netbook in most routine actions, even in Lightroom and PhotoShop Elements. It is just not at all fast compared to a CULV, dual core machine like the Aspire.

So, not scientific at all. But enough so that the HP Mini is going back to Amazon, and the Aspire Timeline 1810TZ will be my new travel computer. No doubt. The HP Mini with ION might excel in a few tasks, and with a few apps, but day-in and day-out, at least the way I work and the way my days go, the CULV based Timeline 1810TZ is simply the more capable machine.

Written by singraham

December 12, 2009 at 2:32 pm