More fanless netbooks could be on the way

Netbooks are small, inexpensive computers that tend to have low power processors. But Intel’s latest chips designed for netbooks use even less power than their predecessors, while offering modest performance gains.

Among other things, this can allow PC makers to build netbooks that run at low temperatures — so there’s no need for a fan in the case. That means netbooks can be thinner and run more quietly than laptops with more powerful processors.

The folks at Fudzilla suggest that Intel is hoping at least half of the netbooks released this year with Intel Atom Cedar Trail processors will feature fanless designs.

Asus Eee PC X101CH

Intel is offering device makers a kit with a 5W TDP in order to make that happen. The reference design for this platform reportedly includes a 10.2 inch display, 2GB of RAM, and a hard drive or solid state disk.

The chip maker also supports designs for 11.6 inch and 12.1 inch notebooks with a slightly beefier processor with a TDP of 8W.

Intel’s Cedar Trail chips are dual core processors which offer better support for HD video playback than earlier members of the Atom family. But they’re relatively sluggish processors that can’t compete with the latest high performance chips from Intel or AMD. Instead they’re designed to offer an inexpensive solution for cheap netbooks, allowing you to perform basic computing tasks such as web browsing or document editing on a portable computer that sells for as little as $300.

Netbook sales have been declining in the last few years. While a lot of folks like to attribute the dip to the rise in tablets, a number of other factors have probably played a role. Overall laptop prices are lower than they used to be. Ultrabooks have hit the scene providing a higher performance (and higher priced) alternative to netbooks for thin-and-light laptop shoppers.

PC makers have also been pushing devices with higher profit margins including notebooks, tablets, and ultrabooks. Many of the top netbook makers of years past haven’t introduced new models this year, or have even pulled out of the netbook space altogether. There’s sort of a chicken and egg situation here where it’s tough to tell if manufacturers aren’t making netbooks because they don’t sell… or if they’re not selling because there are fewer available to purchase.

  • MonkeyKing1969

    When netbooks were the bleeding edge they sold, yet when the
    OEMs got greedy and withheld tech that could make netbooks thinner, lighter, and more useful the consumers said, “No thanks!”  The trajectory of netbooks should have been what ultra books are now, except cheaper and with less powerful CPUs.   Not going down the route has allowed smart phones and tablets more “market room” than they would have enjoyed otherwise.  When smart phones and tablets
    start eating into even notebook and desktop sales only the only ones to blame will be the PC manufactures who put good tech behind a silly pay wall of $1,200 prices. 

    PC manufactures are training consumers to view computers as something they don’t need, useful but not worth the price.

  • John Morris

    And the big reason is that the products they are slapping the ‘netbook’ label on aren’t what the original definition defined.  Netcentric, cheap, small.  The 10.x displays push right up to the edge of laptop territory while the 1024×600 display isn’t quite enough to run Windows 7 on, the prices are within a few bux of a low end laptop that  doesn’t require paying to upgrade from Win7 Starter and Windows is about the opposite of netcentric.  Running Windows on the larger screen and moving to a spinning hard drive makes it all but impossible to get good battery life and low weight.

    In short, current netbooks are a poor product so people aren’t choosing them.  Duh!

    Now imagine a real netbook.  Cheap, light, small, and netcentric.  People bought them before, they would probably buy them again.  Put an ARM in, offer up a choice of Android, Ubuntu, etc. and let em fight for dominance again.

    • CyberGusa

       Uh, aside from not being quite as small anymore… no, netbooks are cheap and light.  Prices are down to $200 to $300 range for brand new models and the run times are typically better than you would get from a regular laptop and much longer than when netbooks first came out and they had laptop like run times.

      Even some of the first ATOM models like the Asus Eee PC 900A only gave up to 3.5 hours with the default battery.  While now we can typically get 7-8 hours, if not longer and ultra thin designs for netbooks were introduced before Ultrabooks, they just never got made by more than one or two system makers.  Though overall netbooks have gotten thinner and lighter over the years.

      The real problem isn’t what they offer but the fact what they offer hasn’t really changed much in 5 years, aside from improving run time, adding dual core, and lowering costs.  So if you already have a netbook then the only reason to get a new model is if your old one broke and you need to replace it.

      This versus pretty much every other device in the market that have steadily improves the performance offerings.

      Like back when Netbooks were first introduced, ARM couldn’t offer anything even close to netbook performance, but now ARM’s top chips can rival the ATOM.

      Only thing is for this year at least you can still get a ATOM netbook for less than a equivalent performance ARM version, as those top of the line ARM chips aren’t going to be cheap right out of the door.  Though prices for those high end ARM chips should quickly drop next year.

      However, next year is when everything will change.  Intel is finally correcting its mistake with the ATOM and next year with the 22nm update they’re going to finally give it a major update.  After which, Intel will be putting the ATOM on the same 2 year cycle as their Core i-series and have stated they will advance it at a faster than Moore’s Law rate, using technology already developed for their Core i-Series.

  • Dan

    The reasons for the decline in netbooks are two simple ones.
    1. The resolution netbooks are still stuck at 1024×600 in an age where even phones have higher res. And later Windows and even Linux versions expects 768 pixels height to play nice.

    2. Battery, it used to be that netbooks offered a full days battery, 6-8h.
    But with fierce competition and all other specs cut to the bottom, battery was the only part where companies could cut costs. Problem is nobody wants a netbook with 2-3h battery life. The point was mobility you arent mobile if you are plugged in.

    The netbooks where great machines for people who spent a lot of time on the move and typed a lot. Most time spent on a netbook was spent in e-mail, wordprocessor or a terminalsession over SSH.
    Poor batterylife kills that usage scenario, just fold up and start to type. Stagnant screen resolution doesnt help.

    There is a “kind of netbook” and it indeed runs on ARM and Android, the ASUS Transformer or PadPhone with keyboard-dock. Fill up, start to type, lasts all day. Ironic since ASUS was first to launch commercial netbooks.

    • CyberGusa

       Not all phones have higher res, it’s more a matter of pixel density.  1024×600 is fine for a phone size screen for example, it’s just quickly not becoming good enough for a 10″ screen.

      However, this isn’t really a problem by itself as it’s mainly just annoying and not a crippling factor, with features like virtual resolutions being a fix that’s been around for years to work with the limitation.

      It’s mainly the upcoming Windows 8 that will spell the end for low resolutions.

      For battery, sorry but first of all netbooks started with 2-3 hours of run time and it took over a year for them to get the run times longer.

      While modern netbooks still offer 6-8 hours.  Only the super cheap models offer less but they don’t represent the majority of models that still get six cell batteries.

      I agree though that netbooks will likely evolve into something like the Asus Transformer/Padfone series.

  • timmymac

    Netbooks have been killed off by Microsoft and Intel, by artificially restricting the performance of the machines.  Screen resolution and RAM limitations are the main killers.  A netbook with a high-resolution screen, >2GB of memory, and a SSD would be more than most people need, but it’s been disallowed from the start.
    It’s no wonder the netbook is dying.

    • Guest008

      PC Manufacturers begged and nearly blackmailed microsoft (“we’re gonna use Linux”) to sell them a light inexpensive version of W7.
      MS said ok but these are the conditions you can use it.

      No one forces the manufacturers to put W7 Starter in netbooks.
      No one forces them to choose Intel over AMD.

      To think that the poor resolution/RAM… is either MS or Intel fault is a complete non sense… Yet most of the people think so.

      • CyberGusa

         Well, not complete nonsense as Intel and MS did impose limitations for the netbook market and did penalize those who didn’t follow those restrictions.

        The limitations just didn’t include every aspect of the system and so some of those limitations were imposed by the system makers themselves.

        All of which came about because of the low profit margins for netbooks.  Since netbooks weren’t cheap just because of low end hardware but also because they didn’t charge as much extra for profit as they do for just about any other computer product.

        So limitations were put in place to help isolate the netbook market from the rest of the market but that wasn’t the only reason…

        Since some limitations actually tried to help as they brought about standardizations that helped reduce costs that in turn helped made netbooks steadily cheaper.  Since they were able to use off the self parts instead of constantly customizing and as more companies got into the netbook business also increased manufacturing quantities that in turn further reduced the unit costs for everyone involved.

        Even the original 5 year product cycle was part of the cost saving plan.  Since the longer product cycle meant technology would be more fully vetted and would cost less to use than when that technology was first introduced.

        Problem being any advancement went at a snail pace and they now have to deal with competition that didn’t exist when netbooks first came out.

        While both MS and Intel are both also interested in expanding into the mobile market as added incentive.

        So everything is going to change starting next year and we’ll see how it goes from there.

        It’s likely netbooks will evolve and while I doubt they will ever go away, since the desire for small and low cost computing solutions still exist, but they won’t necessarily look anything like the netbooks we knew and we may no longer necessarily call them netbooks once that happens but we’ll continue to have devices filling their general role.

      • Guest008

        Sorry but Intel or MS didn’t impose any limitation on NETBOOKS.
        They did on W7 Starter and Atoms.
        Manufacturers could have chosen to put W7 premium and/or AMD cpus (even celeron) in their netbooks.
        Some did (Acer for the Celeron, Samsung for W7 premium) but in a near confidential fashion.

        So, again, don’t blame MS and Intel for manufacturers choices.
        We could have had 10″ notebooks with the same features (beside cpus because of a TDP/heat problem) than their big brothers (11″6, 12.1″).
        A bit more expensive than the netbooks we know today but way more comfortable to use…
        And we’d have had the CHOICE.

        Beside that I agree with pretty much everything you say in your posts.
        Good analysis.

      • CyberGusa

        No, Intel did impose limitations on the ATOM and until recently the ATOM was the only choice for netbooks. So as far as history goes they are one and the same.

        Those limitation just have been lessened over time and are now very lax. Along with us now having other choices like AMD Fusion.

        While MS started mainly with pressure and deals on system makers.

        While neither imposed a resolution limit MS did impose a screen size and storage capacity limit for computers that XP could be used on and still get the discounted price.

        So Windows 7 Starter Edition isn’t the first example of MS imposing limitations.

        While I also pointed out that system makers are responsible for some of the limitations as well but the low margins of netbooks made the range of choices limited.

    • CyberGusa

      Neither MS or Intel ever placed a resolution limit or prevented the use of SSDs for netbooks.  Rather those came about simply because of the economic nature of netbooks to push for the most affordable solution that met the needs of the most.

      SSDs were just too expensive for large enough capacities and most people wanted as much mobile storage as they could get.

      While the early SSDs weren’t that much faster than modern HDDs.  It didn’t help that the early netbooks were limited to SATA I, if not PATA, until Pine Trail came out and upped the limit to SATA II and helped make the SATA 2.5″ drives the standard.

      Similarly LCD resolution has remained mostly unchanged because those are the most affordable screens available.  Occassionally there have been higher resolution screens offered for netbooks but only recently has higher resolution screen prices started to go down and those previous offerings never took off because of the premium pricing they called for.

      The other problem is higher resolution screens also generally require more system resources to run properly and consume more power.

      The iPad’s retina display for example consumes 30% more power than the previous screens they’ve used and that’s not counting the increased power consumption of doubling their GPUs, which is why they needed to increase the battery capacity by 70%.

      Soon to come out technology advances may soon fix those issues but it’s still something to look forward to as we aren’t there yet… until next year.

      For now Cedar Trail is the first time Intel put a more capable GMA into the ATOM but it’s still not quite good enough even though it can at least run those higher res screens without a noticeable hit on performance.  Especially with AMD offering alternatives with multiple times better graphics.

      Thus why it’s such good news that the next gen ATOMs will be using a GMA based on the Ivy Bridge HD4000, which even watered down should still provide a better solution than what they have now.  Along with the fact it’ll bring better driver support as that has always been one of the issues with Imagination’s PowerVR based Intel GMA’s.

      While the push from Tablet’s and the minimal resolution requirements of Windows 8 should be when higher resolution screens are finally pushed for mainstream netbooks.

      The next gen ATOM offerings will bring in many advancements that have previously been limited to just Intel’s Core i-Series, and Intel is no longer holding back on the ATOM. 

      In fact they’ve already stated they will accelerate development to a point faster than Moore’s Law for at least the next two years and the 22nm update will be the beginning of this change.

      While both MS and Intel are pushing for price competitiveness with ARM.  So we’ll see both better performance and more affordable solutions starting next year.

      For now, it’s not going to be great year for netbooks but Clover Trail should come out just in time for Windows 8 to provide something to compete with ARM tablets and Windows 8 should bring with it better driver support for the Imagination PowerVR based GMA’s that should hopefully fix the remaining problems enough to keep the market going until the next gen offerings can come out for next year.

      • Qbert

        So this is not netbook death, it is a temporary netbook midlife crisis.

      • CyberGusa

         Pretty much, netbooks have stayed pretty much the same for too long and it’s time for a change but change doesn’t happen overnight.  So there’s going to be a transition period and that’s where we are for now.

        Look forward to 22nm ATOM samples being introduced at CES 2013 and those new products being sold by Q2…

        Ivy Bridge is in a similar position as Cedar Trail, being mainly just a manufacturing “Tick” for Intel that’s mainly just a die shrink. 

        The two year product cycle usually separates manufacturing process advancements from architectural advancements to minimize risk if there is a problem with either one and is what they refer to with the “Tick-Tock” cycle.

        So Ivy Bridge was mainly for them to bring out the 22nm FAB and route out any problems with the process.  Leaving a much more mature 22nm FAB for the Haswell update that’ll be the “Tock” and bring out the architectural improvements.

        Haswell for example should bring about another 50% graphical performance improvement, along with being up to 50% better power efficiency, among other improvements.

        So Intel will be fairly easily able to apply Ivy Bridge like enhancements to the ATOM and be able to use the more mature 22nm FAB to help reduce costs and get the chips out faster than they’re presently doing with Ivy Bridge.

      • timmymac

         Wow, this thread took off while I was away at work.  CyberGusa, you make some excellent points.  I agree with you that the upcoming Intel CPUs should provide a boost in minimum performance, as long as the chipset is allowed to utilize more memory.
         For a 32 bit processor, a total of 4GB of memory can be addressed.  Applications are memory mapped into a virtual 4GB space, with 2GB of that virtual space allocated to the application and 2GB to the kernel.  When the Atom was first introduced,  the memory controller in the chipset was limited to 2GB max.  When Pine Trail came along and the graphics and memory controller were integrated on the CPU die, the new memory limitation was… 2GB max.  

        While Microsoft did not dictate the specs for netbooks, they did place restrictions on manufacturers who wanted to use the cheap licensing of Windows XP and Win7 Starter Edition.  For example, check out the table in http://www.neoseeker.com/news/10812-microsoft-intel-limit-netbook-sizes-for-windows-7-licensing/ or http://www.itexaminer.com/microsoft-adds-to-atoms-restrictions.aspx

        When I bought a netbook (way back in 2008 or 2009), I chose a HP 5101 with the 10 inch 1366×768 screen.  That was the absolute highest resolution screen available in a netbook.  Granted I suspect that was a limitation of the Intel chipset video capability.  When driving an external screen at higher resolutions, the graphics struggles.  In order to get it with 2GB of RAM preinstalled, I had to order it without Windows (I got SUSE linux instead).  Once I received it, I put in an Intel 80GB SSD and a Broadcom Crystal HD hardware video decoder.  Altogether I ended up spending a lot of money, but I ended up with a netbook that was (and still is) built like a tank yet small and speedy. 

        I’m currently looking around for a replacement for my HP netbook, and a low TDP is high on the priority list.  Last week I took apart 3 netbooks (mine, my mothers and my nieces) to clean the dust/lint/hair/etc out of the little fans.  The fans can now move air again, but the idea of a passively cooled netbook would be… wonderful. We’ll see if the new Ivy Bridge ULV processors that are due in Q3 will trickle down into the netbook formfactor. My other desire is for a high resolution screen (ideally, insanely high like the new iPad screen).  I’ll probably add the SSD myself, as companies still want too much surcharge for that particular upgrade. 

        One choice I’m considering buying is the next generation of 11 inch Macbook Air.  The footprint is larger than I want, but otherwise it meets all my requirements nicely. 

        Alternatively, I am looking at the next generation of Android tablets with docking stations.  For example, the soon-to-be-released-in-Q2 Asus Transformer Prime TF700T has a 10 inch screen with 1920×1200 resolution, and a removable keyboard/dock.  This will more than meet my needs for a portable device. The initial Transformer Prime had issues with a delayed launch and locked bootloader that dampened the enthusiasm of owners.

      • CyberGusa

        For 32bit, your statement is inaccurate… 32bit can’t efficiently use 4GB as well as 64bit can. It’s why 32bit OS are usually left with only about 3.25GB of RAM with 4GB installed because 32bit has to deal with things like reserved memory and this is especially a problem with systems with embedded graphics as they often use part of the RAM for VRAM.

        Besides, ARM has other limitations like it still needs to improve its memory bandwidth and show it can provide long term support. Since unlike the traditional PC market ARM devices usually have a much more rapid End Of Life cycle.

        While I’m fully aware of what restrictions and pressure both Intel and MS did impose on netbook makers, but what I stated is correct. Neither imposed a resolution limit!

        It was the system makers who chose screen resolutions. Asus at least had at least two models in its Eee PC line history that used HD resolution for example.

        Intel and MS mainly only limited the size range, among the other guidelines and I remember Dell even got penalized once for not following them and being one of the first to make larger than 10″ systems.

        The restrictions though have since become far more lax and Windows 7 SE is pretty much the only remaining serious restriction of the 1GB RAM.

        On the hardware side, most ATOMs still have the 2GB per slot limit, but the N2800 actually supports up to 4GB of RAM in its official specification. They just need 64bit drivers for the GMA to make full use of it. So the hardware limits are already starting to be phased out.

        Really, Intel knows it can’t be holding back if it really wants to compete with ARM. While both MS and Intel have to seriously put effort into protecting their existing markets even as they try to get into the mobile market.

        As for the Transformer, mind the unlocked bootloader means you lose support from them for future OS updates. While they’ve had other issues, like with the WiFi and GPS signal issue with the Prime but they’re getting better with every release and it stands to be one of the better Android tablet options.

        The keyboard dock is being adopted by other tablet makers as well and there was even a Core i5 tablet concept system made with a keyboard dock that may go into mass production later. So it’s definitely a growing trend.

        While Windows 8 should help force the adoption of higher res screens throughout the market.

  • toronado455

    Can someone clarify… do they mean that only the 10.2 inch, 5W TDP package is fanless, or is the 8W TDP 11.6 to 12.1 also fanless?

    • CyberGusa

      Just the 5W TDP package will be fan-less, basically 5W is still pushing the limits of what can comfortably go fan-less.

      The Asus X101CH for example is an existing example of a fan-less 5W TDP system (3.5W for the N2600 and about 1.5W for the NM10 Express Chipset).

      “Optimized” probably means a very basic and simple design like the Asus X101CH has, with mono-speaker, fewer ports, etc.

      The main thing is these are Intel based design kits.  So anyone could start using them and that’ll make it easier for more companies to start offering the fan-less designs.

      While next years next gen ATOMs should help lower the average TDP further to make such designs even easier to achieve.

      The upcoming 32nm Clover Trail for example should replace the existing 45nm Oak Trail, and it will have many of the same power optimizations and performance enhancements Intel used on Medfield.  So we may also see fan-less ATOM based tablets that are closer to N-Series chip performance than Z-Series solutions like Medfield as well before the year is out.

      Though Intel is also working with Configurable TDP, which would allow for higher performance mode when needed and the fan may be reserved for those high performance usage and simply be turned off when in normal mobile usage.

      While it could also mean they may just merge the mobile N-Series ATOMs with the nettop/desktop D-Series if the same chip can just switch between those TDP ranges and that’ll help lower costs and make system designs more standard.  Not to mention more green…

  • Seta

    They should think about making ultrathin netbooks; thin as an ultrathin but less power, 10″ screen with no bezel (I rather have a small keyboard and no bezel) and lots of battery under 300$

     That would sell ;-)

    • CyberGusa

       Ultra-thin tends to raise the price and is one of the reasons Ultrabooks cost more.  You usually need stronger materials for thinner designs as those are harder to keep structurally strong enough and reduced space means it gets harder to keep cool and you need to cram everything into a tighter space means more careful designing.  So everything adds up and is why Ultra-Thins have traditionally been premium offerings with even low end components like ATOMs.

      Intel actually already has two Ultra-thin reference designs for netbooks, called Canoe Lake and Keeley Lake, but pretty much only one or two companies have ever bothered using those designs.

      While in generally, netbooks have gotten thinner and lighter and the newer models have even started using the same 7mm thick hard drives as Ultrabooks, and of course the 10″ netbooks are naturally smaller than even Ultrabooks that only go down to 11.6″ systems but are usually closer to 12″ physical size because of large bezels.

      The 10″ models generally sell below $300 already and those close to the $300 mark still have 6 cell batteries for good run times.  It’s mainly those that go significantly below $300 that start using 3 cell batteries, but some of them actually get down to the $200 price point.

      It’s just the larger models that go 11.6″ to 12.1″ that start raising the price but despite the push for those sizes with more newer models the 10″ are still the dominant size for netbooks.

      While improvements in manufacturing generally tend to help reduce costs further.  Along with competition, which they’re getting from both AMD and ARM.  So I wouldn’t be surprised to see better deals come out later as things improve, they just aren’t likely to be significant until the 22nm update next year.

      Also we might start seeing the return to sub 10″ size netbooks given the push towards mobile device ranges and those may be priced even lower as long as they don’t need any custom considerations by the system makers.

  • Guest008

    Just wanted to add that it was a clever move from Intel, knowing that they are the only ones (in an x86 architecture) to provide low consumption cpus, I mean low enough to be integrated in a fanless netbook. Namely the Atom N2600. AMD can’t do that (even with his C-60).

    So a good added value for N2600 Intel’s cpus. And a good argument to launch some new netbooks with a new/good selling point.
    It’s also a good way to counter the ARM chips starting to (re-)enter the netbook  market.

  • Step

    I think that if Intel’s new processors will produce 5W TDP, use of fanless system, the netbooks can be bought with more interest.
    Optimal solution using portable screens 10.2 “and 11.6″ (awkward to carry 12 “and above) but only if 320 dpi or higher (it’s time to innovate and keep pace with the times, preferably using screens Samsung “retina”).
    Good idea to make netbooks more compact (perhaps with aluminum parts, such as ultrabook) but, to revive the market for netbooks, in addition to these innovations SHOULD LOWER THE PRICE UNDER 200 DOLLARS.

    • Step

      Memory 2GB RAM: it was now!