A couple years back, ASUS released the first netbook on an unsuspecting world. Compared to the UMPCs and other tiny handhelds that preceded it, the Eee PC offered more in some areas and cost a lot less - and compared to ultraportables, it was smaller and cost about one fifth as much! Many consumers fell in love with the netbook, and now every major laptop company has some form of netbook. Intel just released the Pine Trail platform that updates Atom in a few areas, but Pine Trail is less about improving performance and more about reducing costs - mostly Intel's costs, as the new netbooks all cost the same or slightly more than preceding models. So yes, Atom is undoubtedly a success, but are Atom-based netbooks truly good are they just a current fad? To answer that question, we need to look at the next step up the mobile ladder: Intel's CULV platform.

CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) processors have been around for a while, but where formerly they were the domain of $1500+ ultraportables, netbooks have forced them into much lower price brackets. If the choice is between a $330 Pine Trail unit and a $1500 CULV, few would opt for the latter; today, the difference is a lot less, with some CULV designs starting as low as $400. It's no surprise that the least expensive models are more difficult to find in stock, and we're left to wonder if the problem is inadequate production or if the manufacturers are intentionally producing low volumes with the hope of getting more users to spring for higher cost offerings. Realistically, you're far more likely to find CULV laptops priced around $600, but a quick search turns up quite a few priced under $450 (though admittedly many vendors are backordered). Even at twice the cost of a netbook you should give them serious consideration, and in this roundup we'll show you why.

When you get right down to it, most CULV laptops are very similar. The slowest dual-core CULV CPU is a Celeron SU2300, clocked at 1.2GHz and with 1MB of shared L2 cache on an 800FSB; meanwhile the fastest CULV option right now is the Core 2 Duo SU9600, clocked at 1.6GHz and with 3MB of shared L2, but still on an 800FSB. With triple the L2 cache, the typical performance boost at the same clock speed would be ~10%, and the raw clock speed advantage and higher FSB would give the SU9600 another 33% advantage for a total performance increase of up to ~50%. However, not many companies ship laptops with the SU9000 CPUs and they're priced at $1500+. For those interested in affordable CULV, the "high-end" CULV CPU is going to be the Core 2 Duo SU7300, clocked at 1.3GHz and with 3MB L2. That CPU is only up to ~20% faster than the SU2300, and if you drop down to the most common Pentium SU4100 you're down to 1.3GHz with 2MB L2, or closer to a 15% performance improvement. What that means is that raw performance among most CULV laptops is going to be close enough that most people won't notice the difference.

There are a few other items to note. First, of the current CULV processors, only the Pentium SU4100 and SU2700 lack virtualization (VT-x) hardware support. Most users are unlikely to need the feature, unless they plan on installing Windows 7 Professional and running the XP virtual machine. Oddly enough, the Core 2 Solo SU3300 includes VT-x but skips xD (Execute Disable). The single-core Solo CPUs also have a lower TDP of just 5.5W, putting them in direct competition with Atom; they'll be faster in single-threaded tasks and very similar in multi-threaded tasks. Given the pricing, however, we recommend against buying any of the Core 2 Solo solutions; the jump to dual-core is definitely noticeable and the price of the CPUs actually makes many of the Core 2 Solo laptops as expensive as SU2300/SU4100 offerings.

If performance isn't going to be the big differentiator (with some exceptions like high-end laptops with SU9000 CPUs and SSDs in place of hard drives), what you really need to pay attention to are the other features and the overall design. Specifically, we'll look at the keyboard, touchpad, LCD, and battery life in our roundup of CULV laptops today. We'll also look at other features that differentiate the laptops. We've got three models from Acer, Dell, and Gateway, and as you'll see performance is very much a wash between them.

These laptops are representative of what you'll find with most other CULV offerings, but you can still decide between a larger or smaller chassis and some other items. Some of the differences are easy to analyze even without using a laptop in person: a larger chassis will weigh slightly more and you might get an optical drive, or you might find a few select companies offering a higher resolution LCD. What we can't say is whether these other laptops have better LCDs or not (most likely not, though the higher resolution would still be a benefit), how the keyboard and touchpad feel, or if there are other useful features that aren't immediately visible. Ultimately, price is often the biggest factor, with entry-level CULV designs starting at around $400 (if you can find them in stock) and most ranging up to $650. Beyond that, there are designer CULV laptops and business tablets that can push pricing into the $1500+ range, but we aren't looking at that category in this roundup.

Acer Aspire Timeline AS1810T
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  • yyrkoon - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Jarred. Without even having to read the article/comparison here, I could have told you this would have been a no brainer.

    Last year I purchased a Toshiba Laptop with a T3400 CPU in it for less than $400( barely ) with free shipping. Now technically, this CPU is labeled as a "Pentium dual core. What that means exactly, I am not sure. But what I can tell you about this complete system is that at max load, it draws less than 40W( 17W light duty / idle ), and will play all but the most intense games reasonably well.

    Now what really surprised me about this laptop, after the fact that I did not think it could even play Hellgate: london( and it does, well, mostly ). Was that it encodes h264 video at close to the same speed as my desktop. Granted, my desktop is somewhat aged, but is no slouch. A P35 based system running an E6550 with 4GB of ram. Over Clocked to run 1:1 with the memory( 2.8Ghz ). Now perhaps I am missing something here, like perhaps Handbrake is not the best app to use to encode h264 ( x264 ), or maybe I am missing something else. Either way, I am fairly impressed. Which as I get older is something that is not as easy as it once was to do.

    So my point here, is that if an older system based off older technology can do well in this arena. I can see why newer technology can put the Atom to shame for a slightly higher price, and slight higher power consumption.

    One thing that does have me confused. Is why vendors/ OEM's have not implemented low power / performance parts for the common desktop. There certainly is an interest, all one has to do is search the web for a while and find 1000's of people out there trying to do different various things along these lines.

    For instance. Many of us possibly know that getting a low power desktop is not much of a challenge(read: ~50W full load, including an LCD ). However, popping in a discrete video card that has any sort of decent performance will more than likely triple your load at the wall. Why nVIdia/ATI insist on bleeding us dry with costs on the cards, and then insult us further by requiring us to buy an even bigger power supply. Not to mention the first born children we're obligated to give our local power companies for powering such beasts. Is it too much of a stretch of imagination to put a mobile graphics processor on a PCI-E 16x PCB ? I think not.

    With the above said. No, this does not imply gaming. Discrete graphics vs. integrated / onboard is a huge performance gain on its own. There are many different application out there that could benefit from this, and gaming is just a minor part of that.
  • Souka - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    My brother bought a HPmini netbook for our Mom, she hated how slow and unresponsive it was.

    All she did on it was read her hotmail, look at some gardening sites, and read the news... She was quite disappointed how slow it was compared to her 8 year old Pentium4 thinkpad laptop.

    I tweaked it best I could for performance, cpu typically wasn't very busy, 200mb+ free ram, hard drive not too busy... just plain sluggish.

    I even removed the Antivirus and all unecssary runtime apps... no noticible difference

    Ended up getting her a cute little used Sony Vaio ULV book... she loves it...and I paid just a bit more than the netbook.
    Oh yeah...the Vaio gets 5-8hrs run time on used battery... nice

  • Mumrik - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    The display is "11.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)" in the box for the Gateway. It should be 15.x...
  • aglennon - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I always wondered, Would battery life when playing videos be longer if you played the videos off of a flash drive rather than the hard drive?

    You could put the hard drive to sleep to save on the battery draw. Or would you?
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    My experience is that powering of the hard drives may not occur as frequently as you would expect. Even when idle for over an hour, if you look at a running laptop you will often see the HDD activity light blinking periodically. I can try to test this, but I'd be surprised if the results change much. They could even become worse because of all the USB activity.... Hmmm, this could be interesting. Would USB flash drive model make a difference? Most of my flash drives are pretty old/slow, but they should handle movies fine.
  • aglennon - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    It seems it may. I think it would depend if you could truly put the HD into standby mode. In the specs I've been able to find, USB flash drives pull about 60-80mA compared to WD 2.5" Hard Drives which pull about 500mA when running, 400Ma when idle, but only 50mA when in standby.
    I would think it would expand battery life considerably for those long airplane flights.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    Testing is underway. I had to use DivX, since my largest USB device is only 4GB and my x264 video is larger than that. Either way, it should be enough to tell if things have changed at all. (I also need to verify the result with the HDD, since I think I have a different DivX codec doing the work now. I used Win7's native support initially, since it's lower CPU use and better battery life than ffdshow.)
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, February 7, 2010 - link

    So here are the results (bearing in mind that I am not using the built-in Win7 codec because the ffdshow codec has taken priority and I didn't want to take the time to figure out how to fix the problem):

    DivX from USB: 268 minutes
    DivX from HDD: 291 minutes

    So, by my testing using a USB flash stick reduced battery life by around 8%. Ouch. Or put another way, it looks like USB increased average power use from around 12.8W for the HDD to 13.9W (based on battery capacity).

    My best guess is that the HDD isn't powering down, and/or the USB traffic is creating a lot more CPU usage than SATA HDD accesses. It's also entirely possible that the USB device I used is less than optimal - read/write speeds are nowhere near what you could get with a modern USB 2.0 stick, let alone USB 3.0. I think it can read/write at 13MB/s at best.
  • crimson117 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    How does the recently released Alienware m11x stack up?
  • synaesthetic - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    Hardware Heaven has a review of the M11x already up. They're claiming that it's the best Alienware system yet.

    I'm on the fence. I don't like the design much and I think the screen's too small for the weird form factor. Really I think they should have bumped the chassis size up slightly and tossed in a 13.3" display.

    The price is very tempting though... entry-level configs starting at $800 and directly competing with systems like Asus's UL30Vt, but with a LOT more graphics muscle.

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