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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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Still waiting for a review unit. I am also curious to see if Alienware allows overclocking, similar to the ASUS UL series. If they do, and with the GT335M, the m11x is going to be a very speedy machine in many respects. Of course, it's going to cost close to $1000 I imagine, but the features will probably make it worthwhile.
  • synaesthetic - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    There is a BIOS option to overclock the FSB on the M11x. According to the review, the SU7300 was overclocked to 1.6GHz with a respectable boost in performance and a negligible increase in heat (only a degree or two hotter).
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I could not get past the brand name personally. Many people out there do their best to avoid the "greatness" that is Acer. I am just one of those people.

  • clarkn0va - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Maybe my information is just out of date, but my knowledge of the Acer Timelines differs somewhat from the information presented in this article.

    For starters, Jarred is stating that they have plastic covers. I own a 3810T and the cover is brushed aluminum (or a really good fake), thank goodness.

    Secondly, it was my understanding that (at least some of) the TZ models had switchable graphics, enabling the user to switch from Intel to AMD graphics on the fly. Perhaps this isn't offered any more.

    Lastly, and this is not Jarred's mistake, just an unfortunate reality, mine came with an 80GB Intel G1 SSD. This not only improves performance markedly, but should help to extend battery life. I think it's a shame that more desktops and laptops don't include this option.
  • AmbroseAthan - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I was going to comment on this too. There are A LOT of differences within each Timeline series. I know there are 1810T's with aluminum rather then the plastic, and the new Olympic editions are very nice.

    Personally I own the 1810T (black plastic with SU7300) and couldn't be happier with it. It does have some of the problems Jarred listed, but you quickly adjust to the size of the trackpad; I haven't had any issues dragging things around the screen.

    My brother owns the 3810T (Brushed aluminum w/ SU7300), and it is much more polished then the 1810T (blakc plastic). The little extra size really helped Acer make it a much nicer laptop. Even his keyboard is of a different material/style then mine. The touchpad is also different. He got his only a couple weeks after me, and I gladly would have taken the slight extra weight for the updates it had to everything else had I known.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    If I'm not mistaken (and I admit, I might be -- curse Acer and their plethora of SKUs that are all very similar!), the aluminum Timeline models are more expensive than the plastic models. At a price of around $750 to $800, I'd go with the ASUS UL80Vt and get switchable graphics. The Olympic Edition of the 1810 does look very nice, but can anyone confirm that it's truly aluminum? Look at http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">these pictures and it appears to be glossy plastic to me. Still, it's got the right parts and price ($550), if you're okay with the keyboard action.
  • jabber - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I'm a convert! Since I got my Inspiron 13Z with its 7300 it's been great. Similar grunt to an old P4 2.8Ghz dual core with a Nvidia 105 GPU and 4GB of ram.

    For a small laptop its perfect. Plays games just fine and if I set it to balanced power it can run for 8 hours+ easily.
  • tno - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I hope not to start a flame war or cause any hard feelings or upset on Jarred's part, but I feel it's worth pointing out that this piece could have really used a polish. One of the great things about AT is that the coverage and the writing have always been equally high in quality. Certainly, the occasional typo or awkward sentence would sneak out, but on the whole it could be trusted that the articles read as if they had been reviewed by an editor.

    This article, however, did not feature the typical AT polish; a fact which was evident in the very first sentence:
    "A couple years back, ASUS released the first netbook on an unsuspecting world."

    While a conversational tone is certainly appreciated, the absent 'of' between the second and third word mar this sentence. The opening paragraph continues with several sentences which reach or border on being run-ons; and could easily stand the presence of a few semi-colons. Typos and word misuse ("differentiator" is a specialization mechanism in cell biology, and not a general term for the variable that separates members of a population) litter the first page, and would no doubt have been caught by a copy editor.

    Again, I am absolutely a fan of this site and the wonderful articles produced here. Letting mistakes like these slip past, however, diminish the articles to the level of blog posts and not quality technical journalism. As the number of writers and staffers grow, it becomes harder to enforce high writing standards. If it hasn't been done, perhaps it's time to consider hiring some proof readers?

  • QuietOC - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Haha, Jarred lifted some of that wording from a sample review I submitted to them: "A few months later ASUS released the original Eee PC on the unsuspecting world market." There's nothing particularly unique about the language. I wouldn't be surprised if I unconsciously borrowed it myself.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    The use or omission of the word "of" in the first sentence is entirely a stylistic preference. "A couple years ago..." or "A couple of years ago..." mean the same thing, with an extra syllable in the latter. As for differentiator:

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Differentiator">differentiator - a person who (or that which) differentiates.

    I am using it as the latter, and it is correct in that sense. Sorry if I view the English language as more fluid than others, but I have no qualms about playing with words as I see fit. I would hope most people are more interested in the technical content than whether or not I follow the MLA guidelines.

    If you really want to complain about my writing style, you'd be far better off saying that I have a bad case of word diarrhea, IMO. I write far more text than I often feel is necessary, but then if I omit certain aspects of a review I always get someone complaining that I "didn't talk about feature xxx". Another potentially valid complaint would be my use of parenthetical comments and phrases set off by dashes--and I'm sure I use dashes incorrectly at times! ;)

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