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 - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    There's not a ton of flex - nowhere near as bad as some older MSI laptops, for example - but it does have a bit of spring and it's a "soft touch" keyboard, which just feels mushy to me. I prefer a bit more click, and the spacing and shape of the keys on the 1810 wasn't as nice as the 11z. But, that's a lot of personal preference so if you like the 1810 keyboard there's nothing else I'd complain about with the design.
  • OCedHrt - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Maybe it is just me, but the graphs would be a lot clear if the processors were listed out.

    I assume the power draw graphs at the end of the battery page is based on the run time and battery capacity?
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Power graphs are based on power draw from the outlet, at 100nits LCD brightness, with all power saving features enabled (balanced power profile).

    Adding the CPU to each line compresses the graphs in a way I don't like. Just to quickly list the various CPUs:

    Acer AO751h = Atom Z520
    Acer AS1810T = Core 2 Duo SU7300
    ASUS 1201N = Atom 330
    ASUS 1005HA = Atom N280
    ASUS UL80Vt = SU7300 (dark gold = OCed to 1.73GHz)
    Dell Inspiron 11z = Pentium SU4100
    Dell Studio 14z = P8600
    Gateway EC5409u = Pentium SU4100
    Gateway NV58 = Pentium T4300
    Gateway NV52 = Athlon X2 QL-64
    Gigabyte M1022 = Atom N280
    HP Mini 311 = ION with Atom N280
    MSI X610 = Athlon MV-40
  • Ralos - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    The title of the article suggest this is a CULV vs Atom showdown. When I look at the graphics, I don't see this, I see a bunch of Acer vs Asus vs HP vs Dell and from what I gather, performance seems to be similar whatever brand the same CPU is sold with, so it really should show the name/speed of the CPUs in there.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    Per request, I've updated the chart colors to highlight other important systems. Atom 330 (ASUS 1201N) is orange, MSI X610 (Athlon MV-40 with HD 4330) is red, ASUS 1005PE (Atom N450 Pine Trail) is dark green, and ASUS 1005HA (Atom N280 Diamondville) is black. Hopefully that will help read the charts.
  • OCedHrt - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Well, thanks for trying anyways :)

    I guess my question is where a Z550 would stack up. Its safe to say it's 50% faster than the Z520, but I don't see that laptop in the performance line up.

    I'd wager that it's marginally faster than the ASUS 1005HA with less power draw (but how much less?).

    Basically, I'm trying to figure out what is the possibility of a CULV Sony X laptop in the near future ;) It may be unlikely simply due to die size..
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I think Z550 gets paired up with the GMA 500 chipset, which is good for HD video decode but I'm not sure that it's actually worth using. I know Linux users don't like it because it's a new proprietary GPU with no driver support.

    My experience (which is limited to the Acer 751h) was that it frequently crashed; what I don't know is if that was the chipset, or just a poor sample laptop from Acer. I also know that I've heard from a few readers saying they have one that crashes all the time as well. Hopefully it's the 751h and not the chipset.

    As far as power draw, it should be about the same as the other Atom laptops - probably more than the 751h and 1005HA, given the 2.0GHz clock. Even then, look at the two N280 units (ASUS 1005HA and Gigabyte M1022) and you can see that not all netbooks are created equal. The Gigabyte seems to be a poor example of a netbook, though, with much worse battery life than the competition.

    At 2.0GHz Atom Z550 will still be much slower than any CULV, so I'd recommend sticking with CULV unless the pricing is very compelling.
  • OCedHrt - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    The Z550 actually has a slightly lower (0.1) TDP than the N280. It's not the pricing that's compelling, but the form factor: 1.6 lb 11.1" 10.95"(W) x 0.55"(H) x 7.29"(D)
  • KaarlisK - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    Power consumption should be lower - the TDP of the entire Poulsbo chipset is only 2.3W. However... the damn GMA 500 is HORRIBLY slow. Even for Aero. And Intel still hasn't (and probably won't) released WDDM1.1/DX10 drivers, even though the hardware supports it. Also, the driver doesn't support 8bpp color at all.
  • OCedHrt - Friday, February 5, 2010 - link

    Best bet is probably to not run windows on this one ^^
    I really wish there was a CULV option, even a core solo would be much better.

    I saw in some forum that they got OS X running on it. *shudder*

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