TR's 10th: The rise of cheap, ultraportable computing


— 12:31 PM on November 13, 2009

Although I had numerous PCs growing up, my first real enthusiast's rig not solely dedicated to hardware testing was built around a pair of Pentium III 700MHz processors overclocked to 933MHz. I don't remember exactly how much memory the system had, but it surely wasn't more than 512MB. The hard drive weighed in at 20GB, and my desktop resolution topped out at 1280x1024. Despite a lack of particularly high-end hardware, the system still wasn't cheap to put together. It wasn't quiet, either—not by a longshot.

Today, you can buy a budget ultraportable notebook with a faster dual-core processor, gigabytes of memory, hundreds of gigabytes of storage, just about the same number of desktop pixels, and several hours of useful battery life for as little as $400. That might even be less than what I paid for just one of those old Pentium III CPUs, which says quite a lot about how far the industry has come. Ain't progress grand?

PC users are increasingly using notebooks in place of traditional desktop systems. Heck, notebooks started outselling desktops in retail back in 2005. That should come as no surprise given the inherent benefits of portable computing, especially in a world filled with wireless networks and cheap ultraportables.

The fact is that even today's low-end notebook hardware is more than fast enough for the sort of basic computing tasks undertaken by the vast majority of users. Ultraportables didn't always dip into the budget parts bin, though. Years ago, you were looking at paying at least a grand, if not much more, for anything approaching a thin-and-light notebook. The rise of netbooks changed all that, and it all started with Asus' first Eee PC.

Although the original Eee PC's 7" screen, tiny keyboard, and anemic horsepower limited the device's appeal even among gadget-crazed enthusiasts, its $400 price tag ushered in a new era of affordable portable computing. The first Eee PC was soon followed by droves of only slightly larger but far more capable systems based on Intel's Atom processor—a surprise success for a CPU not really intended make a splash in the notebook market. Instead, it hit like a tsunami, defining a whole new class of systems dubbed netbooks.

Netbooks have become so popular that they made up 20% of notebook sales in the fourth quarter of last year. Clearly, a lot of folks are interested in affordable ultraportable computing. And now they have another option in the form of a new breed of budget ultraportable notebooks that offer much more capable Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) processors and comparable battery life at prices that still amount to a pittance when compared with traditional ultraportable systems. Unlike netbooks, these new budget ultraportables can easily fill in as one's primary portable PC. They'll probably claw back some of the notebook market share lost to Atom-based systems, too. But I suspect budget ultraportables wouldn't even exist were it not for the netbook revolution that grew from the seminal Eee PC. Thanks, Asus. Really.

Asus has long been a supporter of TR, and the company has donated a cool $1,200 worth of hardware for our anniversary giveaway. Today's winners will be selecting from a collection of goodies that includes Maximus III Formula and P7P55D Premium motherboards, ENGTX285 TOP and EAH4890 Formula graphics cards, and a Xonar DX, which just happens to be one of our favorite sound cards, ever. Behold:

Today's winners are Kevin Sayama, Tyler Dillon, Bobak Hadidi, Keith Hands, and Kevin Williams, in that order. Prizes are being awarded on a first-drawn, first-served basis, so Kevin, you have first crack at today's cornucopia of goodness. Winners should have email waiting for them at the addresses they used to register for the giveaway. Simply reply to claim your prizes.

If you name hasn't been drawn yet, you still have a shot at our grand prize: all the components necessary to build a reasonable approximation of the Sweeter Spot config from our latest system guide. The grand prize will be drawn tomorrow, so stay tuned.

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