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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  • tno - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    Jarred,

    Again, I am not writing to instill any ill will. But technical content is only half of the product. Grammar and style are not mutually exclusive, and the proof of this is the use of style guides like the MLA, or Strunk and White, or even that of fellow online publication Engadget. These guides do more than just tell you where to use a comma; they seek to elevate and standardize the quality of writing for a publication.

    Now I am all for introducing personal style to an article. And I am always impressed with the technical fidelity and content of AT writing. AT articles are more than just spec sheets and test results; they are pieces of writing. Arguing that omission of the preposition connecting two nouns is a matter of style is ignoring proper grammar with no gain. It is inexcusable for the writing component of any AT articles to be neglected, even if the technical content is of a high caliber.

    Again, I am not trying to cause you any grief, nor imply that your writing is insufficient for inclusion on AT. I am simply pointing out that a small amount of editing and proofreading could go along way to improve all of AT's coverage.

    I believe that this discussion has probably moved beyond the scope of the comments section and invite you to look-up my email through the forums if you would like to continue discussing this.

    tno
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    Sadly (I suppose) I'm usually the one doing editing of other articles. It's much more difficult to edit your own content, especially after you've been over it ten times in the process of writing.

    But seriously, I find it astonishing that out of all the articles written on AnandTech and all the mistakes present in said articles, you would choose to complain about something so innocuous as "A couple years back" vs. "A couple of years back". We could also rephrase it "Just over two years ago" and it would be correct. I suppose http://www.thefreedictionary.com/couple">I'm in the minority when dropping the "of", though again I prefer to stick with informal styles for the most part.

    At least we're not having a discussion about my use of "everything but" vs. "everything except"... or was that you as well? LOL
    Reply
  • aapocketz - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Back when the macbook Air came out these CULV processor laptops were $2000+, now they have dropped in price and could cannibalize high end netbooks. They are even being confused with netbooks now; consider the new Alienware m11x keeps being called a netbook, even though it uses a CULV.

    I have had similar thoughts, and almost purchased a Thinkpad x301 recently for under $800. The only reason I held back was I know these CULV chips are a couple years old now, and there are new I5 and I7 chips coming out soon, forcing prices down even further. When the Core2 CULV ultralights are sub $500, why buy these (bloated) netbooks for similar price? Netbooks originally were supposed to be around $200 or less though.

    Also these ultralights have a few more little perks than the netbooks have, like backlit keys (or a "thinklight") - there is not a single netbook with a backlit keyboard.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Why dont you compare the $400 CULV notebooks with the netbooks, since that is the direct competition? Also there should be a Sempron M100 in here somewhere. Reply
  • macs - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    What about arrandale ULV? Asus UL30JT is coming soon and he brings core I7-620 ULV and NVIDIA 310M GPU. Should be great!

    I want something better than my atom netbook, maybe with a 11.6" screen but I want to wait those new Nehalem ULV...
    Reply
  • Visual - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I would love to see also the Acer 1420P / 1820P variants - no need to explore their tablet functionality in this comparison as it is off-topic, but do compare their keyboards, build quality and especially screen quality to the other non-touchscreen options. I've always wondered if touchscreen panels have a noticeably different visual quality.

    Also, if I understand correctly all these "current" CULVs are old Core 2/Penryn based, and as such are already old tech despite being launched in the products that you view only very recently. Shouldn't they get replaced with new Nehalem-generation 32nm processors any time soon? Or am I misunderstanding something?
    Intel's code names and roadmaps are making my head hurt right now, so I'd really like to know your say on the matter - is there something in the same segment that is worth waiting for on the horizon?
    Reply
  • QuietOC - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    The CULVs are all "old" 45nm Penyrn-3M/Wolfdale-3M 82 mm² dies--same core as the desktop E3x0 Celerons, E5x0/E6x0 Pentium Dual Cores, and E7x0 Core 2 Duos. The significant difference is that the CULV SpeedStep goes down to a 4x CPU multiplier during idle, my desktop Wolfdale-3Ms only go down to 6x. The Atom N270 also only goes down to a 6x multiplier. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Arrandale ULV parts have been announced, but nothing has shipped yet. I'm hoping to get one some time in the next month or two. One thing with the Arrandale ULVs is that they have a TDP of 18W compared to 10W. Obviously part of that is the integration of the new IGP, but there's definitely a question of how low their idle power draw can go. I suspect the initial Arrandale ULV parts will use slightly more power than the current Penryn parts.

    Performance is the other question we'll need to answer. Price wise, the newer Arrandale ULV chips run at a stock speed that's slightly lower than SU4100/SU7300 (1.06GHz and 1.20GHz for the http://www.anandtech.com/mobile/showdoc.aspx?i=370...">latest chips), and they also cost quite a bit more than SU4100. But yes, I am very interested to get some new ULV parts for review.
    Reply
  • GTaudiophile - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Anand,

    Out of curiosity, why not compare with the AMD Turion / Neo / X2 processors by chance?
    Reply
  • OMG Snarf - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I've got to agree with this. For the price point of the systems being benched, you can pick up an Athlon Neo X2 for $500, or a Turion Neo X2 for $600, direct from Toshiba with no shipping. Obviously the battery life won't be as good compared to the Intel CULVs, but I would be curious to see how the 12cell stacks up too. With the added $150 cost of the battery, you hit the same costs as the Intel CULV systems ($650), but get a Radeon 3200 instead of the anemic Intel 4500.

    Reply

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