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 04, 2010 - link

    The problem comes in getting anyone - and I do mean anyone - to send us AMD laptops for review. The manufacturers seem to view them as bastard step children that should be kept out of view as much as possible. The Gateway NV52 shows what sort of performance you can expect, give or take, as it has a 2.1GHz QL-64 CPU, but battery life on the newer 45nm parts should be better and performance can be a bit higher as well.

    Even going to AMD doesn't really help, since they don't want to step on any toes by sending out review units. They would love to do that, but if they did they could easily end up with HP (as an example) saying, "We don't like you sending out our product... so we're going to discontinue that SKU."

    Of course, the new Intel HD Graphics actually beat the HD 3200/4200 in quite a few tests as far as I understand things. (I'm still trying to get i3/i5 laptops for review as well.) Even then, HD 3200 at least really struggles in quite a few games to get playable performance - the GeForce 9400M for example looks to be about 60% faster.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Actually, I made a mock-CULV out of my $400 Toshiba notebook, equipped with AMD 3100 graphics and an Athlon X2 QL-65. I use a program called K10stat, which allows you to alter the P-states of K8+ AMD CPUs. By default, the QL-65 is a 35W CPU with a max-clock of 2.1ghz, but after I changed the 2 power states to .9v @ 900mhz and 1.0v @ 1.3ghz, I end up with a CPU that consumes 9-17W, depending on the P-state (it stays mostly in the 9W area). That tweak added about 30 minutes to my battery life (6-cell), matching my company-issued 3-cell HP netbook. Even with the reduced clocks, performance is still massively better on the Toshiba. My wife hasn't noticed or complained about performance yet, though we don't demand much beyond internet, iTunes (sigh), and office/budget stuff. Reply
  • OMG Snarf - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    That's a darned shame - the manufacturers don't even respond to requests for hardware? I wonder if that's the manufacturers or some super secret Intel clause (conspiracies ahoy!). I guess I'd have to look through the NV52 reviews again, but its nice to know that a 1.5GHz part should equate roughly to a 2.1GHz part.

    My issue with the new Intel HD is that right now the Core iX UM systems aren't out that I've seen, and as was detailed in another article, there's still the issue of the L2 cache not being power gated and the later inclusion of SRAM to fix this to provide more power savings, so who's to say where those fit in the ultraportable world at this time? I think that will take time to flesh out, and by that point, there will be another 'Tock' and maybe another minor 'Tick' to fill it out. That's already the end of the year, given Intel's performance for last year. And by that point, there might be another AMD mobile chipset, so it all could be moot.

    Finally in reference to the 9400M, the issue is cost. The 3200 can push a few more polys than the 4500 can, so if you want the option is there. The 9400 can, too, if you want to spend double the cost, but the point I got out of this review was low-voltage that was around the Atom/Netbook price point that offered overwhelming performance advantage while still retaining the other features (battery life/portability).

    But I digress. Thanks for the response, and while I'm sad to hear that AMD gets treated that way by the manufacturers, its good to know that its not because of any bias on the editorial staff that others like to claim.

    So long as the illegal overclocking stops for the i3/i5/i7 and X3150 benchmarks ;) I kid, I kid. Heh. Those were the days.
    Reply
  • Drag0nFire - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Well, I'd love to see a review of the AMD-based Lenovo x100e if you can get your hands on it. It may provide competitive performance at the $400-500 price point. Reply
  • Cuhulainn - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    When I saw the article I figured one of those reviewed must have been from the Asus UL line. They get mentioned several times, and seem to be the only options with decent gaming ability + battery life. If nothing else one of them should have made the review list for battery life alone. Isn't that a big part of the reason for using a CULV processor? Reply
  • cblais19 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    If you look at other reviews on this site, they've done an overview of the UL80vt mentioned in this article, as well as an in depth review. Reply
  • mschira - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I especially like the Asus approach overclocking the sauce!
    I want a 10" overclocked CULV!
    Forget iPAD and Atom.
    M.
    Reply
  • feelingshorter - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Do you mean the 1810TZ in the conclusion? Which is the SU7300 11 inch laptop. The 4810TZ is a 14 inch laptop. Also did you mean 1410 instead of the 3810? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    No... I've looked at the 3810TZ, 4810TZ, and 5810TZ at stores, played around with them a bit, etc. They're all better, in my opinion, than the 1410/1810. It's not just a case of being larger, either; the keyboards just don't feel quite so mushy as the 1810 chassis.

    The 1410/1810 are good, but more of a "B+" as opposed to "A-". I have no hesitation recommending any of the Acer TZ models that have SU4100, though, which is why I awarded the group (along with the Gateway EC54) a bronze.

    Honestly, though, there's plenty of personal preference in what makes a good keyboard. Some people like the soft touch ("mushy" in my view) keyboards, and others like more of a "clicky" keyboard. If you can try any of the Timeline series out - or really any CULV, including the Lenovo U series and a few others I haven't mentioned - and you're happy, the performance is going to be very similar to what I've shown here.

    Hope that clears things up. :-)
    Reply
  • Roland00 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Did the 1410 have the battery in them? Due to the design of the chassis (to hide the battery and not have it stick out), the battery provides a lot of support. With the battery inside there is a lot less give on the 1410.

    I know for I bought one for 350 with the su2300, 2gb memory, and 160gb hard drive.
    Reply

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