CULV Notebooks: The Premium Netbooks
For many, 10.1" netbooks (and even the slightly larger 11.1" and 12.1" models) are woefully inadequate for any sense of real productivity. So, when it comes to shopping for notebooks, you say the word "netbook" with derision--and that is perfectly understandable. It is hard to look beyond the compute and graphics horsepower limitations, and even when you do, the dinky form factor seriously cramps your style. High-bit rate 1080p video files just aren't the same on a 10.1" screen. Typing can be a tear-your-hair-out experience that seems to accelerate the onslaught of carpal tunnel syndrome. Suffice it to say, netbooks are not for everyone.
I maintain that netbooks are good in limited cases (read our 2010 Fall Buyer's Guide), and their value really only revolves around a low price tag compared to more fully-featured notebooks. If you went ahead and added another $300 dollars to bottom line, we'd rather be talking about better-equipped systems armed with faster components.
While prices are always a moving target, netbooks generally fall in around $300. If you are willing to go one generation back, there are some excellent sub-$200 deals. Just make sure you understand that whatever your motivation is for purchasing a netbook, they are designed as companion devices. You are supposed to do your heavy lifting on a desktop or workstation.
Netbooks often take a lot of abuse in reviews for this very reason. Everyone generally agrees that the compact little form factor wasn't designed to host a primary computer, but people don't want to have to deal with two machines with different purposes. They seem to want one stationary machine and one convenient mobile system capable of doing the same things. It's hard enough for true power users to maintain a single archive of documents and media files on one PC. Netbooks make you juggle two (or come up with a smart cloud-based sharing solution). This is where we hit an impasse that consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) notebooks are able to address.
Historically, Intel is the key proponent of this form factor, which hasn't been strictly defined. Why? Remember that netbooks were the mobile PCs that brought mobile prices down to the ground. This put pressure on notebooks in every other category--specifically the ultra-thin-and-lights. Looking back, why would you spend more than $1500 for a thin-and-light (like some of Sony's older Vaios) when you could purchase a dirt-cheap netbook? The form factors were similar, and the netbook was only handicapped with a slower processor. But it sold for less than one-quarter of the price. In this economy, that budget purchase looks far more attractive.
Conventional notebooks cost $300-$400 dollars more than a netbook. This leaves a huge gap. What can you get spending $150-$300 more than the price of a netbook? CULV notebooks compete in this space. Their dimensions and performance profiles were never strictly defined because they were intended to offer more attractive performance than netbooks, at conservative price points compared to faster notebooks.
Netbook performance is expected to improve significantly thanks to the introduction of AMD's Zacate and Ontario APUs. So, you can think of CULV notebooks as the "one-up" option ahead of netbooks, but "one/two-down" from mainstream notebooks. This means you get a more powerful CPU, GPU, and a roughly 12.1" screen. Whereas netbooks are most often based on Intel's Atom CPU, you're more likely to see CULVs driven by Core 2 Duo or a low-voltage Arrandale-based processor. Without question, those chips are nowhere close to as powerful as a modern mobile Core i5 or Core i7. But you get a smaller, thinner, cheaper, and more power-friendly form factor in return. This is why we consider CULV notebooks to be "premium netbooks," or perhaps "budget ultra-thin-and-lights."