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Ultraportables will force Microsoft to up its game

Ultraportable is the buzzword in PC hardware at the moment. As well as covering several mini-laptops lately, we’ve reviewed another super-compact in the shape of the Asus U2E – what you might call an executive model, given its premium pricing and luxury build. But the best is yet to come.

Just around the corner, anticipation centres on low-cost mini laptops that use Intel’s Atom processors, designed with low power consumption and cool running in mind. Previously, ultraportables tended to show good performance and abysmal battery life or vice versa, but rarely managed to perform well in both categories.

The Atom’s thermal design power (TDP), a measure of the strain placed on a PC’s cooling system, is a fraction of that seen even in Intel’s impressive Core 2 Duo chips. Take the CPU of the Asus U2E, rated at 10W TDP when running at 1.2GHz. The next generation of mobile internet devices – Intel calls them ‘netbooks’ – are currently touting a 1.6GHz Atom rated at just 2W. As well as running cooler, they’ll be quieter, because there’s no need for cooling fans – which has the knock-on effect of improving battery life further.

One thing we can be sure of: the slew of Atomic-powered machines will not be running Windows Vista. To stay in the game, Microsoft has had to back-pedal on its promised termination of Windows XP, extending XP Home pre-installation on ultraportables to 2010.

In place of the ubiquitous operating system (OS), we’re seeing Linux rise to the occasion, in flavours optimised for ease of use and lean operation. And laptop makers are putting their weight behind the open-source OS, as we witnessed at Acer’s launch of its Aspire One. Gianpiero Morbello, the firm’s European marketing chief, used the UK event to tell us Linux is the best choice for these kinds of devices, possessing instant-on capability, better battery life than Windows and “a strikingly attractive, functional, easy-to-use interface”.

iCandles

Apple's iMac is now old enough to put 10 candles on its birthday cake. Not that you’d recognise one of Apple’s new one-box PCs if you stood it and the original Bondi blue machine together.

With consumers coming around to the power and stability of Mac OS X, and netbooks packing cuddly versions of Linux, Microsoft needs to pull a rabbit from its Windows 7 hat – and soon.

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