Netbooks have settled into a comfortable set of stock components, offering basic PC functionality for prices unheard of even a few years ago. The typical setup of a 10-inch display, Intel Atom N450 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Starter is easy to find for as little as $299, and more than adequate for many tasks, from e-mail to Web surfing.
But those low, low prices mean PC makers are eager to upsell, and a handful of Netbook-plus systems have turned up, with larger HD displays, more RAM, and even better CPUs and graphics capabilities, such as the Asus Eee PC 1201, which pairs a bigger screen with Nvidia's ION GPU for what some call a "Premium Netbook" experience.
The latest system to offer a little more Netbook for a little more money is the Gateway LT32. This 11.6-inch laptop skips the typical Intel Atom for an AMD Athlon Neo II K125 processor. While still a single core chip, AMD has always positioned the Neo as a better performer than the Atom, and during initial anecdotal hands-on use, that certainly seems to be the case. The LT32 also includes ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 graphics--still not a discrete GPU, but a small step up from the integrated Intel graphics found in most Netbooks.
Almost as important to the end user experience is the 2GB of RAM (double what's in a typical Netbook) and Windows 7 Home Premium operating system instead of the more common Windows 7 Starter Edition.
The design of the LT32 is reminiscent of the Acer Ferrari One, an excellent 11-inch Premium Netbook from earlier in 2010. That system was even better, with a dual-core AMD CPU and 4GB of RAM, but it also cost nearly $600, putting it in solid mainstream laptop territory.
The Gateway LT32 is more reasonably priced. Gateway is listing it for $449, but hopefully some adventurous retailer will sell it for $399 -- which would make it a great $100 upgrade from entry level Netbooks.
In our hands-on use, the LT32 felt like a definite step up from Atom-powered Netbooks. We spent less time staring the spinning Windows wait icon, and launching and switching between apps resulted in less hang time. Both the Neo processor and extra RAM likely play a part in this. The Radeon graphics weren't much for 3D games (although some more basic games are certainly playable -- see our list of great games for Netbooks for some examples), but HD video playback was great, including streaming Flash video in HD -- something that trips up even Netbooks using Broadcom's Crystal HD video accelerator.
The large keyboard is typical of 11-inch Netbooks, and certainly easier to type on, although its wide, flat, closely packed keys felt a little wobbly, especially around the center of the keyboard. The touch pad is undersized, and made of the same material as the rest of the wrist rest, demarcated only by a faint raised line. Like most current laptop touch pads, it includes some basic multi-touch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, but they were hard to use, failing to register much of the time. At least the left and right mouse buttons are actual separate buttons, skipping the unfortunate recent Gateway trend of using a single, thin rocker bar in place of mouse buttons.
One area where the Intel Atom still has a clear advantage is battery life, and while the LT32 lasted around four hours in anecdotal use, that's nowhere near the six-plus hours a highly efficient Atom Netbook can get.
Nonetheless, using a Netbook with just a bit more oomph makes a huge difference, and if priced reasonably by retailers, this could be a very attractive alternative. We're currently testing the Gateway LT32 in the CNET Labs, so stay tuned for a full review with benchmark scores.