"2009 will be the year of the netbook," explains Kleynhans. "They will be small and light enough to take everywhere and just powerful enough for most workers." Adding a second computational core, says Kleynhans, won't double the system's abilities, but the new Atom chip will likely boost overall performance of these small wonders by about 50 percent and bring them to about the level of mainstream systems. Look for them sometime this summer or fall.
Netbook graphics will be improved as well. Intel is teaming with Nvidia to package its capable GeForce 9400M graphics accelerator (the same being used on Apple's new MacBook Pro notebooks) with the Atom CPUs. The chip combo will take netbooks beyond Web browsing, e-mail, and simple applications to handle complex graphics and high-definition video.
Intel will not be alone in boosting netbook performance. Later this year, AMD plans to focus on ultraportable computing with its Athlon Neo family of single- and double-core processors. According to the company, Neo will be packaged with ATI Radeon Avivo video to make quick work of decoding and displaying HD video.
Further out on the technological horizon, Via, the maker of the C7 processor that Hewlett-Packard uses in its Mini-Note 2133 netbook, is redesigning the C7 as a dual-core processor. Called the Via Nano, the processor will likely be available late this year or in early 2010. Its design will likely have something that Intel and AMD aren't offering in this class of processors: full hardware encryption of data for the security-conscious among us.
There's a dark side to this generation of more powerful small notebooks: The new processors will use between 6 and 8 watts of power, about double the level of today's systems. "That cuts into battery life," says Gartner's Kleynhans. "The juice has to come from somewhere."
More aggressive power management could compensate for some of this power shortfall, but it could also require bigger (and heavier) batteries or shorter battery life, potentially defeating the whole idea of a netbook.
Rather than producing cookie-cutter designs that look and act alike, each manufacturer will be forced to make its own decisions and compromises on power, producing a wide variety of netbooks over the next two years. Look for the first high-powered netbooks this summer.
The mechanical hard drive that stores data on tiny magnetic dots on a spinning disk is increasingly looking like a relic of the past. Flash memory solid-state drives use less power than conventional hard drives, can read and write data faster, and are nearly indestructible.