Tagged: Atom

Intel launches an app store for netbooks

app-up-logo

Apps, apps, apps. It’s all you hear these days isn’t it? We’re constantly being informed “there’s an app for that”. Of course, they’re all refering to apps that run on Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and soon the iPad. But not for long…

Intel is attempting to take the netbook category of PC beyond its initial scope of a low-cost, portable PC, and into the realm of a dedicated platform for app developers, using the very successful storefront model pioneered by Apple for their touchscreen devices.

AppUp is the name for Intel’s netbook app platform. It is a downloadable application that will work on any Intel-powered PC – not just Atom-based netbooks – and provides a one-stop-shop for browsing and acquiring apps that have been built specifically for netbooks. AppUp is currently in beta and will only install on WinXP and Win7 machines.

Unlike the majority of programs written for the various Windows OS flavours, AppUp apps are specifically geared for the small screens and the low-power Atom processors found on most netbooks.

Once you install AppUp, it will appear as an icon on your desktop and Start menu (if you choose this during the install). Launching AppUp takes a surprisingly long time given that it is supposed to be a starting point for small and fast apps for your netbook, but this may be a reflection of the program’s beta status. The AppUp interface  – much like the apps it provides – is a simplified experience that favours large buttons and minimal text, the entire UI runs at 1024×600 resolution which means it takes up 100% of the typical netbook screen. It can’t be increased or decreased or even repositioned, so for people who own HD-level netbooks (typically 1366×768), or for people running it on non-netbooks, it will simply stick to the top-left corner of your screen. Once you launch AppUp, it will ask you to sign in.

In a move that will hopefully be reconsidered once AppUp leaves Beta, Intel forces you to provide a credit card during sign-up. Without this, you can’t access the store at all, even if you’re only interested in the free apps. This will surely prevent many would-be users from joining – especially given that netbooks are a favourite amongst the student population, a group that doesn’t typically have their own credit cards.

The overall UI is divided into two main tabs, “Store” and “My Apps”.

AppUp Store Tab

AppUp Store Tab

In the Store, you can find apps using the built-in search tool, or browse by “favourite categories” (there are 18), or by three other classifications: Staff Picks, Top Rated, Most Downloaded and New Releases. Depending on the app, downloads are free, or paid. While you can choose to display only Free or Paid or All apps once you are within a category e.g. “Business”, there isn’t a global listing for all Free apps.

Clicking on a listed item takes you to the app’s download area where you can read a short description, see screenshots if available, and check out user reviews and ratings. You can only submit a review once you’ve successfully downloaded and installed the app.

AppUp My Apps Tab

AppUp My Apps Tab

The My Apps tab works just like the home screen on an iPhone/iPod Touch: this is where you can launch any apps you have downloaded. Installed apps appear as large, friendly icons which can be displayed as a grid, or a list, and can be sorted by Title, Rating, Free, Paid or All. There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize this screen to display specific apps, which is also something that should be reconsidered for the full release.

Also present on this tab are a collapsible lists showing you your most recent downloads, downloads that are either in progress or pending, and any updates that might be available for apps you already have.

App sizes are fairly small, averaging about 30-50Mb each. For a first test, I downloaded the free app Boxee, a program that is designed to turn your PC into a TV-based media center. The download and install process went well, albeit a tad slow given the speed of my net connection. Running Boxee was also smooth and it looked great as a full-screen experience, though being in Canada means NetFlix and Pandora options are not available.

Unfortunately, this is where my experiment ran into trouble. I wasn’t able to successfully download and install any other apps after Boxee. More frustrating was that AppUp suddenly decided I didn’t have an internet connection. This might not be such a bad thing if it only meant that I couldn’t browse new apps and do downloads, but for some reason it locked up the “My Apps” tab for ages before finally letting me see the apps listing. Once I could see it, my one and only app (Boxee) took several minutes to launch. An internet connection is apparently a very good thing when using AppUp!

Such things are not unusual with Beta-ware, but judging from some of the reviews on the apps, I’m not the only one encountering bugs.

Although at first it seems as though you need to have the AppUp program running in order to use your downloaded apps, this isn’t actually the case. Your downloaded and installed apps appear in your program menu and you can run them even if AppUp isn’t open.

Intel is on to a very good thing with AppUp. The netbook market is already much bigger than anyone anticipated. Millions of units sold means that there is already a significant base of users who are potential AppUp customers. iPhone app developers who have spent considerable time and resources creating small screen experiences for that device should take a serious look at AppUp. If your plans already include a larger-screen experience aimed at the forthcoming iPad, an AppUp port might well be worth your while – it’s hard to imagine that there is going to be massive overlap between these two audiences.

If you own an Atom-powered netbook, you owe it yourself to download AppUp and try it out. I realize the credit card requirement will put off some of you, but it’s a minor inconvenience for the ability to access a growing library of apps that were built from the ground up for your screen size and processor power. Then head back here and tell us what you thought.

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Consumers are confused about netbooks

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Since Asus started the netbook craze a little over two years ago with their diminutive Eee PC, the netbook category has exploded. Nearly ever major PC brand (with the notable exception of Apple) has one, and prices have continued to drop as features and screen sizes have grown.

It’s no surprise that these little machines have become a hit: most models offer Windows XP, a 9″ or larger screen, built-in Wi-Fi, webcam, media card reader and a power-sipping processor that can last 5 hours or more on a a 3-cell battery. Higher-end models offer Solid State Drives, Bluetooth and multi-touch functionality. All this, starting at around $300.

There’s no doubt, netbooks offer superb value and portability for the money. So why then are a whopping 30% of all netbook purchases returned to the retailer where they were sold? The number comes from a recent Yankee Group report which concludes that consumers just aren’t well enough informed about the performance characteristics of netbooks before they buy.

Surprisingly, these consumers are not walking in to their local big box electronics retailer on a whim, and buying the first PC they see under $400. The same report claims that “consumers typically make a buying decision about a particular brand after hours, days or weeks of research—long before they ever walk into a store to purchase an item.”

If consumers are doing such due diligence yet are still unsatisfied with their purchase, it means that PC manufacturers, and all of us in the media, are doing a poor job educating buyers about netbooks before they even begin their research into which model is right for them.

The way to correct this apparent confusion is to start with some defintions that are meaningful to the average consumer. What is a netbook and what are the real differences between netbooks and their look-alike, but larger cousins, the laptops (or notebooks)?

Intel, the maker of the chips that are used in the vast majority of netbooks and notebooks, coined the term and has used it ever since to describe ultra-portable PCs that use their Atom processor. If we go with that as a starting point, any portable PC equipped with an Atom processor is a netbook, whereas any other CPU will make it a notebook.

But why does the processor matter? Aren’t size, weight, feature set etc. all important factors in identifying netbooks? Yes and no. While it’s true that most netbooks are small, with screen sizes never larger than 12″, and thin (often 1.5″ 1.5 cm thick) and light (some even as light as 2 lbs), it’s also true that they are no match for a notebook in the brains department.

And regardless how small and cheap a PC may be, if it can’t run all the software you could normally run (in the way that you normally run it) it’s not a notebook.

Well that sounds pretty clear: Atom processor = netbook, anything else = notebook. Right? Well…

It turns out that while Intel feels the netbook label is all about the CPU, other experts and some manufacturers disagree.

Sony just announced a machine they say is the world’s lightest laptop: the Vaio X.

And if the price is anything to go on, I’d have to agree. At $1300 it had better not be a netbook. But guess which processor is under the hood of this baby? Yup. An Intel Atom.

CNET, as recently as August of this year, argued that we should do away with the moniker altogether, claiming that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” and that “the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak.” 

The same article doesn’t mention anything about the difference in processing power between the two categories, which is a shame, because it can really make a difference. How much depends on the CPU comparison, but Tom’s Hardware benchmarked the Atom against a fairly slow Celeron chip, and the Atom did not fare well. The Celeron was 35% faster, across the board. Remember the Vaio X? Still wondering about that $1300 price tag? Me too.

That sounds like a real knock against the Atom, but when you consider that the Atom consumes far less power than the Celeron, things begin to make sense, and it brings us back to the reason why netbooks are appealing despite their lack of processing power:  Their tiny size, and super-efficient internal components means that though they aren’t workhorses, they can go much longer without plugging in to a wall.

What consumers should remember is that while the line is blurring between netbooks and notebooks, there are some real differences in terms of performance. Want a super-portable PC that can give you quick and easy net access from a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can check your mail, surf the web, watch some videos and stay up-to-date on Facebook? Want to go up to a whole day without a recharge? Get a netbook.

But if you need a portable PC that can mutli-task, edit video, play 3D games, run Photoshop and do it all without grinding to a halt, you want a notebook.