Users waiting for laptops based on Intel's forthcoming Atom chip can expect to see some models by the middle of the year. More than 25 low-cost notebooks are in the pipeline, including models from multinational PC vendors, according to one of Intel's top executives.

These Atom-based notebooks will be available in the middle of this year for about US$250 (£124) to $300 (£149), said Navin Shenoy, general manager of Intel's Asia-Pacific operations. "We'll see some slightly richer configurations that get up to $350 (£173)," he said.

The Atom processor, formerly called Diamondville, is a small, low-power chip designed for inexpensive notebooks, a class of device that Intel and others refer to as netbooks. These machines are intended for first-time computer buyers in emerging markets as well as users in mature markets willing to trade performance for a low-cost notebook that complements their existing computers - a market that until now has been largely dominated by Asustek's Eee PC.

Atom will offer lower performance than Intel's Core 2 Duo processors for mainstream notebooks, but the Atom's performance will be good enough for browsing the Internet and sending emails, Shenoy said.

Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner was more specific about the processor's capabilities last month, telling reporters that a related chip, called Silverthorne, offers performance similar to Banias, the first version of Intel's Pentium M processor released in 2003. Silverthorne is designed for small, handheld computers that Intel calls Mobile Internet Devices, and will be available as part of the Centrino Atom chip package set for release during the second quarter.

The introduction of the Atom and the rush of vendors to build the chip into low-cost notebooks could mark the emergence of a new type of device, expanding on the early success of Asustek's Eee PC. But not everyone is convinced there is much demand for low-cost notebooks, either as a secondary computing device or a substitute for a more capable, and more expensive, notebook PC.

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Bryan Ma, the director of personal systems research at IDC Asia-Pacific, is a self-described sceptic and doubts that low-cost notebooks will have more than a limited impact on the market for portable computing devices so long as performance and features are traded for lower prices. "I was never convinced that price was the best way to sell these products," he said.

But the marketing clout of Intel and top-tier PC vendors could alter this equation by creating additional demand among customers in both emerging markets and developing countries. "Intel, pushing this, gives it more legs," Ma said.

"There's going to be some experimentation," Shenoy said.

Most Atom-based notebooks will have screens ranging in size from 7 inches up to 10 inches, Shenoy said, adding that some models will be equipped with screens that can swivel and lay flat against the keyboard, turning the device into a tablet computer. Devices will ship with either hard disks or solid-state drives that use flash memory and offer battery life ranging from three to five hours, he said.

"Some will be really sleek and thin, some will be a bit more ruggedised," Shenoy said, adding that Wi-Fi will likely be a common feature.

On the software side, Atom-based notebooks will ship with either Windows XP or some version of Linux. "I don't think you'll see a lot of Vista in this space for cost reasons," he said.

The availability of Windows XP on low-cost notebooks set to arrive during the middle of the year is noteworthy because Microsoft has stated previously that Windows XP licences would not be sold after 30 June.