CES: Inside Palm’s and AMD’s Comeback Plans

LAS VEGAS — If Donny and Marie can make a comeback in Las Vegas, why can’t Palm and AMD? Both companies have been kicked around by formidable competitors over the last couple of years, yet each brought a confident attitude and cool new products to Thursday’s opening of the Consumer Electronics Show.

[cob:Special_Report]The bigger newsmaker — and, except possibly Microsoft’s Windows 7, the biggest story of this year’s CES — is the debut of Palm’s Pre smartphone and WebOS platform. The Pre may not have the corporate appeal of RIM’s BlackBerry, but it has the style and swagger to bump Apple’s iPhone from its throne as the coolest gotta-have-it gadget on the market.

At yesterday’s press event, Ed Colligan, Palm (NASDAQ: PALM) president and CEO, harked back to the pioneering PalmPilot, noting, “We didn’t design the PalmPilot to compete with the [Apple] Newton; we designed it to compete with pencil and paper.” That striving for simplicity and transparency shows in what Colligan called “a breakthrough new platform and product,” boasting that Pre “is going to redefine the center of your life on the Internet” with “capabilities that can’t even be done on the desktop [PC].”

Weighing 4.8 ounces and slightly smaller than its Apple and RIM competitors, the new smartphone is elegantly designed, with a touch screen that extends below its 3.1-inch, 320 by 480-pixel display to make room for navigation gestures. Its slide-out QWERTY keyboard gives the Pre a slight, comfortable-to-hold curve when opened.

Tailor-made for its exclusive carrier Sprint’s unlimited data plan, the Pre more or less lives on the Web 24/7, pulling a friend’s image from Facebook and home phone number from Google into her contact entry or mixing data from social networking sites with info from a corporate Exchange database.

Start typing a name, and the Pre will offer to complete it by winnowing all addresses from all of your e-mail accounts. If, say, you continue past Jo (possibly Joanne Smith) then Jon (possibly Bill Jones) to Jonas Brothers (not found on the device), the Palm offers links to Google and Wikipedia searches on the topic.

The WebOS interface also eliminates chores such as needing to save a draft of an e-mail before switching to the browser or some other application. The flick of a finger lets you shuffle through on-screen “cards” or activities, represented not as icons or images — as with, for instance, HP’s TouchSmart PCs — but scaled-down screens of live applications.

[cob:In_Focus]And with the ability to write WebOS programs with standard CSS, HTML, and JavaScript instead of, say, waiting for Apple to release an iPhone software development kit (SDK), Palm expects developers to release plenty of Pre applications soon. The company says that Pandora’s developers needed only three days to port the Internet radio application to the Pre.

Pricing could be an issue when the Pre ships sometime in the first half of 2009 — even with a two-year contract, it looks highly unlikely that Palm and Sprint will be able to match Apple’s and AT&T’s $199 for the iPhone. But the Pre’s handsome design and eye-opening software are knockout punches to the widespread industry view of Palm as past history compared to Apple and RIM.

Splitting the Atom?

As for AMD (NYSE: AMD), the chipmaker’s most significant Las Vegas launch is a netbook or ultrathin notebook platform built around a new CPU dubbed Neo — like VIA’s Nano and Freescale’s i.MX515, a challenger to the Intel Atom processor found in almost every current netbook.

The first Neo, a 1.6GHz processor with 512KB of Level 2 cache, is slated to arrive in April in HP’s Pavilion dv2 Entertainment Notebook PC, a 3.8-pound ultraportable with a 12.1-inch display and optional external Blu-ray drive.

The platform formerly codenamed “Yukon” also includes either integrated or more game-worthy discrete graphics — the Radeon X1250 or Radeon HD3410, respectively — from AMD’s ATI division. Both support 1080p HD playback and HDMI and DVI output, not available from today’s most common bundling of the Atom CPU with the aging Intel 945GM integrated-graphics chipset.

While dropping the “Yukon” moniker, AMD is publicly referring to its other CES launch by its codename, “Dragon.” This is a platform for what a company statement calls “elite-level computing performance” in desktop PCs priced under $900, starring the successor to AMD’s Phenom processor, which has received mixed reviews in the marketplace.

The Phenom II X4 is a quad-core CPU built with smaller, more efficient 45-nanometer-process engineering, like Intel’s Core i7, instead of the 65-nanometer engineering of the first Phenom. Both the Phenom II X4 920 and Phenom II X4 940 have 512K per core of Level 2 cache and 6MB of Level 3 cache shared among all four cores.

The model 920 runs at 2.8GHz; the 940 at 3.0GHz — with, AMD promises, significant headroom for overclocking by hardcore gamers and desktop hot-rodders. An AMD OverDrive utility gives users an easy way to crank up the clock speed, while a program called AMD Fusion for Gaming shuts down resource-consuming system background tasks to maximize gaming muscle. The Phenom II X4 also (and in another catching-up-with-Intel move) supports faster DDR3 as well as DDR2 system memory.

The Dragon platform, touted by AMD as matching the performance of a $2,100 Core i7 system setup with a $900 configuration, also incorporates one of AMD’s flagship ATI Radeon HD 4000 series graphics cards and 7-Series chipsets.

According to AMD, game benchmarks show a $900 Dragon configuration matches the performance of a $2,100 Core i7 system setup. Desktop vendors will ship Dragon machines later in the first quarter of this year, with Dell planning to use the platform in a new XPS 625 gaming PC.

Update corrects Neo’s cache size.

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