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Summary:

The netbook is a great mobile computer, but that cheap price is at the cost of performance. With the appearance of “tweener” notebooks that are almost as cheap as netbooks yet have more capable hardware, is the future of the netbook in jeopardy?

HP Mini 5102 netbook

The netbook has made a bigger impact on the notebook segment than anyone thought it would. It came seemingly out of nowhere and proceeded to grab market share with abandon. Consumers liked the smaller, cheaper notebook and snapped them up in great numbers. The netbook is a great mobile computer, but that cheap price is not without an impact on the performance of the device. The Intel Atom processor is a great fit for the netbook, but it is no screamer at performance. With the appearance of “tweener” notebooks that are almost as cheap as netbooks yet have more capable hardware, is the future of the netbook in jeopardy?

I have used a lot of netbooks, and have always liked the devices. You can’t get more mobility in a fully configured notebook form than on a netbook. They are light, have great battery life and will do just about anything you want to do on a notebook. All of this capability is cheap, with some netbooks going for as little as $200. There are more capable models like my favorite HP Mini 5102, but those generally cost quite a bit more. Like all electronic devices, the more you pack in one the more it costs.

Netbooks have the Atom processor in common for the most part, a good processor for the genre. They also tend to have low resolution displays (1024×600) which keeps things cheap. This combination is fine for getting work done, but it’s getting long in the tooth for me. I find myself getting frustrated at the lag that is common on netbooks, and I want to see more on the screen at once than those displays show me.

Sure there are many netbooks with higher resolution options, but that generally drives the cost up. I also find the Atom processor lags get worse when the netbook is driving more pixels on the screen. I’m not the only one who gets frustrated at waiting for something to happen on a netbook, I have observed others complaining at the wait for an action to execute.

My disappointment at the performance of the netbook is driven by using low cost notebooks that are becoming more commonly available. These notebooks are only slightly bigger than the 10-inch netbooks, yet pack a “real” processor and higher resolution display into the case. The difference in battery life provided by these “tweener” notebooks and netbooks is getting smaller in my experience, too. Throw in the fact that you can often find these notebooks at reasonable prices ($500 or less), and the purchase decision gets even tougher.

I do think the netbook is here to stay, they are always going to be cheap enough that consumers will pick them up, lag or no. I am hoping that the technology is going to advance to address my concerns, and we’ll see some cool netbooks coming along that makes things better. I’m hoping that Kevin Tofel will come back from the Netbook Summit with some great information about new netbook technology that is coming to speed these babies up.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Better Battery Life Motivates Mobile Chipmakers

  1. dual-core N500 + ION2 by fall, will only add about $80 – $100 to the price.

    personally i dont care as much about price, i care about size, heat, fan noise, etc.

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    1. onecallednick Tuesday, May 25, 2010

      Unfortunately the Next Generation ION, or NG-ION as it is officially known, won’t have the advantage the original had in a pci-e 16x channel. At most it will have to suffice with a PCI-E 4x channel, but most likely it will end up on only one lane, IE 512MB/Second throughput, putting us firmly back into the days of AGP 2x (think year 2000) graphical bandwidth.
      Intel really is leaving the door wide open for AMD to come in with a CPU/GPU platform that doesn’t totally suck by hamstringing the NG-ION platform so completely.

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  2. A week ago I purchased the Nokia Booklet 3G. After upgrading to SSD drive, it is by far the ultimate netbook. True it is expensive, but it really stands out with high res screen, built in 3G and 8+ battery.

    http://headworx.slupik.com/2010/05/nokia-booklet-3g-ipad-alternative.html

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  3. Personally I still like my Acer AS1410 – it’s the size of a netbook, but with low-end laptop internals and can watch HD videos without breaking a sweat. I just ordered a SSD for it which should make productivity tasks much faster for me.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what small laptops come out with the Core i3/i5/i7 ULV. I suspect that many of them will be the same price as high-end netbooks with much better performance.

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  4. This being opposed to the Sony Vaio netbooks. Oh, Sony says they’re just little laptops but make no mistake, they’re netbooks. And for their $800 price tag, grossly underpowered netbooks at that. For that kind of money you might also expect Sony to stand behind their netbooks, too, but once Sony has your money they’re done. Avoid em like the plague itself & save yourself a few hundred dollars in the process.

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  5. This topic actually came up yesterday at the Netbook Summit panel I was on with Joanna Sterna, Sascha Pallenberg and Melissa Perenson. We were generally in agreement that price might be the biggest challenge going forward for netbooks. Prices of these devices have stabilized while the average selling price of notebooks continues to fall. As the pricing gap shrinks, customers may purchase fewer netbooks as research shows price to be the number one factor in purchase decisions. You’d think that mobility and portability would rank higher, but data shows that 66% of all netbook users don’t leave the house with them.

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    1. So if I understand you correctly, people are buying netbooks because they are cheap – size and mobility aren’t major decision making points.

      I agree with that. My brother-in-law bought a laptop with a 15″ screen that never leaves the house. He raves about how little he paid for it.

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  6. CULV and ULV laptop are the sweet spot of netbook, not the crappy Atom power verions. For a few buck more you get a much mroe functional computer that doesnt choke on simple task, let alone multitasking.

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  7. The point you’re forgetting James is that you always sacrifice one thing to get another. Higher performance netbooks WILL cost more, even though you and I both know that cost is still somewhat inflated – HP charges $800 and up for a tricked-out 5102 when realistically it should only cost around $525-550. And that’s still $150 over what Toshiba charges for its NB305, a very nice netbook in itself.

    As for those $500 entry-level notebooks, the weight and size kills that price advantage when compared to the sheer mobility netbooks offer. I’ve also found these basic notebooks very underpowered at times – for the same size/weight you can buy significantly better performance for $700-$1000. I’m a bit wary of the figures Kevin mentions though – perhaps some of those 66% netbook owners were pure impulse buyers? I rarely leave home without my netbook, but again I use mine as a tool fit for the task.

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    1. The numbers came from an NPD Group survey of netbook owners last year, but I don’t know how long each of those folks had been an netbook owner or if they were impulse purchases. I’m seeing more netbooks in use when out and about, so perhaps a similar survey taken this year would show a reduction in that number. Hard to say, of course. ;)

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  8. onecallednick Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    Which inexpensive notebooks are you talking about in particular? I’ve found most cheap notebooks to weigh in at at least 5 pounds in a 15″ form factor, not slightly larger than netbooks by any stretch. I’d love to see an example.
    In the netbook category, ION netbooks are really a smashing deal. There’s just no comparison for the graphical prowess one of these bad boys can offer at such a low price and small size. My brother’s HP Mini 311, with a 1.66Ghz N280 and ION, can play left 4 dead among other graphically intense games, HD Flash video without a hiccup, has a 1,366×768 screen, and is only $400 on newegg at the moment. He’s had success overclocking the Atom processor well over 2Ghz.
    Sadly, I don’t expect the next generation of ION netbooks to offer similar deals. Intel’s jealous witholding of the Direct Media Interconnect license from NVIDIA forces the NG-ION to flow through a pitiful PCI-E 1x interface, completely neutering and sometimes regressing from the performance of N2xx/ION systems.
    I just wish if intel is so determined to blockade 3rd party graphics on the atom platform that they could muster a suitable alternative. It leaves a nice big hole for AMD/ATI to get off its ass and fill. Hopefully soon, AMD?

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    1. onecallednick Tuesday, May 25, 2010

      Sorry James, I didn’t check your link. Obviously AMD’s moving a little bit faster than I gave them credit for; that the x100e does look like a great netbook killer. The tradeoff is battery life which slashgear rated at 3.5 hours real-world.
      Intel’s anticompetitive practices are really anti-consumer, and ultimately hurt them by forcing those to whom little things like 3D graphics matter to find more expensive and less efficient alternatives.

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      1. I just checked Lenovo’s site and the x100e (which is one I was thinking about in the post) is now $449. That’s a great price. I agree on the battery although I got a little longer than that with stringent power management. I’d get a 2nd battery if I got one.

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      2. onecallednick Wednesday, May 26, 2010

        I just found the one I’d buy if I was in the market at the moment: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834220698

        Athlon Neo, Radeon HD 3200, and no Windows to wipe before I install GNU/Linux. All for $379, and from my favorite netbook maker.

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  9. Netbooks have truly widened mass access to computing machines. Affordable for the 30 million who got netbooks in 2009, and 85 million since its emergence 2 years ago, it’s just good enough for their needs. Furthermore, it appears that netbooks have forced notebooks to come down in price- really remarkable for making computing even more ubiquitous.

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  10. I think you guys miss the point entirely. Intel OWNS the industry. We know that right? So, there is NO WAY IN HELL they would allow netbooks to be priced along side the ultra thins. That defeats the whole point of ultra thin. It’s there so manufacturers can pry a few more dollars from people. It’s logical. That said, I will make this point. Guaranteed you will pay a premium for ultra thins. Yes you get extra, but do you need that extra? More is always better in most instances, but if you are shopping for a secondary computer, I question the expense for an ultra thin. Dual core Atom will do just fine. The bottom line with all this debate is, there IS NO WAY IN HELL you will get ultra thins at a price near a netbook. It would be the Dells, HP’s and everyone else shooting themselves in the foot. I still say the market for netbooks is for people who have a work horse computer at home. The netbook is completely secondary. Do you need the ultra thin for video editing? For graphics? Why the hell would you be doing these tasks on your secondary mobile computer? Not many is my guess. I suppose you can even argue well if you are splurging on an ultra thin, for another $150 you could get a full on PC. Yay! The constant upsell. The next gen of Atom based netbooks with ION will do just fine. They have to be cheaply priced because Intel says so. As for Sasha and crew at the netbook summit, how about they deal with the basics. Like, what exactly is a netbook? Let them have fun with that one for a while. All will give you a different answer? It’s a summit about….what exactly?

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  11. The thing is, in the past year, how many improvements have netbooks had? It seems like the same old 10″ atom 160gb. Netbooks need something innovative to differentiate them from these pseudonetbooks. For instance, I don’t think you can get a notebook/pseudonetbook at .75″ thickness that doesn’t get warm at a cheap price.

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  12. I have a HP mini and Apple MacBook Pro. The best thing about both the laptop is there Keypad. It’s good for gamers. The HP mini is cheaper as compare to Apple. So i use that one more. The battery life is great and the best part is it’s easy to carry.

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