As Small Notebooks, Netbooks Largely Dash Expectations

netbookOne sure way to hinder success of a device is a confusing name and an unclear purpose. That might explain the results of a recent NPD survey on netbooks, showing that many consumers are bewildered and disappointed with the gadgets.

Some highlights from the survey tell the story of a device that doesn’t behave as the average PC user would expect:

  • 60 percent of netbook owners expected the device to have the same functionality as a notebook.
  • 65 percent of the 18- to 24-year old demographic expected their netbook to perform better than a notebook. Only 27 percent of those felt that the netbook performed better than expected.
  • 59 percent of netbook consumers made a purchase decision based on device portability, yet 60 percent of netbook buyers never take the machine out of the house.

NPD surveyed 600 people, which is a small portion of the tens of millions of current netbook owners. (ABI predicts netbook sales to reach 35 million this year.) However, the survey illustrates some of the challenges that netbook manufacturers face in terms of marketing and customer perceptions.

For netbook marketers, the focus should be on the “three Ps”: portability, price and power efficiency. Netbooks typically weigh between 2 and 3 pounds, while a desktop-replacement notebook can top out two to three times higher. I’ve carried a netbook for over 18 months now, and the light weight means that it’s easy for me to grab and go. Marketers should also highlight pricing, as netbooks generally cost between $275 and $400. Then, there’s the power efficiency advantage: A netbook is going to last longer on a single charge than nearly any traditional notebook. Adding extra batteries or using a lower-voltage CPU in a notebook can even this out, but on a watts-per-hour basis, netbooks rule the roost for now. (Watch for other players in this power-efficiency contest; Intel’s (s INTC) CULV, AMD’s (s AMD) Neo, and several ARM platforms come to mind.)

NPD’s survey also tells me that consumers don’t understand the intended uses for netbooks. Perhaps using a name too similar to the word “notebook” has preset expectations here. Yes, a netbook is basically a small notebook, and by using a standard operating system, it offers application compatibility. But netbooks excel as a portable browsing package — one that’s geared for both web consumption and content creation. Built-in Wi-Fi and optional 3G give users quick web access to the latest viral videos, news headlines, and friends’ social status. The small, but usable, keyboard allows for IMs, blogging, and updating one’s status on social networks. On netbooks, anything more than easy and enjoyable web-based access is a bonus. While I’ve used apps like Microsoft Office on my netbook, the experience is relatively less enjoyable compared with a notebook.

Some consumers obviously feel otherwise; they expect notebook-like performance in a netbook package. While the Intel Atom platform that powers most of today’s netbooks packs more punch than a Celeron of five years ago, it simply doesn’t compare with modern notebook performance. Running a modern desktop operating system on a small, underpowered mobile netbook is sure to disappoint many. Instead of touting the x86 application compatibility, netbook manufacturers need to reset consumer expectations by focusing more on the mobile web positives and less on traditional desktop activities.

Some new netbook owners aren’t aware of the history of the device. Today’s netbooks find their roots in the Ultra Mobile PCs that arrived in 2006. Although I’ve enjoyed the three UMPCs I’ve owned, most would consider them a failure due to lack of a keyboard and poor screen resolutions. ASUS took a dying device and “fixed” it by addressing both of those gaps in the original Eee PC. With deep UMPC and PC roots, it’s no wonder that to many folks, netbooks are simply small, underpowered notebooks.