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As Small Notebooks, Netbooks Largely Dash Expectations

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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.

31 Responses to “As Small Notebooks, Netbooks Largely Dash Expectations”

  1. Stefan Vorell

    Netbooks are not designed to be powerhouses. They are not meant to play games, watch HD videos, or really be able to handle hardcore multimedia applications.

    Comparing netbooks to notebooks isn’t a fair comparison. I am a full-time student, and I use a netbook as my primary system. (Lenovo s10e with 2gb RAM and Win 7 Prof.) It suits me just fine for what programming assignments I have, I use it to take notes, and do things on the net. If I want to run an N64 emulator or play other lightweight games / watch youtube videos, I just software OC the video chipset and be done with it.

    I actually intentionally chose a netbook because of its crippled performance in comparison to my quad core desktop and hp tx2500 notebook. If i had a powerful system with me at school, I’d burn time playing video games rather than being productive.

    One wonderful thing to be born out of the netbook is what I am now hearing referred to as a nettop. essentially a netbook with a beefed up gpu chipset, I was able to get a nettop for $200 and it is running kubuntu 9.10 beautifully with compositing and glx capabilities.

    When it comes to products a consumer gets what they pay for. Do not expect a $300 netbook to be able to compete with a $500-$900 notebook. Ignorance is no excuse for the level of unrealistic expectations set by consumers.

  2. i got tired of using the slow and small iphone to do email and web i turned off the phone and service and got a dell mini 9 which i bought from someone off craiglist for $150 because he hated it.

    i am in heaven. i updated it to a total of 2gb ram, 32GB hard drive and it runs windows 7 home premium just fine.

    I am using windows live email client and the web, i can travel around with this and never have to bring my dell xps studio dual core 8gb ram blah blah blah laptop with me. of course i use that for heavy lifting and yeah i have a huge workstation full of power sitting on my desk for photoshop and tons of software apps… the web is still the web, flash is still flash, and apps are still apps .. i couldnt imagine opening up any google app anything on a phone… honestly it would take hours to update the spreadsheet :)

    people buying netbooks and being confused about them are just not reading or want to believe whatever they want about them.

  3. I’m reading this on an Acer Aspire One. I like the 6 cell battery and the low weight. Regarding expectations, by knowing the specs of this machine before I bought it, I knew that it wasn’t going to be as fast as a notebook.

  4. I have a Dell Mini 9 (16g) and I love it. I didn’t expect it to replace my desktop computer, I wanted something small and portable but bigger than a phone. I find it incredibly convenient for web browsing, email, twitter, facebook, and puzzles like sudoku. I use it all over the house (home wireless network) as well as when I travel. I have added these hardware enhancements: 32G SD chip, USB wireless mouse, and a USB CD/DVD drive.

  5. I am planning to buy a netbook (Acer Aspire One 751 with 11″ screen) with intention to use Visual studio on the run for programming and software demonstration at client side.

    Will it be possible to connect external monitor at client side and run windows application as normal note book. With USB port I can also connect external mouse and even keyboard.

    What you say?

    • If you do this, you will not be happy with the performance. The OnMarket netbooks, are just not enouf for programing, you need a full notebook or run linux on the netbook and use a linux base software for programming.


      • Check out the Dell Mini-9. Too bad they have already dropped it. I travel 24 out of 30 days/mo…& * live out of an Acer Aspire 1. I truely feel like the above reader, that the “makers” of the “netbooks” need to re-think their naming of the “tool”. They can be beefed up without too much added cost…Look at the Mini-9. But I also have to admit that I do the majority of my daily work on an HTC Pro with a RedFly keyboard – life is good when you can carry your business on your hip and in the briefcase. :)

    • Bonfiglio

      Hi Manoj,
      you know, I bought a Toshiba NB105 and uses just like you said. Connected to a Samsung SyncMaster T220, in order to be easier with my eyes…
      In my work I sync my jobs beetwen the netbook and a Dell Precision M6300, so my work its always available in a more robust programming enviroment.

      As Rene advice, is highly unlikely that any netbook could have the performace of a notebook.
      So, if a presentation is about performance, think twice.
      But if not, even in a presentation, everybody is aware -even envious- that you are running in thin wheels.


  6. Richard

    I just got a netbook (Acer) and love it. I got it for what it is good for, a truly small portable computer and AV commmunication tool. I got mini bag and a mini mouse. It is just big enough at 8.9″ to have a real keyboard. I have traveled with it internationally, 8 flights and five hotels in a week, and it is like a small handbag with a computer, tickets, aspirin, toothbrush, and so on. I don’t use it at home or work tho occasionally when watching TV it is the easiest things to use. But on travel it is peerless. For the same money I could get an iPhone but I have no interest.

    If 60% don’t take it out of there home that is sad. But if 40% do that is 35% more than the number who take a laptop out of their home. Where I work all the students have laptops but only those in two majors bring them to class because they are required to. Barely 5% of engineering students do. But I expect to see proper usage of netbooks go up.

    Reviews like this are done at a desktop by hi end professionals. That is OK but it is like reading a review of a kids movie by a professional adult critic. You just don’t get it.

  7. You are right, there does seem to be widespread confusion over netbooks, resulting from its own name. However, it doesn’t seem like consumers are confused, it seems the vendors are, according to the survey. The netbook’s success is due to the right mix of portability, price, and power-efficiency.

    You are also right that netbooks will struggle to run a modern OS (meaning Windows Vista/7). It isn’t the consumer’s fault that Windows requires more expensive hardware, as both OSX and Linux can function with ease in these environments. At the end of the day, consumers want a mini-laptop with great battery life and productivity tools. Whoever figures out how to do it wins, so it might be shortsighted to say netbook manufacturers should reset customer expectations.

    What it comes down to is there isn’t much room for a “netbook” in this world. Smart phones are great content-consuming devices, so the computer becomes mainly a content-creating device. If you remove content-creation, you effectively kill the product line or confine it to a niche. Furthermore, this is a concession to vendors like Apple who understand their customers and these dynamics and can leverage both their software and hardware to get it right. Just the same, vendors are going to have to reeducate customers, but instead about leveraging Linux.