Netbook Dilemma: Price or Performance?

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

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