Netbooks are miniaturized, no frills, bare-bones versions of their larger laptop counterparts, boasting solid wireless connectivity and basic mobile computing at an extremely low cost. Prices range from $250-$800 (averaging ~$400), depending on the brand and set of specifications, e.g SSD vs. HDD, 3-cell vs. 6-cell battery, and so on. They come in screen sizes between 7″-10″ and weigh between 2-4 lbs, i.e. light as a MacBook Air at a fifth of the cost. Although not as aesthetically pleasing as an Air, netbooks are durable, reliable, and far from ugly. 

Personally, I think netbooks are awesome. I’m a minimalist packer that dislikes heavy loads, so lugging around my PowerBook G4 was out of the question. That gorgeous thing stays put on my desk at the apartment. As a student on-the-go, I needed a decently powerful, internet friendly, and portable computer to have with me on eight hour runs between campus and work. You know, to check email, RSS feeds, current events, and maybe play a little MS Pinball if a lecture gets a bit dry. No, I didn’t want an iPhone and I didn’t want to pay the high price of a UMPC (why, Sony, why ??). So I bought a netbook. . . which should bring me to reveal which one I own, but since I’ve been too lazy to take more pictures of it–the review will have to wait. 

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Netbook History 101:
Before 2007, affordable “portable” laptops were clunky 12-15″ abominations weighing at or above 6 lbs. True “ultraportable” laptops (aka UMPCs) were available, but commanded premium prices well above $2000. Cheap, lightweight notebooks simply did not exist. 

The non-profit OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative led the way in building the first lightweight, rugged, low-cost, and kid-friendly laptop. Personal computers with Internet access are powerful educational tools, so OLPC sought to make and distribute $100 laptops to developing countries for classroom use. The XO laptop came out to  be ~$200 with their “Give a laptop, get a laptop” program. Intel quickly followed suit, developing the $200 Classmate PC, which is now in its second generation. They look like toys but pack all the same features of a laptop and, mind you, are built to withstand children (who can prove to be very destructive). These were coined as sub-par laptops, or “subnotebooks.” {Left: OLPC XO Laptop, Right: Intel Classmate PC}

Although subnotebooks were fully intended to be marketed in developing countries, they heralded the way for the netbooks in today’s retail markets. Asus followed in the footsteps of OLPC and Intel and developed the tiny Eee PC, an ultra mobile Internet device targeted at the general public. The primary market was sales in traditional retail channels, with later plans to ship the Eee PC to schoolchildren in third-world countries. {Below: Asus Eee PC 4G}

Smart move. Launched in late 2007, the Eee PC was a hit on the American retail market and quickly gained popularity worldwide. The Asus Eee PC changed everything: a 2 lb. laptop with a 7″ screen, standard ports, built-in WiFi & webcam, all at a starting price below $300. They were tight, compact, easy to use, and inexpensive; customer reviews on Amazon remain overwhelmingly positive. Asus had no idea the Eee PC’s portability would have such broad appeal for kids, first-time computer users, bloggers, students, and mobile workers alike.

The market was there. Consumers wanted cheap, lightweight laptops. Then all hell broke loose, as every electronics manufacturer on the planet jumped the bandwagon, rushing to put out their own “netbooks”. This was a confusing time, because the netbooks churned out were virtually indistinguishable, offering roughly same specifications in different shells for a variety of prices. You had the Acer Aspire One, the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, the Samsung NC10, the MSI Wind, the HP Mini-Note 2133, etc…and many models of the Asus Eee PC [see Lilliputing.com for more]. Dell was the last to join in with the Inspiron Mini 9 & the Mini 12. Models after models were introduced as manufacturers tried to edge out the competition by improving specs. 

At the end of 2008, the dust has cleared and the Asus Eee PC continues to dominate netbook sales. Netbooks are no longer thought of as “subnoteboks” but rather as versatile, understated, mini-laptops. Be sure to read the reviews to make sure you’re not getting a really shitty one.

Netbooks presently share these features: 10″ screen, Intel Atom 1.6Ghz processor, a webcam, and 1-2 Gb RAM. The real differences lie in what storage disk you choose, whether you go for 6-cell (longer battery life), personal aesthetics (color, size/arrangement of the multi-touchpad & keyboard), and cost. Competition keeps quality up and prices down, with the exception of high-end or designer notebooks.

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Where does the netbook/PC industry stand now? I’m interested to see how it all plays out during a recession. 

The PC industry ended the year on a decidedly gloomy note, with very few bright spots…It’s telling who didn’t jump on the [netbook] trend: brands that like to associate themselves with upmarket style and quality. Apple CEO Steve Jobs essentially dismissed the idea of an Apple Netbook in September, and Sony denied it has plans to market an inexpensive Netbook. A Sony executive even went so far as to declare Netbooks, a “race to the bottom,” in terms of price and quality, driving down the price of all laptops. [Year In Review via CNet]

He means that if mainstream PC buyers start to find their needs met by a lightweight, simply featured, inexpensive portable, it’s likely to impel all of the major players in the industry to pile on by lowering their prices. And that’s in an industry with already low margins for retailers and manufacturers. [Sony leery of the Eee PC? via CNet]

Nicolas Barendson, a senior executive at Sony U.K., says that laptops with 7-10″ screens don’t meet consumer needs and that the netbook market will “evolve” into a different form factor. “We think that the proposition in the market today is not the future of netbook … the form factor is not properly designed for the consumer’s needs … So there’s a lot of quantity sold, people are disappointed by them, and it’s not small enough to be pocketable and not big enough to be a PC.” The company, he says, will have a “different proposition” to the range of nearly-identical netbooks. [via BBG]

So, Apple & Sony will not be rolling out netbooks anytime soon. It’d be wonderful if they did, and those netbooks would be oh-so gorgeous. Unfortunately, those premium brands are more likely to churn out a “less expensive” ultraportable ($800-$1500) than a dirt cheap netbook. Can you imagine if Louis Vuitton suddenly start selling plain white tees? It would crush the brand image.

Hmm…what is the future of the netbook? What will be that perfect form factor? 

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On an unrelated note, this is Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700ds. This beast of a mobile workstation supports a 17″ and 10.6″ LCD dual display setup intended for for photographers, graphic artists and application developers. The 11 lb laptop is so wide it has room for separate numeric keypad.

Also, Dell has pitched smaller, greener consumer desktop PC with totally recyclable packaging.

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