lt3103u laptop

When I started writing about netbooks nearly 2 years ago, the category was fairly easy to define. Netbooks were small, cheap computers. It doesn’t really matter whether you call them netbooks, mini-laptops or something else. What distinguishes these little guys from the vast majority of computers is size and price. It’s not like you couldn’t find a $400 laptop a few years ago, it’s just that it would have had a 15 inch screen and weighed 6 pounds, meaning it wouldn’t be the most portable computer around. And you’d be lucky to squeeze 2 or 3 hours of battery life out of those laptops.

Likewise, there were machines with 9 and 10 inch screens a few years ago. They often weighed 2 pounds or less. And they tended to cost thousands of dollars.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a lot of people claiming that the distinction between netbooks and laptops are disappearing. It’s true that low cost mini-laptops are breaking out of the mold they’ve worn for the last two years. We’re seeing a growing number with 11.6 inch inch, high resolution screens. And some have AMD or Intel CULV processors. But many of these little machines still weigh around 3 pounds or less and cost $500 or less.

But does the fact that you can pick up a 15.6 inch laptop for $280 at Best Buy mean that netbooks are dead? Does the fact that Sony has killed its Vaio TT of super-expensive mini-laptops mean that netbooks have won and PC makers can’t sell expensive laptops anymore?

No, of course not! What it means is that there’s plenty of room for variety in the PC space. There’s room for small and cheap laptops, as well as big and cheap ones. There’s room for laptops of all sizes with premium features like quad core processors and Blu-Ray drives. And there’s room for netbooks, or whatever you want to call them. What happened when Asus introduced the Eee PC 701 in late 2007 is continuing to send ripples through the entire PC market. But the most important thing wasn’t that the company introduced the cheapest or smallest computer around. Because the truth is, it didn’t. What the Eee PC 701 did was demonstrate that computer makers can, and should offer computers that were both small and cheap as part of their lineups. And I couldn’t care less if you call them netbooks or not. But these small and affordable machines are what interest me, and what I’ll continue to cover here on Liliputing.

Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering where this rant came from, there were two sources today. The first is Erica Ogg’s CNET article called ‘Time to drop the Netbook” label. As I’ve implied, I’m cool with dropping the label. But the rest of her argument is that there’s no difference between the machines we call netbooks and laptops in general, and I just don’t think that’s true. Don’t forget, it’s not the processor, operating system or screen resolution that makes a so-called netbook. The first machines had Intel Celeron or VIA C7-M processors, 800 x 480 pixel screens, and Linux. Most netbooks today run Windows and have Intel Atom and 1024 x 600 pixel screens. Things change, and that’s fine. But I don’t think Intel, Microsoft, or any other single entity gets to decide what we call a netbook or not.

The other article that got me thinking about the definition of netbooks today was Laptop magazine’s review of the Gateway 3101u published yesterday. The Gateway laptop has an 11.6 inch display and a 1.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 L110 processor. It runs Windows Vista. But it’s small and cheap, and I think if you want to throw a label on it, “netbook” is as good as any. Of course, it’s a laptop too, but that’s because netbooks are a subcategory of laptops, not a distinct category all their own.

This isn’t the first review I’ve seen of the Gateway LT3103u, but it’s one of the most thorough. If you want to know how the machine holds up in terms of battery life and performance, it’s worth a read. In some areas, the AMD processor does outperform the Intel Atom chip found in so many netbooks. But you shouldn’t expect miracles. Still, if you’re in the market for something with a higher resolution screen and larger hard drive than those found in most netbooks, the LT3103u offers a bit of a change of pace.

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15 replies on “What is a netbook? A case for AMD, CULV CPUs and 11.6 inch displays”

  1. I don’t care if we drop the netbook label, provided manufacturers don’t stop selling sub $350, ultraportable laptops.

    Erica Ogg’s article reads like something the Intel marketing department cooked up. Netbooks cut into their margins, however if they weren’t selling netbooks, they probably wouldn’t be selling anything. Phones can do all of the things my Dell Axim can do, and cost a lot less. Some of the newer phones will be able to do most of the things a full sized laptop can do, and cost a lot less while being portable. A few already can.

    Evolve or die off, that is pretty much what happens in the tech market. The concept of netbooks is here to stay: Cheap, and ultraportable notebooks. They have to get more powerful, though, because the market demands it. They also have to stay cheap, because the market also demands it. Intel, Microsoft, etc. can complain all that they like, and the manufacturers can cry out for higher margins, but if they want to sell products, they are going to have to stay with the program.

    If not, they will go the way of PDAs – absorbed into phones and sold by phone companies who can give them away for the price of a contract.

  2. Personally I could see the term netbook morphing into meaning a small/mini notebook form factor (12″ and down) using a non-x86 processor (likely an ARM variant) with 3G/4G wireless networking and subsequently long (smartphone-like) battery life. The distinction would stick because it could not run windows and it would be pretty foolish to make them larger. The cell phone providers (who will most likely sell these devices) would market using this term and make the conversion stick with the population at large. This would have more in common with the original netbook concept than the el-cheapo notebook it seems to try to be today. It is also the type of netbook that I’m waiting for before I buy one.

    1. The el-cheapo, ultraportable notebook *is* the netbook market. Smartbooks are the market you are referring to – non x86 processors that can do the things a netbook was originally targeted to do, until everyone discovered how convenient it was to have an ultra-portable laptop that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

      Smartbooks are fine if all you want to do is a highly limited number of things, using an OS that requires proprietary software. Netbooks can do all of the things you are accustomed to doing, provided that you aren’t expecting a Porsche experience out of a Yugo. I look at Smartbooks as mopeds, they get you from A to B, but they are a different experience from a car, that’s my opinion.

  3. Words change in their meaning all the time. What we today call PCs were originally “microcomputers” (despite being clearly visible to the naked eye). And “Personal Computer” was originally IBM’s trademark for their brand of microcomputer, which is why some long-time Mac users still bridle at their machines being referred to as PCs.

    I do have to chuckle a bit at Wanorris suggesting that “sub $1000” machines should qualify as netbooks. I’d suggest $350 as a more plausible cutoff point, if we want the term to retain any meaning or usefulness.

    I have sort of mixed feelings about the “smartbook” thing. . . I don’t normally like to see big companies introducing new words for marketing purposes and expecting everybody to uncritically accept and use them. However, if “netbook” gets diluted into meaninglessness, then we may need “smartbook” to take its place.

    1. My point was that the meaning might change to more or less become synonymous with the form factor, allowing exceptions only for high-end ultraportables (such as the Lenovo U110 and Sony TT).

  4. What is a NetBook? Well then, what is a Personal Computer?

    Neither seems to have an exact definition except by comparison
    with other computing devices.
    Both are more general, subjective, term than an exact definition.

    So what is a nice day?
    Snow less than knee deep? Screen less than 12 inches?
    Never a cloudy day? Battery run time greater than 4 hours?
    No large A/C bill? Windows open all day?

  5. I think Erica Ogg is a little premature, but she does have a point: if we start seeing 11″ (or maybe even smaller) CULV systems spread across the $400-800 price point, it’s going to get harder to say what is and isn’t a netbook. Is the $399 Dell a netbook, but a more pimped-out model with the same CPU and chipset at $699 not?

    In the end, I think either we’ll end up defining up the term netbook to cover the form factor 11″ or smaller, prices sub $1000, or manufacturers will follow the Microsoft-Intel prime directive, and define netbooks as systems that are allowed to come with XP Home/Win 7 Starter and Atom chips (or similar 3rd-party CPUs), that definition will stick, and we’ll call anything else an ultraportable.

    Either way, I think we’re still in the early stage of a major redefinition of what a computer is (in the practical sense, not in the technical “Von Neumann machine” sense). I think that within 2-3 years, 15″ notebooks are going to be thought of either as premium systems for gaming or heavy-duty work, or as systems for old people with bad eyes.

    (Likewise, it seems pretty clear to me that non-premium tower computers are going away in favor of all-in-ones.)

  6. I’m with you on the whole “death of the netbook” craze that seems to be going around the semi-informed writers right now.

    Call it anything you want else but smaller 3lb lappy with >5 hr battery is different than a mid or large 6+lb lappy with 2-4 hr battery REGARDLESS of price on either side of the equation.

    And on top of that people like cheap. 🙂

    1. In ham radio, we differentiate “QRP” (lower powered, small transceivers) from “QRO” (full power, larger, heavier machines.) Why should computers be different?

  7. “Handybook” might be a better term for small, cheap, portable PC’s.

      1. You clearly being a world expert on nomenclature based on your highly erudite response, I withdraw my suggestion.

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