When the first Asus Eee PC hit the streets in 2007, nobody called it a netbook. The term didn’t really pick up steam until 2008 after Intel and some PC makers started using it to describe products that had previously been known as mini-notes, or just cheap tiny laptops. Over the years, the definitions have sort of changed, and we’ve found plenty of different people using the word “netbook” to describe different things — often with different agendas for doing so.
As far as I’m concerned, the classic definition of the netbook has always been a small mini-laptop with an affordable price. Five years ago you could find a 10 inch notebook that weighed less than 3 pounds. It would just run you close to $2000. You could also find laptops for $500 or less. They’d just have 15 inch displays and weigh 6 pounds or more.
What netbooks did was introduce the idea that it’s possible to offer a cheap ultraportable laptop — usually by cutting corners and using a cheap, low power processor, low resolution display, or other limiting factors. As a result, I think a lot of people have always assumed that underpowered was part of the definition of a netbook, but I think it was always a side effect. While netbooks were never meant to be speed demons that could compete with computers that cost three times as much money, I don’t think it was too much to expect that as computers in general evolved, netbooks would as well — with faster processors, better graphics, and other new features.
But a funny thing happened on the way to progress… PC makers and chip makers realized they weren’t making very much money on these low cost computers, because they also have low profit margins. So while it might seem silly that most netbooks released in 2010 weren’t really any faster or more powerful than those launched in 2008, that’s pretty much what happened. Granted, device makers have greatly improved the battery life of these mini-laptops, and the average starting price has dropped from $400 – $500 to somewhere between $280 and $350. But there’s really not that much difference in performance between a netbook with an Intel Atom N550 CPU and one with an Atom N270 CPU.
Of course, some people have decided to group larger notebooks into the netbook space, suggesting that the larger displays and keyboards are a bonus feature. By that definition, a notebook with an 11.6 inch screen and an Atom processor is still a netbook. I’ve resisted grouping these machines together, because I still believe that it’s price and size that are the key factors that make 10 inch and smaller netbook special, not the chipset. As such, I’m not really all that sure why some companies feel its even necessarily to launch an 11.6 inch machine with an Atom processor — at that size, and for the prices typically charged for these larger laptops, I’d much rather have an Intel ULV processor or an AMD Fusion chip.
This isn’t to say that those larger laptops aren’t still light, portable, affordable machines — they’re just bigger and more expensive than the machines that used to be known as netbooks. You know what they are? They’re laptops. So are netbooks. In fact, I’ve never loved the word “netbook,” because it always implied that the little laptops were only good for surfing the web, when in fact they can do much, much more. Other ultraportable devices (Handheld PCs, MIDs, and UMPCs) have hit the streets over the past 10 years, but none have been as successful as the netbook, and I think that’s because it’s really just a laptop that can run Windows, Linux, or even OS X. They’re familiar devices which can do pretty much anything you’d want a computer to do… they’re just cheaper, more portable, and yes, generally less powerful than their more expensive cousins.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, thanks to a chat I had with Engadget’s Joanna Stern before she wrote a recent op-ed on so-called “notbooks” which is what she’s calling the larger, more powerful notebooks that are starting to hit the machines for just a little more money than a netbook. Meanwhile Business Insider’s take is that the notbooks are netbooks — they’re just the better netbooks that some folks have been waiting for since 2008.
My take: They’re all laptops.
Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if we all just stopped using the word netbook altogether. I’ve never felt it was all that helpful.
At this point it’s more of a marketing term than anything, and while it’s funny to see it abused, it also feels like companies such as Intel have been intentionally holding back development of the Intel Atom chipset, because the chip maker can insist it’s just for netbooks (and tablets, and smartphones). Fortunately AMD has started to offer low-cost, low-power chips to compete with the dominant Intel Atom chip while offering higher performance graphics. Hopefully this will push the affordable ultraportable market forward.
Like Joanna Stern, I don’t expect the 10 inch, Intel Atom-powered netbook to disappear overnight… or possibly at all. But with growing competition from more powerful budget laptops and from tablets, it’s likely that the market will shrink — and maybe if that happens we won’t really spend much time talking about netbooks at all. We’ll just talk about laptops that comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes (although if you couldn’t guess by the name of the web site, I’m primarily interested in the smaller ones).
Anyway, enough about what I think. What do you think? How do you define the word “netbook?”
Or like me, have you decided you don’t care what words we use to define little laptops as long as companies continue to offer them for reasonable prices?