Dell Inspiron Mini 12This is why I’ve never been a fan of the word netbook. Call them Liliputers; call them cheap subnotebooks; call them what you will. But the computers I’ve been most interested in for the last year or two have weighed about 3 pounds or less, had 10 inch or smaller screens, and cost around $500 or less.

The problem is that this category has caught on in such a big way that laptop makers can’t help but release computers that don’t really fall within the niche and call them netbooks anyway. After all, what’s a “netbook” but a marketing term made up by Intel to describe a computer that can be used to go online?

Anyway, I’m certainly intrigued by the form factor of the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 or the new Asus N20A. But no matter whether they have an Intel Atom CPU or a dual core chip from Intel or AMD, I have a hard time putting them in the same camp as an 8.9 inch ultraportable like the Acer Aspire One.

Yes, I know this isn’t the first time I’ve ranted on this topic. But today the first reviews started to pop up for the Inspiron Mini 12, and Asus officially unveiled the N20A and I just couldn’t help myself. It probably won’t be the last time I go off about this either. I’m not saying there’s no market for a cheap, light weight 12 inch notebook. I’m just saying please stop calling it a netbook, or start calling netbooks something else.

To Asus’ credit, the company isn’t calling its N10 or N20A laptops netbooks. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of bloggers and journalists from doing so.

Oh, and as for that Dell Inspiron Mini 12 review? Laptop Magazine says it has a better screen and keyboard than the Mini 9 (no surprises there), but says the performance is subpar. While most netbooks aren’t exactly speed demons, Dell decided to go with Windows Vista and an Intel Atom Z530 Silverthorne processor for this notebook, instead of the Intel Atom N270 Diamondville CPU and Windows XP OS you would get with a Dell Inspiron Mini 9. And the Z530 is noticeably slower.

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26 replies on “Can a 12 inch laptop be a netbook?”

  1. The established definition of a netbook is a notebook computer with a low-powered x86-compatible processor (compatible with PC standard software), small screen (no larger than 10 inches but usually larger than 7 inches), (usually) small keyboard, equipped with wireless connectivity, lightweight (under three pounds/1.3 kilograms) and no optical disk drive. Netbooks are typically low cost, relative to other notebooks.[9]

    The word netbook is a portmanteau of the words Internet and notebook.

    There is another category for size between 4 inch and 7 inch called Mobile Internet Device (MID) although many also put this category into netbook.


  2. Agree with most of this, though I personally would like to see the thick bezels around the screens on a lot of these netbooks get smaller, just like they are starting to around the keyboards. All we really care about is the size of the unit, and if they can put a bigger screen in the same size device for the same price, all the better. So I would probably include 11″ screens in the netbook range, since I can imagine an 11.1″ screen with say 1024×768 or something even a little higher (though in 16:9 format) in a box the size of a Lenovo Ideapad S10.

    So I think < 12", and < $500 would be my definitions.

    Except… what if Apple or Sony comes out with a netbook. And its more expensive, but really snazzy. Carved out of aluminum, or made of carbon fiber say. Maybe colorful or with cool designs on the lid. Maybe really really thin, like well under an inch thick at the thickest point. Maybe its got some extra features that might be useful, like dedicated graphics controller so you can decode 1080i video without a hitch. And they charge say $699 for it. Is it a netbook? I assume the answer will be that it is if it becomes popular is is taken up by enough people. It'll be a premium netbook certainly, and all those pretenders that made minor tweaks and tried to charge over $500 will cringe, and then we'll have two categories. One for most people, and one for rich people who love well designed objects.

    It will be interesting to see this play out.

    1. Look, the Libretto U100 was a netbook, but one that could also be used to do some serious graphics, and run apps like CS3, CPP, Illustrator, Flash, Dreamweaver, and even 1080 HD video editing software…

      How many netbooks have a firewire port? PCM slot? There you, they are not much good for editing video or making music or even graphics.

      The point is that there are and have been now for years some seriously small computers great for browing the net and doing email, but with some serious juice under the hood. Buying a laptop just to have another one kind of misses the point – you can use a PDA to check your email or even the new iPods.

      A 12 inch laptop around 4 pounds is a netbook, but also more. Its actully a laptop.

      Anything without a duo core these days is just a waste of money – because in a year or two they arent going to be much good for any apps except what your PDA can do.

      10 inches is probably ideal, but for a little more size 12 inch is perfect for the illustrator, artist or someone who doesnt want to burn their eyes out.

  3. Agree that netbook is not a useful term, and it’s one Dell doesn’t use to describe the Minis.

    Note, too, that XP and Ubuntu versions will be available in December.

  4. For me a netbook is any thing that is as light as possible to be taken out of house and has as instant internet access as possible. Therefore practically all available netbooks are none in my sense as they are lacking 3G modems. If I can only go online when I have access per WiFi then this is a city book rather than a universal netbook.
    If it has to stay light 11 – 12 inch displays thererfore probably are the maximum for real portability, they still fit into every standard bag.
    And for real mobile independence battery power is a must. If these things are down after some two hours or three they do not make it through the day. 6 to 8 hours should be the aim without spoiling a weight of 1,5 KG.

  5. For me a netbook is any thing that is as light as possible to be taken out of house and has as instant internet access as possible. Therefore practically all available netbooks are none in my sense as they are lacking 3G modems. If I can only go online when I have access per WiFi then this is a city book rather than a universal netbook.
    If it has to stay light 11 – 12 inch displays thererfore probably are the maximum for real portability, they still fit into every standard bag.
    And for real mobile independence battery power is a must. If these things are down after some two hours or three they do not make it through the day. 6 to 8 hours should be the aim without spoiling a weight of 1,5 KG.

  6. It’s not at all clear that the Z530 processor is the cause of the slowness (if it’s actually slower than an N270 as both have the same clock speed, bus speed, and are Atom designed). I think the issue here has more to do with running Vista on a machine that has a painfully slow hard drive and only 1GB of RAM.

  7. Superficially, this is “just semantics,” but discussions like this may ultimately affect (but not effect 🙂 reality. The laws of linguistics apply, and unfortunately, “correctness” will finally be determined by the term that’s in widest use by the most people. If we can help keep marketing influences from diluting or altering or deliberately confusing the definitions for nefarious reasons, it’ll be a good thing, IMHO.

    1. Oh yes, and how do I think we’re going to help? Good question. If enough blogs and forums subject products, names, policies, etc, to public ridicule, it could trickle up in some cases. Sometimes manufacturers even conduct polls to try to find out what people want before designing products, and then there’s always the power of boycott. I think Vista is having a rather short run, in spite of the fact that some might say MS is among the more stubborn and unresponsive corporations.

      On the other hand, I’d have to admit that Jerry Shen probably wouldn’t change the eeePC keyboard if you kidnapped his grandmother 🙂

  8. Im still not sure i see what the diffrence between “netbook” & “sub notebook” well , besides priced a thousand more back then…

    I thought the “idea” of the so called netbook was to make a inexpencive notebook everyone could afford.. atleast thats how it started…

    I mean even most netbooks are out of a low income range… and since people keep yelling for better they make em bigger and more expencive.. besides a few inches in size and a pound or 2 more, i dont see the diffrence between the buying a $500-$600 10″-12″ net book and a $500-$600,
    12″ -14″ laptop, the laptop you would normally get better options !

    keep em 9 inch or below, price below $350 for base model or lower and then call em a netbook

    Otherwise they are all “budget laptops” !

    The el cheapo embeded systems like the alpha 400’s and such, i feel fall more under a handheld pc or pda range… or what ever they call new ones these days, but not a netbook…

  9. I think the netbook needs to be charaterized by size, weight and price.

    At this time even with a thin bezel around the screen and keybaord a computer with a 12″ screen is too big, but only by 0.7 or 1.0 inch at most. And, really that is what we are talking about an inch. Do we really want to say a case that is 11 inches instead of 10 means it not an netbook? We can, but people will roll their eyes at us.

    I can see where 12″ will end up as classified as a Netbook. We live in a world where people carry around laptops with 17″ screens, a return of the luggable computer I would never happen again. A computer with a 12″ screen does appear very small to most people used to 15″ screens on their laptops.

    If you want something to fear, then watch as netbooks with 8.9 inch screen diseappear in the next two years. As more people enter the market these machines will be mainstream and people will demand these 10″ and 12″ screens. Just look at what happend to 7″ screens they’re almost gone now.

  10. Yes. 12 inch screen still small and light, and if it’s done in the right spirit (small and light) as this appears to be then it’s worthy of the netbook tag. I think it’s a great idea. Better than spending a lifetime scrolling up and scrolling down ’cause the screen is just that little bit too small. :S
    I’ve been waiting for an EEE PC with a 12inch screen. Please ASUS give us a usable screen. Ah well, hopefully when the touchscreens come in 2009. 😀

    1. Semantics perhaps. But if the name isn’t defined and defended then manufacturers will simply distort the name to fit anything they make just to be able to cash in on the latest tech wave.

      I agree with most of the comments above. 10″ is indeed the upper limit for netbook screen sizes. I have to take issue though with the $500 USD “starting price”. That is simply too expensive to the technology included. I see $500 as the upper limit for a fully decked-out netbook and prices go down from there.

      After the Asus EeePC 701 was released, newer models with higher specs were released with higher prices. In an attempt to avoid a “race to the bottom” makers just kept on the feature creep march in an attempt to increase profit margins.

      Keep ’em lean and mean and the price closer to $200.

      1. Interesting. And just who do you think will “define and defend” the netbook name?

    2. Absolutely. A 12 inch computer that was priced at $200 and weighs 2 lbs would not be a netbook according to them.

  11. Afaic, if it’s got a screen bigger than 10″, it’s not a netbook. If it costs more than US $600, it’s not a netbook. And if it weighs more than 3 lbs, it’s just not a netbook.

    Personally, I would like to think that eventually the category will be limited to 1 kilo, a size, when closed, of 10″ x 8″ x 1″ or less, a battery life of 4 hrs or more, and some standard of wireless performance near or above what is now available. And some standard for ruggedization. A standard for water resistance. Perhaps a minimum drop-safe rating and a shock-mounted drive. Those are specs that make for a mobile device that will do the things that we think of a netbook as being meant to do.

    Among other things, I’m pretty sure that by the end of next year we’ll start seeing mobile devices with seriously different form factors. E-paper screens that pull out of pencil case-shaped devices. The return of the wide range of pointing devices that we used to have in the nineties. Maybe even the final practical commercialization of the belt computer with heads up screen and/or chording glove.

    All of this leaves me a bit reluctant to commit to hard and fast limits. But for now, give me the ones above. <10", <$600, <3 lbs.

  12. The term “netbook” might call to mind an association with “book,” and their size is pretty close to a common book size. I think I may remember someone mentioning this when the term was introduced by Intel. To me, that tends to point away from including 12 inch and bigger netbooks, unless you want to introduce terms like “coffee table netbook,” which is what I’m typing on right now 🙂 (But I don’t think that means we can’t talk about the 12-inchers on the Liliputing site.)

    Off topic, but related to the above:
    In about the mid-1960s a variation on the ball-point pen was introduced with thinner, easier flowing ink, and, to distinguish it from the ball-point pen, they called it the “rolling-ball pen”. . . doh! I think a subcourse in common sense or logic should be added to marketing curricula.

    Another example (semantics, not marketing) is the term “touch-typing,” meaning typing without looking at the keyboard, to distinguish it from hunt-and-peck typing… you don’t touch the keys when you hunt-and-peck, right? Yet people from all countries seem to understand the term “touch-typing.” Oh, well.

    1. I too have an issue with the term “netbook” is more with the inclusion of the word “net”, which to me implies that it is somehow tethered or extremely integrated to the internet and to me, somewhat suggestive of what is termed cloud computing. It doesn’t help much that there is a netbook called a cloudbook. The term I prefer is mininote. It obviously borrows from the term notebook and defines it as being smaller. the term netbook, however, makes no indication of the primary difference of the device to other portable computing devices, size.

      1. The reason netbooks are tied to the word “net” is because that’s basically what they are good for – surfing the web. You don’t render video on a netbook – you don’t play high powered 3D games on a netbook – you don’t even write a novel on a netbook (because it’s not the best for typing). The screen is too small for media sharing (multiple people watching a video) and it’s too big to be just for personal media playing (that’s what PMPs like the iPod are for). Plus, if media were it’s main purpose, don’t you think a DVD drive would be useful?

        The marketing concept behind the netbook is that it is a 2nd portable computer for when you just want to grab something and go – just in case you need to check your email, update your social networks, watch some YouTube, or read some blogs. It’s not meant to be your only computer, or your primary computer. It’s not even meant to be your only or primary laptop. The concept is the internet where ever you want it – without having to lug around a full sized / full powered laptop.

        That’s why one of my defining features for a netbook is it has to have Wifi (or 3G or some sort of wireless internet) and another is that it has to have a full web experience, including Flash, Ajax, etc.. You can’t say any cell phone is a netbook, because it’s not a full internet experience (and, yes, that includes the iPhone).

        There have been a few el cheapo mini notebooks that didn’t have wifi. They aren’t netbooks – because it’s in the name. What good is an ultraportable underpowered laptop with no wifi? Again, there are better media players, better ebook readers, better portable game systems, better word processors…. I just don’t see the point without the internet.

      2. I agree with you.

        The idea is in the name itself. Nitpicking over the form of the netbook is to overlook the purpose that it is supposed to serve. The Dell Mini 12 is not meant to be more than just a portable laptop for surfing the web. As such, it’s a netbook.

        It’s like the debate over whether ‘marriage’ is the same thing as ‘civil union.’ They serve the function, but society refuses to equate them. Same old, same old.

  13. As I commented on your other post – I agree that a 12 inch laptop is not a netbook. I don’t understand your aversion to the word itself, other than promoting the word made up for this site, but like it or not, the word has been adopted by many people who are interested in this kind of thing.

    To recap my thoughts from the other post, a netbook is:

    1) Small – 10″ screen or smaller – if it’s 10.2″ round down, I’m not going to be that picky.
    2) Lightweight – under 3 pounds at least. The lighter the better.
    3) Cheap – base model must start under $500US.
    4) Form factor – notebook like – convertable tablet style also works. Clamshell, with keyboard, trackpad-touchscreen-nub-or-other-mouse-like-device, and screen built in.
    5) Portable – this means battery powered and wifi. BlueTooth, WiMax, 3G, etc. are extra – or could possibly replace wifi if everything else matched up.
    6) Full internet experience – browser with Ajax and Flash support. And you can download stuff.
    7) Near full desktop experience – not Android, WinCE, or some mobile phone OS – Windows XP, Desktop Linux, Mac OS X, or similar. With desktop style apps, word processor, media player, browser, office stuff, etc. And new apps should be easily installable.

    The 12-inch wannabes are not netbooks. They are just cheap, underpowered, lightweight notebooks. Here’s why I say that.

    12 inch notebooks existed before the Asus Eee PC. The PowerBook, the iBook – they both had 12″ models a decade ago. HP, Dell, Toshiba, IBM/Leveno, Sony… They all had and have 12 inch notebooks that are not and were not netbooks. The size is the key factor for a netbook to be a netbook. If you take that away, you’ve just got a cheap underpowered notebook.

    The MacBook Air covers all but 2 of the 7 things I set out: Price and Size. But those are the two most important things.

    If a company made a cheap, lightweight, portable, full-powered notebook that was $399, had an Atom CPU, no optical drive, weighed 2.5 pounds, and ran Windows XP with Firefox 3 – but the screen was 15.4″ – no one would even suggest it a netbook.

    They might compare it to a netbook. They might say it’s an alternative to a netbook for people with fat fingers or who hate small screens. They might even suggest that it was inspired by the netbook phenomon. But they would not call it a netbook.

    Why? Because 15.4″ laptops have been around for years. So have 12″ laptops. They aren’t netbooks. And neither is the Dell Mini 12, or Asus N20A, or the PowerBook 12″, or the Dell D430 12.1″, or the HP 2510P 12.1″, or the Toshiba Portege M700S7002 Tablet, or the Sony VAIO VGN-TT165N/R 11.1″…

    1. About 7) above: I don’t want to start a flaming war about this or anything, but as far as I’m concerned, if someone finds a more minimal Linux distro or Win CE adequate for their surfing, email, office apps, and other needs, it won’t bother me if they call their machine a netbook. Somehow it sort of fits in with the whole minimalist idea of netbooks. But this is all about semantics, and as long as we let them use it, they may not care what we call it.

      1. There are reasons I add that caveat.

        1) It goes along with the full Internet experience thing. One of the reasons cell phones don’t offer the full internet is because they are crippled by their OS. If Adobe doesn’t make a flash player for Symbian (which I don’t think they do), then no Symbian phone will ever have the full internet. And whatever whizbang new gotta-have plug-in comes out next for the web, full desktop OSes will get them long before embedded operating systems do. (Silverlight, Air, Flash, JavaFX, Prism, Quicktime, Flex, etc.)

        2) Along with that, a full internet experience these days means a lot more than just having Flash – most people have extensions and add-ons to their browsers on top of plug-ins. Things like Ad-Block, bookmark sharing, social networking tie-ins, StumbleUpon, etc. – being able to customize your browser is pretty standard fair to most web users. Mobile browsers don’t give you the flexibility of Firefox. Mobile OSes don’t usually let you choose your browser either.

        3) The Net is more than just web sites. There are also podcasts, news feeds, videos, in-browser games, interactivity. On a full sized OS, you have a lot more options on how to interact with those things than you would on an embedded os. iTunes, Songbird, Miro, VLC, Juice…. Not just “Podcast Player” that comes preloaded on the device, but whatever app you want.

        4) Multitasking. Some embedded operating systems place limits on multitasking. That’s fine for a UMPC or a smartphone or a MID – but not for a netbook.

        Maemo works great on the N800 series of Internet Tablets. But it would suck as an operating system for a netbook. All the apps are full screen, there is a limited choice of apps (they have to be ported to that specific distro – you can’t just apt-get whatever you want)…

        I guess it comes down to limited features and lack of choice. If you use Windows Embedded, you can’t install, you can’t install ThinkFree Office, you can’t install Firefox, you can’t install Flock, you can’t install Gtalk, you can’t install…. Same with some cell phone OS, like Android or Symbian, or the not-really OS X that the iPhone runs.

        I have no problem with netbook-optimized apps or even something like Ubuntu Netbook-remix. Customizing a desktop OS, or a desktop app to better fit the form factor of a netbook is cool. But limiting me to only those apps that are approved to run on this device – that’s not what I want in a netbook. And I think a device like that – even if it offered all the other things a netbook offers – the other 6 items on the list – I still think an embedded OS powered netbook would be some sort of oversized MID.

        That’s my 2¢ anyway.

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