The Netbook Phenomena

Recently, with the introduction of the ASUS Eee PC, an entirely new class of mobile PC was created. Dubbed netbooks, these diminutive mobile computers are smaller, lighter, cheaper, and generally cuter than notebooks. They follow a recent mantra, ‘fast enough,’ violating the popular and longstanding, ‘it can never be fast enough.’  What does that mean, you ask? It means that these netbooks are built to do one thing really well, surf the internet, hence netbooks. They are, in essence, PC-lite.
Why now?

Up until last year, a company called VIA dominated the lower power processor market. Their products run everything from wireless routers to audio systems, they are masters of small and efficient processors designed for specific devices. While they produced processors capable of running small computers, the performance just wasn’t what modern notebook users have come to expect. Deciding to take a risk, Intel developed an extremely low power (1-4 Watt), extremely cheap, and ‘fast enough’ processor named Atom, for use in a market that did not yet exist. Much to everyone’s surprise (including mine), the netbook market took off with unexpected force.

Oops, looks like we missed the train! But it's ok, we've got our netbooks!
Oops, looks like we missed the train! But it’s ok, we’ve got our netbooks!

Some entries into the netbook market include the aforementioned ASUS EeePC, MSI Wind, and Dell Inspiron Mini. Most of these incorporate the Atom processor, a tiny solid state hard drive (4-20 GB), and Linux instead of Windows. Linux might seem foreign to most users, but it offers a cheap (free) alternative to Microsoft products (much to Microsoft’s chagrin, and the reason they decided to continue offering discounted Windows XP to netbook providers). Not to be overlooked, because of their light performance envelope, netbooks generally last 4-6 hours on battery, an impressive feat. Netbooks do have a couple weak spots, their 7 to 12 inch screens pale in comparison to average notebooks that have 13.3 to 15.4 inch screens. Also, their performance in compute heavy situations, such as high definition video and video games, is absolutely dismal. Then again, netbooks aren’t meant for gaming beyond internet flash games, and most people don’t really care to watch hi-def on a 10 inch screen anyway, so these cons are mitigated somewhat.

What now?

The economic climate is partially responsible for the incredible uptake in netbooks, why get an $800 dollar notebook when you can pay $400 dollars for something that does everything you want (surf the net, watch a DVD) just as well? In addition, companies like Nvidia have added hardware to certain netbooks that supercharges their graphical performance, allowing them to reach into HI-Def and Gaming territories that have previously been out of reach. Intel plans to release a dual core version of the Atom (for use in netbooks) sometime in the near future, and storage space continues to increase. Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows 7 (due out in 09), also looks as though it will provide a powerful alternative to Windows XP on netbooks. The development continues, though at a certain point it begins to invade the territory of more fully featured $800+ notebooks, something of a bother to manufactures like Dell. Profit margins on netbooks are woeful compared to regular notebooks, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to stem the tide of these little monsters. Be afraid, be very very afraid.

2 Replies to “The Netbook Phenomena”

  1. There are so many people these days who shell out the money to buy nice laptops, yet they don’t even use 80% of what they have available to them. They turn the computer on every now and then to look up information on the internet, upload an occasional picture, and it remains shut down for the remainder of it’s life. I know it sounds like blasphemy to those of us who seem to live on our computers these days, but I think that most of the world is full of those who are a closer match those the previously mentioned.
    These “Netbooks” seem like a good alternative for those people, whose primary interest in having a computer is to do the most basic tasks. Even if you do more than just that on the computer, why cart around a 17″ that’s going to last 45 minutes on battery when you can use your handy little Netbook to do the same things? Sounds… good enough.

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