Are Netbooks (Finally) Doomed?

By  |  Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 1:57 pm

For almost as long as there have been netbooks, I’ve been meeting netbook manufacturers and other industry types who look at the little machines with disdain and predict that consumers will soon lose interest. (What will consumers opt for instead? Why, costlier laptops that are more powerful–and profitable.)

Until recently, there’s been little evidence that consumers had gotten the memo about their disenchantment with netbooks–in fact, when I’ve visited computer stores recently, I’ve been struck by just how much acreage is still devoted to the systems. But Cnet is reporting that the chip analysts at IDC are about to report a decline in shipments of Intel’s Atom CPUs–the dominant processors inside netbooks–as a percentage of Intel’s total CPU mix.

The news isn’t a definitive death knell for notebooks. For one thing, more or less traditional netbooks using Intel processors and Windows are facing competition from netbook variants such as “smartbooks” that don’t use Intel technology. And Google is going to try and inject some new excitement into netbooks later this year when the first Chrome OS models come out.

But I’m willing to contemplate the possibility that netbooks may have peaked. With basic full-blown notebooks available for less than the cost of a typical netbook–not to mention the competition known as the iPad–netbooks aren’t going to thrive just because they don’t cost much. They’re going to have to be good computers that happen to be small and cheap…

 
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16 Comments For This Post

  1. Kent Says:

    It’s possible for Atom CPU sales to increase in absolute numbers and still decline as a percentage of total CPU sales. Therefore, netbook sales could climb as Atom CPU sales fall, as a percentage of total CPU sales.

    That’s statistics for ya! Manufacturers and analysts might have to wish harder to get netbooks to go away.

  2. CarolA Says:

    And when “full sized laptops” weigh as little as my netbook and have 8 hours battery life I am sure I will rush to change!

  3. Tech Says:

    Netbooks never really took off. There just wasn’t a big enough market for them.

  4. Matthew Says:

    I’m not sure … Atom N450 processors and 10.1 inch screens don’t make for a bad combination. The current netbooks get great battery life (most 8hr+), are very portable, but still easy to type on. I’m not going to say they’re dead yet…

  5. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I definitely think Netbooks as we know them are doomed. Some will evolve into bigger notebooks, and some will evolve into mobile tablets. In other words, the keyboard either has to become full-sized, or the keyboard has to go.

    Atom is in a weird place: too underpowered for real PC use, and too power-hungry for mobile use. You’re better off with a Core 2 Duo PC and an ARM in a big mobile. The full-size notebook has the power your PC apps want, and a mobile tablet gives you 10 hours of Web or video when on-the-go.

    Apple has the form factors right, as usual, because they actually thought about it and tried it out and built what was right. They didn’t just go with what they could throw together quickly. A 13-inch notebook is the smallest practical notebook because it has room for a 100% full-size mechanical keyboard, and an Intel Core 2 Duo or better. And you want a 10-inch mobile tablet for on-the-go, and it should be as easy to pull up a Web page as on an iPhone, or as easy to play a movie, and you need huge battery life, 10 hours. And no mouse cursor for crying out loud.

    Another thing is the admin costs (either in money or in your own time) of a netbook are the same as a full-size PC. With an iPad, it’s as easy to admin as an iPod, no work at all. It backs itself up to iTunes, it has no viruses, it’s painless to get a ton of audio video on there.

    Also Netbook 3G is full-size PC 3G. A $300 netbook with typical $55/month 5GB 3G plan is $1620 over 2 years, with contract. An $829 high-end iPad with $30/month unlimited 3G plan is $1549 over 2 years, with no contract. Not only do you pay less with iPad, you get unlimited, not a 5GB cap, and you get a high-end iPad instead of a generic Netbook.

    So I think Netbooks are stuck in-between 2 better form factors: MacBook and iPad. If you move them up or down they become more useful.

    The thing is, the rest of the industry outside of Apple is going to have to work harder on software as Netbooks turn into tablets, which are almost all software. Apple still has the only desktop class system on ARM, including the only C apps. Apple is working really hard and doing great things, but nobody is competing with them. The line-up of terrible tablets at CES are simply not competitive with iPad, almost entirely because of the software. I think the PC industry is in a very dangerous (to them) state of denial about software. Dell is like a construction company that only builds basements.

  6. Mike Cerm Says:

    Yeah, I’m with Carol. $350 will buy you a “basic full-blown” notebook: a 7-lb. monstrosity that manages 2-3 hours on a charge. For $300, you can get a 2.5-lb. netbook that will go 6-8 hours.

    If you’re the kind of person who leaves your giant notebook sitting on the desk, plugged-in all the time, then go right ahead. Personally, if I’m buying a *portable* computer, I’d rather it be small enough to actually carry around, with enough battery-life that I can make it through almost a whole day without being tethered to a wall.

  7. Sascha Pallenberg Says:

    Some pretty interesting comments here, especially from Tech and Hamran. Well there are clueless Apple fanboys everywhere ;)

    Just to let you know, by the end of this year we will have 100 million netbooks in the market, twice as much as iPhones and about 40 times more than iPads.

    Living in denial might be fun for someone who loves to reveal himself in the comments of a pretty good article but thank god you guys don’t have to make a living from your knowledge about IT-markets ;)

  8. AJ Says:

    I keep leaving my 14″ Acer home because I’m tired of carrying it. It’s heavy and the battery lasts 2 hours. I was checking an HP Mini at a store running Windows 7 Starter and I must say I was very tempted to pick it up.

    Netbooks still have their place.

  9. Drew Says:

    I don’t see how people can say that netbooks never “took-off”. I have seen numbers of 33 million units sold last year, with sales over $11 billion. A leveling off of sales is one thing, a drop off is another.

    I have had a HP mini for over a year and love it. Does it replace my desktop? Of course not, but that is not why I bought it. I bought it travel and do light work on the road, a role for which it is perfectly suited. I also run Windows 7 Starter and have not run into any problems with the three app limit. Everyone made a big stink, but few seem to mind that the iPad does not (yet) multitask.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    I wish they made more thin-and-light laptops. I still get almost daily use out of my Toshiba Portege 7200cte, the mostly-full-size keyboard is great to type on and it has a screen that doesn’t feel like it belongs in a cell phone. It’s built like a freaking tank too. The metal chassis (I read it was magnesium) doesn’t bend a bit when you pick it up by a corner. Do that to pretty much any reasonably priced full-size laptop now and the whole thing creaks and bends like a cheap toy.

    It’s too bad the only laptops anything like that form factor are the Macbook Air and whatever Dell called that thing that was more form than function.

  11. Uwe Hauck Says:

    For me the netbook is not dead at all. I just am typing this comment on my great Asus T91mt which is best of both worlds. It has a real keyboard which i always prefer to that on screen pseudo keyboard. I do most of my writing with keyboard. So all i have to carry is one smart and small device which i can use BOTH with my fingers (yes, multitouch) AND a special pencil so it actually recognizes my handwriting.
    I would rather say, tablets still are a special market for fanboys of apple and some people that do not really need a computer and are more consumers than creators. I would actually never trade in my 800gr Netbook/Convertible/tablet for a close world, apple controlled media playing and filtered net surfing device. Just because the IPad is hyped by the not so informed doesn’t make it a good device. Even the WePad is capable of more and is more open. Cam, Usb, Linux. Sorry, i don’t subcribe to the point of view, that the netbook is doomed. It is a great little device and will be in the future.

  12. Stryker Says:

    I have never gotten a netbook yet, but its not because I think they are dying out. I just haven’t had the extra cash (not working atm). About 6 years ago I decided to do away with desktops because I needed something that I could take with me on vacation or to my parents house, so I went with a 17″ HP notebook that was toted as a desktop replacement. And you know what, it was. It did everything my desktop at the time did, but faster. And I could take it with me.

    I’m now on my 2nd laptop (still HP and still 17″) and I am still happy with it. I take it when I go on vacation, or when I know I need it somewhere like in-laws, parents, or roller derby (I’m a ref for the LA Derby Dolls). But I don’t carry it with me everywhere. When I was in college, I didn’t take it because its just too big/heavy to carry all the time. That is when I started to take an interest in netbooks.

    To me, the netbooks fill a niche. They are small enough to just grab and go, something you can’t do with a desktop, and may not want to do with a full size notebook. Sure, some say they don’t need a netbook because they have a iphone or black berry, but you can only do so much on those, and do you really want to do a lot of typing on such a small keypad or stare a small screen for a long time? I know I don’t, and I love my iphone.

    So, once I start working and have some extra cash laying around, I know that I will be picking up a netbook. To me I can carry it with me all the time when I need it. Plus, I ride a Harley and the small size will fit in my bags a lot better than my 17″ notebook; which barely fits in my full size T-Bag that sits on my sissy bar. I want something that I can carry in my smaller bag, or put in my shoulder bag that I sometimes use when I ride.

    So I am with others that agree that the netbooks are not doomed. They, like the new ipads, are not for everyone, but there is a niche marker for them and that will keep them alive for some time.

  13. Rob Says:

    Netbooks are a specialty, niche item. You need a pretty high powered netbook to watch HD video from sites like YouTube. Most can’t handle the throughput. You also need a 720p-capable screen. Once you meet those criteria, you can look at the other compromises like keyboard size, touchpad buttons, keyboard flex, etc. When you finish filtering out the chaff, you’re left with precious few machines worth consideration. At that point, you have to decide whether the form factor and battery life are worth the cost relative to a slightly larger machine with a faster processor, bigger disk, full size keyboard, etc., albeit with much reduced batter life and greater weight. When you consider all of those points in light of what you might actually want to do on the machine, the choice can go either way, depending upon the person.

    As vendors reduce or remove the negative characteristics of most of the current netbooks and improve the portability of small laptops, you’ll find much better choices right in the sweet spot between a tablet like the iPad and a laptop. Will those machines be called netbooks? Who knows. They will be and remain popular, however.

  14. Sascha Pallenberg Says:

    @Rob

    it’s obvious you never used a netbook. HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Asus, Samsung, MSI, Toshiba, they all come with fantastic keyboards!
    HP, Lenovo, Dell, Samsung, ASUS are offering versions with HD displays and broadcom crystal hd cards, that can easily run 1080p.

  15. richardmitnick Says:

    I have an Acer 150-1635, Atom N270 1.6 gig, 1 gig DRAM, which I understand outperforms the now popular N450. I have had it for quite a while, took it on two trips. The first, it was a slow novelty. The last, it was irritatingly slow.

    I gave it up for a 14″ Dell Studio laptop with an i5-520M and 4 gigs of DRAM.

    The netbook does successfully crunch on short work units on BOINC and WCG projects.

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