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When will the netbook craze wind down?

by on17 October 2008
A year on: still underpowered, overpriced and lacking battery life

A year ago Asus launched its Eee PC, the world's first true netbook PC, and the market went wild. A lot of hype was generated prior to launch, and the storm didn't subside even after it was officially unveiled on October 16 2007. Although it ended up somewhat pricier than expected, consumers still found the new machine appealing, in spite of its drawbacks, such as the pathetic 7-inch screen, lack of XP and a tiny 4GB SSD.

In the past 12 months several vendors entered the new market, announcing a number of exciting models, but things didn't go smoothly for them or the consumers, for that matter. Intel had a fair share of trouble meeting demand for its Atom CPU, and the fact that it chose to utilize an obsolete, power hungry chipset for the new processor didn't help, either. Recently major vendors such as Toshiba, Samsung and Lenovo announced their first netbooks, and these machines should appear on the market in the next few weeks.

So, where do we stand today? Well, netbook sales seem to be going through the roof and the concept of a cheap, light notebook is foolproof. A quick glance at our favorite European price search engine reveals a few interesting facts. Out of the 10 most popular notebook searches, only a single product is not a netbook. The list is dominated by the Eee PC in several flavors, followed by Acer's Aspire One and MSI's Wind. Obviously, average consumers find netbooks very appealing. They look good, cost a lot less than true ultra-portables, offer adequate performance for most everyday tasks and this seems to be enough for most people out there.

However, all is not well. Most of these machines ship with a 3-cell battery which doesn't provide a lot of endurance, even for such underpowered machines. Intel's gluttonous chipset doesn't help, either, and many recently announced netbooks feature regular hard drives as well as spacious 10+ inch screens; a far cry from the original 4G Eee PC with a tiny SSD and 7-inch screen. Recently, AMD's VP, Pat Moorhead, raised quite a few eyebrows with his netbook bashing, here. Basically, Pat said what IT hacks have been saying for months: the netbook concept itself is sound, but currently available netbooks simply fail to deliver, to put it mildly. Things are getting better, as more and more vendors offer 6-cell battery packs with their toys, but a better Atom chipset is still nowhere in sight. Unfortunately, AMD still has nothing to counter the Atom.

So, we can deal with the battery life, get a 6-cell or wait for a more energy efficient platform, but the major issue faced by netbooks now seems to be the price. Notebook prices have dropped significantly this year, closing the gap between regular notebooks and netbooks and leaving the latter with only their small size as a valid selling point. The cheapest 12-inch notebooks on the European market retail at just over €500 and you can find about a dozen various models before you hit the €600 mark. A 10-inch netbook with XP usually sells for €400+, so the price difference is around €100.

However, those €100 extra will get you a 12-inch screen, powerful dual-core CPU, optical drive, 2 gigs of memory and more storage. Of course, a 12-inch notebook weighs a lot more than a 1kg netbook. However, once you add a 6-cell battery into the equation your average netbook tends to put on weight like a pregnant sperm whale hooked on sitcoms and Facebook. A Wind with a 6-cell battery weighs 1.33kg, while the chubby Eee PC 1000H ends up at 1.45kg. Most low-end 12-inch notebooks weigh just under 2kg, and some, such as Packard Bell's 1.6kg Easynote, weigh much less. So you're not saving much muscle power by getting a netbook, as the top specced units are less than half a kilo lighter than 12-inch machines.

Comparing a netbook to a 14 or 15-inch notebook doesn't make much sense, but we'll do it, anyway, as good sense and reason have apparently left this market segment a long time ago anyway.

At €479 you can get an Asus X80LE, a good looking 14.1-inch notebook powered by a T2370 CPU, with 1024MB of memory and 160GB of storage. It weighs 2.4kg, a kilo more than an average netbook with a 6-cell battery and this is a great deal. The cheapest 15.4-inch machines sell for €330, which will buy you a 9-inch Aspire One or Wind U90. Ridiculous. For €430, the price of a top-range Eee PC or Wind, you can get Toshiba's Satellite L300. It packs a T2390 CPU, 1 gig of memory and a 160GB hard drive and weighs 2.5kg, surprisingly low for a budget 15.4-inch machine. So, even a 15.4-inch DTR weighs less than a kilo more than the top notch Eee, and it costs about the same.

Recently announced fashion netbooks, such as the Asus S101 and, to some extent at least, the Wind U120, offer even less value for money.

Things can and must change soon. Vendors are operating with huge margins, trying to squeeze a few bucks out of a new, appealing concept, while offering very little in return, actually. Don't expect prices to drop significantly prior to Q1 2009. Vendors will do their very best to milk these cash cows dry through the holiday season. Intel should have more Atom CPUs around, dual-core Atoms should follow soon after, and who knows, maybe they even opt for a chipset that doesn't consume as much power as a third world household?

VIA's Nano could make a bit of an impact, too. AMD? Well, nobody knows. They love the whole "performance per Watt" mantra, but when it comes to netbook CPUs, they've got nothing to take on the Atom just yet. AMD has some great integrated chipsets and power efficient CPUs for desktops and we can only hope a few Arab millions end up in netbook platform R&D.

So, things should pick up in Q1, if the economy doesn't go tits up and we all end up in fields, sowing potatoes, maize and cabbage.  In that case, you're gonna wish you got a 6-cell battery like we told you.

Last modified on 18 October 2008
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