It seems that everyone and his dog are busily working on netbook product lines, promoting their current editions while quickly adding newer revisions. Asus may have started the revolution with the Eee PC in the fall of '07, but Acer and MSI quickly joined it, and since then Dell, HP, Lenovo, and others -- nine of the global top ten PC brands, excluding Apple -- have jumped into this fast-growing marketplace. (According to DisplaySearch, the segment's 1 million last year will reach 14 million units by the end of 2008.)
But this level of competition has drastically changed the landscape, as more companies fight for a bigger part of the small-and-cheap-laptop pie.
A Lifestyle Device
One of the more obvious changes in netbooks is the emergence of lifestyle marketing -- creating multiple variants of a given model to highlight a user's individuality. Color is the most common method of achieving this, with virtually all netbooks now available in colors from conventional black and white to pink, green, and everything in between.
Custom patterns and lid designs are also popular, and both the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and Mini 12 are available with multiple "skins." Fashion designer Vivienne Tam even has her own version of HP's Mini 1000, sold complete with a matching silk sleeve.
This has even filtered down to actual netbook designs, with levels of differentiation rivaling those of full-sized notebooks. Asus, for instance, caters to different buyers with the "Fashion on the Go" ultra-slim Eee S101, the corporate-oriented Eee 1002HA, and the mainstream Eee 1000H. This is no longer a one-size-fits-all market, and other companies are quickly following suit with multilevel netbook lines pitched to a wide range of customers.
When the netbook market was in its infancy, the smaller the device the better. Popular models like the Asus Eee PC 4G and Acer Aspire One provided users with an incredibly small footprint for a device that emulated a traditional notebook. The first Eee had a 7-inch screen with 800 by 480 resolution. That proved a bit too small for most Web surfers and sites, and the category minimum quickly moved to an 8.9-inch LED-backlit display.
This is what Acer used in its Aspire One, the category best seller. (According to DisplaySearch, Asus sold 2.15 million netbooks in Q3 2008; Asus was second with 1.7 million; and no one else moved more than a third of a million.)
You'll also find an 8.9-inch LCD in the Asus Eee 900 series, the Dell Mini 9, and the MSI Wind U90. In terms of display size and device footprint, 8.9 inches seems to be the current sweet spot, but the trend toward bigger netbook screens seems to be accelerating, with many popular models being made available in ever-larger sizes.
One reason is the tradeoff inherent with smaller form factors. Keyboard size is one: The Dell Mini 9 dispenses with the top row of function keys, while Acer and Asus have cut the size of some integral keys. A 10- or 12-inch model makes room for an almost full-sized keyboard.
A larger display area can make it easier on the eyes, with and this has served to increase resolutions, albeit very slightly. Most 10-inch models stick with the 1,024 by 600 resolution seen on 8.9-inch screens, but Dell's 12.1-inch Mini 12 steps up to 1,280 by 800, which helps with many Websites and applications such as PowerDVD 8 that refuse to load on 8.9-inch netbooks. The larger build also lets Dell use the Intel Atom Z520 and Z530 processors, rather than the 1.6GHz Atom N270 universally found in smaller netbooks, although even those CPUs struggle under the weight of the Mini 12's available Windows Vista.
But this all doesn't come for free, and the netbook market seems to take opposite of the traditional laptop pricing matrix: The bigger the netbook, the more it costs. Even models like the MSI Wind U90, which utilizes the same build as its 10-inch sibling, are noticeably less expensive. Baseline Dell Mini 9 and Mini 12 configurations can be separated by $200 or more, and some of the ultra-high-end designs like the slimline Asus Eee S101 are downright pricey.
Taking Storage for a Spin
When the first Eee climbed from the primordial mud, the unit's solid-state drive (SSD) was all the rage. As a technology, SSD has a very bright future, especially in the mobile sector, where its feature set can really pay off. Finally, consumers had the option of a low-power, silent, and drop-resistant method of storing their mobile data, and the price was certainly right.
But then reality set in, and the inherent challenges of SSD technology starting becoming very apparent. Their diminutive capacity was the most obvious limitation, as even top-end netbooks offer 16GB or at most 32GB solid-state drives, and others a 4GB to 8GB drive that's just large enough for the operating system and a few programs.
Sure, there's always the option of using SD cards for additional capacity, but for users looking to store massive amounts of images and video files, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. There were also performance issues, especially with Linux users who had upgraded to Windows and found the SSD was simply not fast enough.
The solution, of course, was to follow the laptop model and incorporate a conventional hard drive. Acer and MSI were quick to offer this option, with hard disk capacity up to 160GB, while others like Asus slowly changed their business model from SSD to hard drive and Dell segregated its Mini 9 and Mini 12 with SSD and hard drives, respectively.
While many netbook users appreciate the benefits of SSD technology, the real world still demands more storage space than these can currently supply, at least at current netbook prices. Netbooks may have started out as a corporate oddity, but have quickly morphed into real business machines, and for the majority of applications, you'll require a Windows operating system and significantly more capacity than a low-cost SSD can offer.
Savior or Destroyer?
Netbooks are certainly a growth industry, but is this a good thing? With so many competitors, it's quickly turning into a cutthroat business, with consumers growing ever more picky with their tech dollars and retailers obliged to offer discounts.
Speaking of consumers, as more people get bitten by the netbook bug, more shoppers are showing up with mistaken expectations. We've spoken with retail employees who believe many customers want too much out of netbooks, returning units soon after discovering the downsized keyboard and lack of an optical drive.
On the other hand, there's serious concern that netbooks may cannibalize traditional notebook sales. This fear will only grow as Intel introduces notebook-performance-class netbook processors, such as the upcoming dual-core Atom, and AMD's overdue entry appears (probably late in 2009).
Certainly, netbooks will have little effect at the very top of the notebook market. But we've noticed some large retailers taking a "Linux+SSD good, Windows+HD bad" strategy with their product offerings, trying to ensure that these upstart netbooks don't compete against mainstream laptops.
This article was first published on HardwareCentral.com.