Are Netbooks Officially Obsolete?

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netbook-tombstone

Why would you spend $399 (or more) on a Windows 7 netbook when you can get double the performance for the same price? That's the question I asked myself after reading our full review of the Acer Aspire 1410, which kicks Intel's sluggish Atom processor to the curb in favor of a dual-core ULV Celeron processor and packs 2GB of RAM instead of the typical 1GB. Like most netbooks, you're stuck with 160GB of hard drive space, but we think a lot of buyers will be willing to put up with that much storage in exchange for more muscle. The battery life was pretty strong, too, at 6.5 hours. To me, that spells trouble for netbooks.

Yes, there are several netbooks priced less than $350 or even $300, but on the higher end of the netbook scale the Acer 1410 makes the competition look silly. (The average selling price for netbooks, according to DisplaySearch, is $361). Not only do you get faster CPU performance with a system like the Aspire 1410, you get a bigger high-res display, roomier keyboard, and Windows 7 Premium (not Starter) for less money than weaker netbooks. Check out our comparison table below and analysis and tell us if you think netbooks are long for this world. The one wildcard in all this is netbooks equipped with Nvidia's Ion graphics. Similar to low-cost ultraportables with Intel's CULV processors inside, an Ion machine like the HP Mini 311 can handle 1080p video playback. But Ion goes even further by allowing users to play mainstream games at decent frame rates and to edit video faster. The upgrade to Flash Player (10.1) will also introduce graphics accelerated video playback and improve other Flash content. However, while the $399 XP version of the HP Mini  311 is a really good value, once you add Windows 7 and more RAM to the mix you've inflated the price beyond that of the Aspire 1410 to $475. (For the below table we used a Windows 7 Premium version of the Mini 311 for the specs and test results; stay tuned for review) One other drawback is that our Ion-equipped Mini 311 lasted about an hour and half less on a charge than the Aspire 1410 when running our battery test. Netbooks should get faster with the arrival of Intel's next-gen Atom CPU, codenamed Pine Trail. Just today there are reports that the 1.66-GHz Atom N450 and dual-core Atom D410 will debut in late December and be found inside several machines at CES. Will these changes be enough to keep netbooks relevant? Maybe, but if you can nab a fully capable ultraportable for less than 400 bucks, I think traditional netbook prices will have to sink even further if the category is going to stick around. Who Needs a Netbook?
System Acer Aspire 1410 Toshiba NB205 ASUS Eee PC 1008HA HP Mini 311
Price $399 $419 $379 $475
CPU 1.2-GHz Intel Celeron SU2300 1.66-GHz Intel Atom N280 1.66-GHz Intel Atom N280 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270
OS Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Starter Edition Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium
RAM 2GB 1GB 2GB 2GB
Hard Drive 160GB 250GB 320GB 160GB (larger options avail)
Screen 11.6 inches (1366 x 768) 10.1 inches (1024 x 600) 10.1 inches (1024 x 600) 11.6 inches (1366 x 768)
PCMark Vantage Score 2475 Would not run 1118 1227
3DMark06 Score 595 112 151 1450
Battery Life (hours:min) 6:33 8:51 4:43 4:52
Weight 3.2 pounds 3 pounds 2.4 pounds 3.2 pounds
Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
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23 comments
  • tc Says:

    Netbooks are here to stay... to bad that we can't find 9" models anymore, for me size and performance were the deferentiator between Netbooks and Notebooks (they are all laptops... we use them in the lap :) ).

    Regarding gman definition...
    -light (check)
    -long battery life (check)
    -no optical drive (check)
    -not a primary computer (check)
    -weak graphic performance (check)
    -thin (check)
    -cheap (check)
    Good attempt, but a wrong one. The original Eee PC had anything by "long battery life" but they were the ones that brought back the Netbook word from the land of the dead Psions.

    I don't think we need to create a firm definition for netbooks, for me anything with at least 2h battery which I can carry on my pouch/bag/backpack (small, light) and has enough performance, allows me to connect to the 'net and uses a x86 cpu is a netbook.

    In the end my ideal netbook would be similar to the Asus 901, a bit thinner with sata ssd.

  • ubisurfer Says:

    there is a huge spectrum of users these days and have different needs and requirements the stnadard laptops are not doing the rounds with youths and college goers even if someone wants to get their hand to a computer a netbook will be a nice platform so i guess its not going to die but will be born in various more forms.

  • QuestPC Says:

    I think it was a bit unfair to compare double core Acer 1410 and single core U210. Wait for Turion X2 U230 I think it should be out pretty soon.

  • gman Says:

    I still come back to the same thing. Netbooks were bred out of the desire for a second computer that is portable and light. What the industry is doing is this. Leading you, the consumer into greater tempation. See, add $50 and you can add .5 lb to the weight, but you get a 320 gig hard drive. Better yet, add $100 more and you can almost make it your primary computer! Sure it might add on another 1 lb from a netbook, but heck we all want an "almost" primary PC don't we? Well, no, not really. Read the first part again. Netbooks were bred from the desire for smaller and lighter. It was organic. The point is, you can't really have your cake and eat it too. Or can you? Yes, thanks to netbooks you can. Have your laptop at home on the table. Your cake is that netbook which is the lightest and smallest computer that will allow you to type comfortably. Do you give a crap about hard drive space for your 2 hour outing? Probably not. Do you give a crap about 3 gigs of ram? Maybe if it was your primary computer. The point here is, sure you can spend a bit more, say $50-$100 more for a heavier and less portable computer. Those people making that argument simply don't get it. Until these big sites actually "get it", there isn't much hope. This may take another year or so.

    With respect, I stand by my point, that this site and many others would love to call all computers laptops. Within reason of course. Technically, this new Acer would be a "thin and light" or "ultra thin" laptop. At the very least, you woudn't be confusing the general public that these "laptops" don't actually have optical drives. I'm sure you could also call the CULV's like the Acer, which walk like a duck and quack like a duck, a duck. Unfortunately, you behave more like sheep, pulling the corporate line on this one. BTW, the duck is really a netbook. Perhaps you could list the reasons for calling this Acer 1410 a laptop, then we can compare notes on what most people consider a netbook to be.

    -light (check)
    -long battery life (check)
    -no optical drive (check)
    -not a primary computer (check)
    -weak graphic performance (check)
    -thin (check)
    -cheap (check)

    Okay what did I miss here? Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck....but you can't say because why?

  • Fanfoot Says:

    Wow, this piece has people upset! Good job Mark.

    Is the 1410 representative? Well, the 1410 is $399 and the Dell Inspiron 11z (wow Dell is making some crappy netbook/CULVs lately) is also $399. But lots of other 11" TNLs (Thin 'n Lites) are much more expensive. Lenovo has just announced their U150 for $699 which is as much as many much more capable laptops. Will the Acer AS1410 take the world by storm and force all the other vendors to compete at this price point? We don't really know that yet, though I wouldn't bet against it. However, with the various processor's available and the extra cost options available, the average TNL price is clearly going to be more than netbooks. Which of course is exactly what Intel wants.

    Intel MUST be charging more for the CULV processors in these TNLs, even the lower end Solo and Celeron 743 models. Plus with Pine Trail I can only assume the prices for Atom CPU + chipset is going to be coming down. So we might well see Atom based netbooks come down in price even further.

    CULVs currently have LOTS of advantages over netbooks. Better CPU, HDMI, eSata (usually), bluetooth (usually), multitouch (varies somewhat), higher resolution screens, bigger screens, bigger/better keyboards, etc. My guess is you can't do all those things for no money. So I think we're going to continue to see a price differentiation between the two lines.

    Like others I don't think we're going to see netbooks go away. There are size advantages to 10" netbooks. I do think this will bring an end to those higher spec/higher end netbooks though. Would you still buy an HP 5101 with a 6 cell battery and an HD display for $631?

  • HP Says:

    Avram,

    The 1410's Comparison Charts table (to add more models to compare) only include ultraportables, not netbooks. Perhaps it's an oversight.

    A comment to the Aspire 1410 review: It would be worthwhile to point out to readers that there are two models of the 1410, the older single-core CULV SU3500 1.4GHz with Vista, and the newer dual-core SU2300 1.2GHz with Win 7 Home Premium. Pricing for the newer version is $400, while the latter is $450. The model being sold from vendors shown along the review is for the older version, and not the version being reviewed.

    A more lucid comment to the "netbooks are obsolete" piece: The piece based its argument on invalid evidence. The $399 1410 is a statistical outlier price-wise. Median pricing for CULVs tend to be around the $500-600 range. Of course, there will be some conflict between the CULV low-end and the Atom high-end, and given the CULV's better perf, it's a likelihood that the Atom "premium" models will lose out. I expect that the Atom's price range will drop by about $50, i.e. between $250-400, and with improved video rendering with the new models and with Flash's GPU-accel future update. CULV will still be in the $500+ in the main, outliers aside, so the differentiation is still viable. A more interesting question is whether the CULV will appear in the 10" form factor, and how it will fare with the consumer.

  • Avram Piltch Says:

    HP,

    You can definitely use our site to compare the AS1410's benchmarks to any netbooks or notebooks. Just check out the benchmarks / compare page:

    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/laptops/acer-aspire-1410.aspx?mode=benchmarks

  • HP Says:

    To add to this, I think that Laptopmag's site can be improved by not separating the netbooks out from the main "laptop" reviews. Specifically, I was trying to compare various AS1410 benchmarks against those of netbooks, but was stymied since netbook benchmarks were in a separate category and were not available. If there is a bright side to all this netbook-vs-laptop brouhaha, then it may be a reminder to LTM to improve its offerings to readers, and enable them to make better choices.

  • HP Says:

    As KT Bradford said, the 'netbook' moniker was coined by Intel, mainly for its Atom platform. With its explosion, it became synonymous with 'small, cheap laptop'. Given its dynamic evolution, it's unreasonable to expect a hard-and-fast delineation between what is a (generic) marketing label and any given hardware spec. It doesn't matter if the AS1410 is called a netbook or laptop.

    But the rebuttals to the article are correct, as the latter's "death of netbooks" prediction is essentially meaningless, given that even the Atom itself is evolving to faster speed (and presumably better price/perf ratio), and that CULVs are blurring the netbook/laptop distinction. Fluff pieces like this cater to the simplistic, binary fly-or-die views, but the reality is that there will be a continuous spectrum of mobile computing capability, from the small/cheap/wimpy on up. Given that Intel is in the driver's seat of managing the price/perf ratios of both the Atoms and CULVs, it's safe to say that the Atom will retain its anchor at the low-end, while the CULV will find a price-point niche at the low-to-mid-range below the C2D. This carefully managed equilibrium would only change if AMD can manage to throw out some credible competition.

    To sum, the above "netbook is dead" piece is about nothing. Even if its premise comes about (that netbooks will be phased out), it's still about nothing, as the $300-400 price point for small laptops is here to stay, and changing the name to something other than netbooks won't make any difference to the consumer.

  • Intosh Says:

    Euh... maybe the Acer Aspire 1410 is a netbook? The debate about notebook versus netbook is pretty lame and meaningless.

  • Matt Says:

    Yeah, unlike gman I'm not trying to be a dick, I just want to understand the rationale. If your definition of a netbook is that it is whatever Intel says it is, that's fine. Not that I agree in the least, but at least it has logical underpinnings.

    In any case, despite this article's argument to the contrary, I will continue to call the 1410 and even its higher end siblings netbooks, and I don't think I am wrong at all.

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    gman, it's really great that you have a personal definition for what a netbook is, but that doesn't mean it's the widely accepted definition, either by consumers or my manufacturers, software vendors, etc. And while we as a magazine and as individuals are allowed to think of netbooks in whatever way we choose, there is a widely accepted definition of the term netbook. To act as if that doesn't matter seems foolhardy to me, as it would with any other word in our language.

    As to laptop = portable computer with an optical drive, again: not quite. Plenty of laptops don't have optical drives and yet are still laptops. Many of them are not netbooks. Just take a look at our ultraportables category. You may be right that there are uninformed people out there who assume laptop = portable computer with a drive, but any perusal of our magazine would dispel them of that notion pretty quickly.

    The meat of this discussion (how do you define the netbook category?) can be confusing and the category is in flux. It's young, that's to be expected. That's part of why we have these discussions, because it interests us to get to the meat of it. And why it's great to have them online, because we have access to so many other opinions. I don't see it as a drawback that another site has a differing opinion.

    Also, I'm sure you don't actually think we want to call every computer a laptop.

  • gman Says:

    Matt makes great points, that's the bottom line. You guys run a top magazine and you can't get it straight. That's scary, and you need to have a few staff meetings to figure out what you are doing.

    I've said this elsewhere but I will say it again. A netbook is....... The smallest possible computer that will fit a full size keyboard. Oh, and that also doesn't include a friggin optical drive. Mr Laptop please consider that laptop category is considered to have optical drives. People will buy this thinking it's a laptop (because you labeled it that way) and then find out they don't have an optical drive. Even if you mention it in your review, people still won't realize it until they have bought it. People are not as bright as you think.

    Sure Intel, Microsoft and others have tried to categorize netbooks. So? Are you paid off by them? Can't you think outside the box? Will you not get free computers? I mean honestly. You aren't just anybody. You run a top site. To be honest, your buddies from another top computer website claim that processors have nothing to do with classifying a computer as a netbook. So, even though both you have top websites, you have no clue on what the reality is. Do you guys ever go out in public? There needs to be a bit more brain power put into this or you will confuse the consumers for ever. Again, I get why you might want to call every computer on the planet a laptop, it's in your name. It's called conflict of interest in my books.

    Good day.

  • gelogs Says:

    What are you talking about? That Acer Aspire 1410 can be considered still as a netbook. :D

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    Matt, I think some of the issue is that netbooks have been defined by Intel, Microsoft, and manufacturers, but those definitions may or may not be the same as the consumer's. At the moment, the main thing that defines netbooks appears to be processor -- though if there was an Atom processor in a 14-inch system I think everyone would be hard-pressed to label it a netbook. Even when Intel Atom has dual cores, it's still Atom, so the computers it goes inside will still be netbooks.

    If we were to take your definition of netbook, then a bunch of systems would qualify that the manufactuers do not label as netbooks and a bunch of systems that ARE labeled as netbooks would be disqualified, including the original Eee PC. It was small and had a low price, but not long battery life. The Eee PC S101 is small, but doesn't last above 4 hours and costs over $500, but it's still a netbook.

    I would definitely be with you in saying that a GOOD netbook is small, has long battery life, and is inexpensive.

  • Matt Says:

    If you can't call anything with an 11" screen a netbook, how does the 311 still qualify? It is the exact same size and weight as the 1410. In fact, the entire new generation of netbooks are using 11.6" screens. If you want to say that none of them are netbooks, I could buy that, but again in your article you are saying the 311 is a netbook and the 1410 isn't.

    Also, if the 1410 qualifies as a netbook because of its beefier processor, how does it make sense in your article that the future Pine Trail netbooks are still, well, netbooks, since that processor will be even stronger than the current dual-core Celerons? Once Pine Trail is out, will you re-classify the 1410 as a netbook? And what about ION/ION 2 video cards? Why is it OK for netbooks to have upgraded video cards, but not upgraded processors?

    To answer your other question, I still consider the 1810T a netbook, though obviously a very powerful one. I think that for the most part any distinction between "netbook" and "ultraportable" is pointless nomenclature. There are really inexpensive and old netbooks, and there are shiny new expensive netbooks with more power.

  • Hal Says:

    If it is called a netbook or a laptop is not important in my eyes. For me it is just an ultraportable computer. I think the culvs will just drive down the price and that's great.

    I had a Samsung NC-10- I chose it specifically for the matte screen and portability. The low resolution was a pain, though, and I sold it. Now I'm waiting for Acer & Co. to get the CULV right:

    1. Matte screen. I can't use a mirror when around outside which is the reason for me buying a small laptop/netbook in the first place. Acer have made it a choice on the timeline series but only on the +13" machines where it is less important. And there you have to give up the hdmi. Why? Don't business people want a good output to external screens?

    2. Why let us choose between just good enough graphics (ion) and good enough performance (culv)? I want both and am willing to pay the price (+$50 and a bit less battery time).

    Cheers for hoping that at least a matte screen show up on a 11,6" portable :-)

  • Mark Spoonauer Says:

    I'm not saying that netbooks aren't evolving, but we can't call anything with an 11-inch display a netbook. We have category performance averages, and for us the 1410 qualifies as an ultraportable because of its beefier CPU. It may look like a netbook but doesn't perform like one. What would you call the 1810t? It has the same exact design as the 1410 but an even faster processor but goes for $549-$599. Not saying our definition is absolute, but you need to draw the line somewhere and the 1410 for us is an affordable but powerful ultraportable.

  • Matt Says:

    OK, so if the processor defines the platform -- why is the 1410 w/ a dual-core Celeron proc NOT a netbook, while the faster dual-core Pine Trail processors coming out apparently DO qualify as netbook processors? What am I missing?

    To me, there are 3 components that "define" a netbook -- great battery life, low weight, and cheap price. The 1410 is the equivalent or better than the 311 across the board on those specs, so to me it is a netbook. Your definition may be different than mine (though I still have no idea what your definition even is), and that's fine, but to pretend like there's a definitive answer on what is and isn't a netbook is kind of silly.

  • Mark Spoonauer Says:

    gman, despite our name we have greatly benefited from the netbook category and have been covering the category extensively since its inception. So we have absolutely nothing to gain from posing the QUESTION as to whether netbooks have become obsolete. I would also have to disagree with you on the nomenclature. Just because you believe most people would wrongly identify the 1410 as a netbook doesn't mean that you are they would be correct. The processor defines the platform.

    As for ION, while it's true it is a game changer--we gave it an editor's choice for a reason--you are paying more for that capability vs. CULV when paired with Windows 7 and you're getting less battery life. It's up to consumers to decide what's more important to them.

  • gman Says:

    First, I'm sure you've lost a bit of sleep at night as your "laptop" word loses ground to netbooks. I'm sure you haven't done overly well considering you are build on laptops. I'm sure you would prefer to call everything a laptop, which would be great for your site.

    The problem? What makes the 11.6" Acer not a netbook? Your arguments are slightly misguided in the sense that you are calling this 1410 something other than a netbook. We could argue that well, it has CULV so it's not a netbook. Or you could say it has Windows 7 premium so it's not a netbook. However, look around if you dare. How many websites will call the 1410 a netbook? How many won't? Take it out in public, will people say hey, nice laptop! Or do you think they would say, hey nice netbook? I think you know the answer to that.

    So, if we look at the base of your post, it's slightly foolish because 75% of the public would call the 1410 a netbook in the first place. Yes yes, I know you would prefer the world call the 11.6" computers laptops and not netbooks. I get that.

    You really should spend more time comparing the HP 311 graphic abilities to the 1410. The game changer is and always will be, what graphical/video abilities you can get. A very high percentage of people want HD video playback and gaming. So, perhaps you can spend time looking at how great, at the same price points, the CULV computers are vs. the ION based Atom computers. Oh don't forget ION 2 isn't that far off.

    Again, if I had special interests in laptops, certainly I would be hoping for the death of netbooks. In that sense, people can almost stop reading the post before they start.

  • H.R. Allen Says:

    I'm writing you from my Toshiba NB205 netbook. I love it, and have absolutely no regrets. Paid $399 to my friends at JR.com, plus a few dollars more to Crucial.com for the 2GB RAM card. Call it customizing, accessorizing, or just fun - like all the money bikers spend making their bikes uniquely theirs. Point is, it's not just about the money. Netbooks are about weight and portability, and this puppy was top rated in two magazines, including yours as I recall. A big factor was the unbeatable battery life. I got mine a few months ago when XP was the thing. I saw one today at OfficeMax with Windows 7 Starter. But that reminds us of all the extra time and $$$ for firewalls, antivirus, registry defrags, spyware, and all the other problems that come with Windows Whatever. So you have to count those $$ also, not just the starting price of the unit. After many years of putting up with all that, I realized it was never going to get truly better. I now have a MacBook, replaced my wife's desktop with a Mac Mini, and converted my disc driveless netbook to Ubuntu Linux via a USB install. Now we're smooth, fast, and in the last case, free. Move on!

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    Here's my thing: performance aside, I still want a 10-inch screen. 11.6 inches is just slightly too big for me and definitely won't fit in a small bag. That's the reason to get a netbook. If you're getting 11.6-inch systems, you're looking for a notebook, anyway.

    I think that ULV systems like the 1410 may spell the death of the 11 and 12-inch netbooks, which is fine by me, leaving the 10-inchers as the largest size.

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