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Are Netbooks Officially Obsolete?

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?

SystemAcer Aspire 1410 Toshiba NB205 ASUS Eee PC 1008HA HP Mini 311
Price$399$419$379$475
CPU1.2-GHz Intel Celeron SU23001.66-GHz Intel Atom N280 1.66-GHz Intel Atom N2801.6-GHz Intel Atom N270
OSWindows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Starter Edition Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium
RAM2GB 1GB 2GB 2GB
Hard Drive 160GB 250GB 320GB 160GB (larger options avail)
Screen11.6 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 2475Would not run 11181227
3DMark06 Score 595 112 151 1450
Battery Life (hours:min) 6:33 8:51 4:43 4:52
Weight3.2 pounds 3 pounds 2.4 pounds 3.2 pounds
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.