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Experts Question the Future of Netbook PCs

Acer NetbookThought the heretofore booming netbook industry was on a major upswing as price-conscious PC owners flocked to score one of the low-cost, highly portable laptops that emphasize performance over power? Guess again, as industry experts warn that the companies producing these systems and actual consumers buying them may be on different wavelengths.

With the holidays nearing and the machines’ stocking-stuffer-ready size and cost, netbooks are anticipated to be a big buy this gift giving season. But with the introduction of 12-inch screens, ION processors and rising sticker prices, some technology insiders say the lines may be getting a little blurry for these pint-size PCs. Many industry analysts noted that, in the coming months, we may see netbooks grow rather than shrink—a little “switcheroo” for the technology world—as unlike most machinery, dwindling in size with advancement, this hardware is growing and ultimately defeating its original purpose.

So just what is the standard definition of a netbook? According to Nathan Edwards, Associate Editor of PC Magazine, a typical netbook computer has an Intel Atom single core processor, 1GB of RAM, weighs about 2-3 lbs, has a 10-to-11.6-inch screen, and will be priced anywhere from $250 to $400. Similarly, the typical view of netbooks in consumers’ minds, says Edwards, is that these computers are simply portable, lightweight and cheap. But recently, he has noticed computing companies trying to pack more power into these mini laptops, causing the prices to go up.

HP Mini 311“People want small, chic notebooks with a long battery life, and it can only have a little more power and be a little more expensive,” he claims. “An advanced netbook is kind of an oxymoron—it’s the size and simplicity that sells [these devices].” For example, although Edwards is himself excited about HP’s new Mini 311-1000NR Nvidia ION-powered netbook with its 11.6-inch display and a full HD 1080p resolution, he remains perfectly content with his 8 month-old Asus Eee PC.

“The processor scene is changing—HP’s the first and I think we’re going to see a lot more options in terms of processors soon,” claims Edwards.

Similarly, Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, remains dubious of the new trend to pack more power into these tiny PCS. He and his team put HP’s Mini 311 with its outstanding graphics capabilities to the test and concluded that the compact computer could possibly double as a primary PC. However, despite these impressive results, he asks, “even if you had the most powerful system in the world, why would you want it on a 10 inch screen?” Realistically, he says, most people wouldn’t.

In the same fashion, some experts are saying that it’s not just processors changing, it’s the whole machine. Thus far, the highest-selling netbooks have featured a standard 10.1-inch screen and 1GB of RAM. But Spoonauer believes that the “Holy Grail” of netbooks may not be considered a netbook at all. Ideally, Spoonauer thinks a consumer sweet-spot would be 13 inches of screen real estate that features a ULV processor paired with ION graphics capabilities and 2GB of RAM. Nonetheless, he also admits that such a machine not only barely borders on netbook status – it also qualifies as a notebook.

Toshiba T115Now that lines are blurring, netbook-like machines are also being renamed, helping further muddy the waters. Toshiba’s new netbooks, the 11-inch T115 and the 13-inch T135, are called “Ultra Portables” and come with up to 500GB of storage, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a ULV processor, and 6-cell battery life. Predictably, these above-average netbooks also sport above-average price tags, starting at $500 and rising. “Pricing is going to be paramount with shoppers,” Spoonauer admits. “Consumers will get turned off by netbooks when their prices get too large.”

Taking a step further, Frost and Sullivan industry analyst Todd Day thinks there is a grand mergence of technology headed our way. “We’re going to continue to see netbooks, notebooks, and smartphones begin to converge into one blended category, and with this there will be a lot of competition for faster processors,” he claims. According to Day, netbooks filled that niche in between smartphones and notebooks—people wanted something lightweight, portable, and cheap that wasn’t a smartphone and didn’t have licensing fees. “I’d rather pay the 300 dollars and not have the commitment that smartphones have,” Day adds.

Pointing to the major mergence he mentions is Acer’s new pack of Android operating system-fueled netbooks. Day supports this communion because Android was made to perform well under low-powered conditions, making these new netbooks extremely fast and responsive. Although not many details have been released yet by either Google or Acer, these new netbooks are supposed to retail for a relatively reasonable price range of about $400.

In terms of who’s leading the petite pack currently, Day says Acer has definitely had the best netbooks sales— especially since the manufacturer came into the space a little earlier than Dell and HP—because the firm provides various models and makes them available at big name retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy. “A lot of students are buying netbooks because they’re convenient machines, and the price is convenient for parents as well,” says Day.

If major hardware companies keep their cool and listen to the experts’ advice this winter, such mini machines may top holiday shopping lists. Whether or not netbooks will do so, however, or ultimately attempt to grow in power and performance by sacrificing affordability, is uncertain. Either way, it’s too early to say whether consumers’ love affair with the pint-sized PCs is cooling or still going strong, and how well recent trends in netbook manufacturing actually compute.