With Windows 7 comes Netbook, notebook confusion

Ultrathin, ultraportable, or Netbook? There are often big differences among these categories though you wouldn't always know it by looking at them.

Dell, Acer, Intel, and others together are, in effect, creating a muddle of light laptop categories as part of a not-so-well-orchestrated marketing strategy, according to an analyst. This is expected to become particularly acute when a deluge of new Windows 7 laptops hit the market this week.

Acer 11.6-inch ultrathin looks like Netbook but it's not.
Acer 11.6-inch ultrathin looks like a Netbook but it's not. Acer

Acer offered a graphic example of this recently when it introduced a small, inexpensive Windows 7 notebook --the Aspire Timeline AS1810T--that, from all outward appearances, looks like a Netbook. But it isn't--at least as defined by Intel. It's a new category of laptop called an ultrathin.

"There's a lot of confusion that Intel has created and they haven't really segmented the market that well," according to Bob O'Donnell, an IDC Research vice president.

And it gets more complicated. The inexpensive ultrathin is, in turn, competing now with the expensive luxury laptops, like the Dell Adamo, according to O'Donnell. "Ironically, what's actually happening we think is that the (ultrathin) is actually killing the high-end ultraportable," O'Donnell said.

Here's the problem: any given Windows 7 laptop with an 11.6- or 12-inch screen could be a Netbook, an ultrathin, or a high-end ultraportable, each with distinctly different price-performance characteristics not readily apparent to consumers.

"There's too many overlapping products," according to O'Donnell. Intel tried to prevent this from happening by declaring that any laptop with a screen larger than 10 inches diagonally is not a Netbook. That policy is fine in theory but does not carry over to the real world of head-butting competition among PC makers where even the subtlest production differentiation can mean a leg up on the competition.

Intel says look at performance and price. "Which offers the best performance overall? That's important," said Intel spokesman Bill Calder. "Pricing is a factor too. While some ultrathin laptops including 11.6 and higher are very affordable, none are in the $249 to $399 range that typically defines a Netbook," Calder said.

Some consumers might say it's not a big deal. But it's not just a nomenclature or arbitrary categorization problem. There are big differences--not only in price--despite the aesthetic similarities.

Netbook:

  • Under $400
  • Low-performance single-core Atom processor
  • Low-performance graphics
  • No optical drive
  • Limited memory and storage
  • Good battery life
  • Build: plastic
  • Examples: HP Mini 5101, Dell Latitude 2100

Ultrathin:

  • $400 to $800
  • Dual-core Pentium, Core 2 Duo, or AMD Neo processors
  • Mainstream laptop-class integrated or discrete graphics
  • No optical drive (typically)
  • Mainstream laptop memory and storage
  • Good battery life
  • Build: plastic
  • Examples: HP Pavilion dm3, Acer Aspire Timeline

Ultraportable (luxury laptop):

  • $1,200 to $4,000
  • High-performance Core 2 Duo processors
  • Mainstream laptop-class integrated or discrete graphics
  • Optical drive (internal) in some models
  • Mainstream laptop memory and storage
  • Average to good battery life
  • Build: metal or plastic
  • Examples: Dell Adamo, Toshiba Portege R600

By sight alone, Acer has blurred--if not buried--the line between Netbooks and laptops with the introduction of Acer Aspire Timeline AS1810T. In addition to the Netbookish 11.6-inch screen, it is about 1-inch thick and weighs only 3 pounds.

But instead of a meek Atom processor, it uses a dual-core Core 2 Duo SU7300 (1.3GHz) processor paired with Intel's laptop-class 4500MHD graphics chip. Other specifications are also typical of mainstream laptops, including 4GB of memory, a 320GB hard disk drive, and 802.11n Wi-Fi.

It also ships with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium and that 11.6-inch screen is high resolution at 1366 x 768, with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Again, neither of these features would ever ship with a Netbook.

And like Netbooks, battery life for ultrathins is relatively long. The Timeline claims up to eight hours of battery life, about twice that of standard laptops.

The Timeline's price of $599.99 will give prospective Netbook buyers pause. By contrast, a 10.1-inch Acer Aspire One Netbook, for example, is about $350 with a single-core Atom N280 processor, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard disk drive, and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. Cheaper than an ultrathin but not necessarily a better deal.

CEOs are not helping the Netbook cause either. Last week, during Intel's earnings conference call, Chief Executive Paul Otellini made a point twice during the call to underscore that mainstream laptops--not Netbooks--are on a sales tear , adding that Netbooks are merely "additive." There's a lot of semantic wiggle room in the word "additive" but it's clear that Netbooks are not a high-priority market, comparatively, for Intel.

Michael Dell was more blunt. Dell offered up a critique last week of the Netbook saying that the screens are too small and the performance unsatisfactory.

Though Dell's opinion is not quite as harsh as the "junky" remark made by Apple's COO Tim Cook, the consensus seems to be--even by the companies selling these devices--that the appeal is limited.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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