Has Apple's iPad finally killed the Netbook?

It's no secret that Netbooks have fallen off a cliff over the past year, but just how far has the once-flourishing category dropped?

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

Update: According to a new report on DigiTimes.com, Asustek (parent company of the Asus brand) has "experienced drop in consolidated revenues, mainly due to dropping Eee PC shipments," and "only shipped about 350,000 Eee PCs in April."

It's hard to believe that before 2007, a low-cost laptop was one that came in under $1,000. But that was before the Netbook revolution kicked off, inspired by the Intel Classmate and the One Laptop Per Child XO, and spearheaded initially by Asus and its original Eee PC (which had a 7-inch display and ran Linux). From that point on, every PC maker was forced (some more reluctantly than others) to embrace this new subgenre, and Netbooks were everywhere.

Until, like all fads, the Netbook burned out. Part of the reason was clearly Apple's iPad, which became the new go-to entry-level computing device for people who either didn't need or want a full PC, or just wanted a reasonably priced travel device for e-mail and Web surfing. The iPad itself has kicked off a gold rush of sorts, with the same companies that pushed countless me-too Netbooks onto store shelves now doing the same with touch-screen slates (perhaps we'll look back on this a year or two from now as the Tablet Bubble).

Coolest Netbook designs, 2007-2011 (photos)

See all photos

But the real reason Netbooks have fallen by the wayside is that they failed to evolve. After the first couple of generations, Netbooks settled into a comfortable niche of a 10.1-inch display, 1GB to 2GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and Windows (first XP, then Windows 7 Starter or Home Premium). You could get this basic combo for as little as $299, but some companies would charge more for upgrades such as nicer designs, rugged bodies, 3G antennas, or occasionally a higher-resolution display. But performance-wise, you'd usually be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a $299 Netbook and a $450 one.

The most recent Netbooks have almost all moved to the latest version of Intel's Atom processor, the dual-core N550, but in both our benchmark tests and anecdotal use, it hasn't been a huge step past the older models with the single-core Atom N450, adding to the feeling that today's Netbooks weren't much of an upgrade over the ones from a year or two ago.

In the meantime, larger laptops have made huge leaps, especially with Intel's second-generation Core i-series platform, which has boosted performance and battery life across the board. And 11-inch ultraportables with AMD's Fusion E-350 CPU have created a new market for laptops that provide relatively good performance and battery life, often for less than $500 (these systems arguably evolved from the handful of larger 11-inch Netbooks we'd seen over the years).

To be sure, many PC makers still have a Netbook or two in their lines, and even offer occasional updates and upgrades, but they're not being pushed like they used to. Sony, for example, has dropped Netbooks entirely from its Vaio line. Netbooks have definitely fallen off a cliff, but the question is, just how far?

One way to get a good barometer of the state of the Netbook market is to look at how many Netbooks (which we're defining for the purposes of this example as a 10- or 11-inch laptop with an Intel Atom CPU) we've tested and reviewed. Here's a quick chart of those numbers for last year and this year.

January to April 2010 18 Netbooks
January to April 2011 2 Netbooks,
3 AMD Fusion ultraportables

The data shows us that Netbooks are down, but not necessarily out. In the same time period, 11 tablets have been reviewed, from the iPad 2 to the Motorola Xoom to the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Another slice of data shows how many CNET readers have been reading about either Netbooks or tablets each month. Netbook interest peaked in December 2009, and has been declining most months since. Today it's down 54 percent since the launch of the iPad in April 2009. Tablets, on the other hand, have been growing in reader interest since the iPad launch (with a few ups and downs along the way), and is 56 percent higher in April 2011 than it was one year before.

The chart below illustrates this inverse relationship, counting unique monthly visitors who have viewed a product-specific page, such as the product review, product specs, or user reviews for either a Netbook or tablet.


What does the future hold for traditional Netbooks? Probably not much, unless the next generation of them offers some substantial evolutionary upgrades, and we'll likely have to wait for Intel's new Atom N2700 and N2800 processors to see if that happens. We've been onboard with Netbooks from day one, but it really does look like this category is getting squeezed from both ends, with tablets on one side and ultraportables on the other, and the prognosis is definitely grim.

But in the end, it's what consumers buy that will determine what kind of future products make it to store shelves, so it's really up to you.

Have Netbooks fallen off your radar as a computer user? Would you consider retiring your desktop or laptop entirely for a tablet? What would new Netbooks have to do to win back your attention? Let us know what you think in the comments section below. In the meantime, we've put together a quick walk-through of some of the coolest and most interesting or innovative Netbook designs from 2007 to today in a handy gallery.