Ever since I sat down with Intel last spring to hear more about its tiny new Atom chip, mini computers with these chips have been popping up everywhere.
Lenovo became the latest company with a ‘netbook’ or ‘nettop,’ a new category of computers that are smaller, lighter and often cheaper than a laptop. With Internet access, the portable computers are targeting those in the market who want something between the smartphone and laptop.
Before that, it was Sylvania (with the g netbook), MSI Computer Corp. (and its MSI Wind) and ASUS (with new models of its Eee PC). Coming soon, there’s Hannspree. Plus reports around the web said these nettops/netbooks were also on the way from BenQ, Clarion, Gigabyte and Compal. Rumored to come are netbooks from Dell, HP and even Irvine’s Toshiba.
But smaller, lighter and cheaper means a sacrifice.
The ASUS Eee PC I’ve been playing around with for a few weeks has a 7-inch screen, surrounded by two speakers. It feels like a plastic children’s toy, which I can live with. It’s just the minuscule keyboard that my fingers find it impossible to type on unless I use the two-finger method.
With so many companies jumping into the market, it made me wonder whether these netbooks really are the next big thing or is this just another Internet appliance?
Richard Shim, a PC analyst with market researcher IDC Corp., says not really.
“When I talk to manufacturers, they tell me it’s a defensive move. They don’t want to give up the opportunity to someone else in case it balloons and then it’ll be harder to get into the market,” Shim said.
Even Microsoft reacted defensively because the first netbooks relied on Linux. Microsoft now offers a slimmed-down version of Windows XP for devices.
IDC forecasts that worldwide sales of netbooks will reach 3.5 million this year and triple by 2012 to 9.5 to 10 million units. Shim wants to raise the numbers but not because of demand. Rather, IDC had the maximum netbook price at $499 but new ones have been released to up the price to $599.
The hype of netbooks, however, appear to be fueled more by companies than consumers. Besides the limitations — tiny keyboards, slower processor, minimal storage space — the prices are similar to the cheapest laptops. A Dell Inspiron, for example, has a 15-inch screen, 80 GB hard drive and sells for $499.
“When you look at it that way, the Inspiron looks more like a primary notebook. To me, the ultra-low cost systems are better associated with being secondary computers,” Shim said, adding that netbooks will likely find a permanent niche as tablet PCs have done.
The latest contenders
Lenovo’s isn’t too-too small. Its IdeaPad S10 netbook (on right) has a 10.2-inch screen, a keyboard that is 85 percent the size of a laptop’s keyboard and a energy-efficient LED backlit display to conserve battery. Like other netbooks, the 2-pound IdeaPad has Wi-Fi and two USB ports. Also has 4-in-1 card reader, Express Card slot, webcam and includes Windows XP. Two configurations available, one with 512 MB of memory and 80 GB hard drive, or 1 GB memory and 160 GB hard drive. It starts at $399 and goes on sale in October at lenovo.com and other online stores.
The SYLVANIA g netbook (on right and below) has a 7-inch screen, a Linux-based operating system and weighs 1.8 pounds. It starts at $399. Coming this month, Sylvania is adding a 8.9-inch and 10-inch model to its netbook lineup — both run on Intel’s Atom chip. Those are expected to cost less than $500.