Consumers are confused about netbooks

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Since Asus started the netbook craze a little over two years ago with their diminutive Eee PC, the netbook category has exploded. Nearly ever major PC brand (with the notable exception of Apple) has one, and prices have continued to drop as features and screen sizes have grown.

It’s no surprise that these little machines have become a hit: most models offer Windows XP, a 9″ or larger screen, built-in Wi-Fi, webcam, media card reader and a power-sipping processor that can last 5 hours or more on a a 3-cell battery. Higher-end models offer Solid State Drives, Bluetooth and multi-touch functionality. All this, starting at around $300.

There’s no doubt, netbooks offer superb value and portability for the money. So why then are a whopping 30% of all netbook purchases returned to the retailer where they were sold? The number comes from a recent Yankee Group report which concludes that consumers just aren’t well enough informed about the performance characteristics of netbooks before they buy.

Surprisingly, these consumers are not walking in to their local big box electronics retailer on a whim, and buying the first PC they see under $400. The same report claims that “consumers typically make a buying decision about a particular brand after hours, days or weeks of research—long before they ever walk into a store to purchase an item.”

If consumers are doing such due diligence yet are still unsatisfied with their purchase, it means that PC manufacturers, and all of us in the media, are doing a poor job educating buyers about netbooks before they even begin their research into which model is right for them.

The way to correct this apparent confusion is to start with some defintions that are meaningful to the average consumer. What is a netbook and what are the real differences between netbooks and their look-alike, but larger cousins, the laptops (or notebooks)?

Intel, the maker of the chips that are used in the vast majority of netbooks and notebooks, coined the term and has used it ever since to describe ultra-portable PCs that use their Atom processor. If we go with that as a starting point, any portable PC equipped with an Atom processor is a netbook, whereas any other CPU will make it a notebook.

But why does the processor matter? Aren’t size, weight, feature set etc. all important factors in identifying netbooks? Yes and no. While it’s true that most netbooks are small, with screen sizes never larger than 12″, and thin (often 1.5″ 1.5 cm thick) and light (some even as light as 2 lbs), it’s also true that they are no match for a notebook in the brains department.

And regardless how small and cheap a PC may be, if it can’t run all the software you could normally run (in the way that you normally run it) it’s not a notebook.

Well that sounds pretty clear: Atom processor = netbook, anything else = notebook. Right? Well…

It turns out that while Intel feels the netbook label is all about the CPU, other experts and some manufacturers disagree.

Sony just announced a machine they say is the world’s lightest laptop: the Vaio X.

And if the price is anything to go on, I’d have to agree. At $1300 it had better not be a netbook. But guess which processor is under the hood of this baby? Yup. An Intel Atom.

CNET, as recently as August of this year, argued that we should do away with the moniker altogether, claiming that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” and that “the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak.” 

The same article doesn’t mention anything about the difference in processing power between the two categories, which is a shame, because it can really make a difference. How much depends on the CPU comparison, but Tom’s Hardware benchmarked the Atom against a fairly slow Celeron chip, and the Atom did not fare well. The Celeron was 35% faster, across the board. Remember the Vaio X? Still wondering about that $1300 price tag? Me too.

That sounds like a real knock against the Atom, but when you consider that the Atom consumes far less power than the Celeron, things begin to make sense, and it brings us back to the reason why netbooks are appealing despite their lack of processing power:  Their tiny size, and super-efficient internal components means that though they aren’t workhorses, they can go much longer without plugging in to a wall.

What consumers should remember is that while the line is blurring between netbooks and notebooks, there are some real differences in terms of performance. Want a super-portable PC that can give you quick and easy net access from a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can check your mail, surf the web, watch some videos and stay up-to-date on Facebook? Want to go up to a whole day without a recharge? Get a netbook.

But if you need a portable PC that can mutli-task, edit video, play 3D games, run Photoshop and do it all without grinding to a halt, you want a notebook.



  1. Graham

    Interesting. I think however, you are speaking about the first generation of netbooks. You need to consider what Atom + Nvidia ION GPU does to the netbook catagory. Those 3D games and 1080p HD videos all of a sudden become a reality.

    The reality is this. Netbooks started at zero. Notebooks started at 100. Netbook built slowly, piece by piece, to reach that light, small, compact and portable computer. Notebooks are now trying to be at 100, scale it down, trying to become more like the netbook. A netbook really is a computer that doesn’t have a dvd drive. The safest definition, should be agreed on, that a netbook comes down to the size of the computer. I would think 12″ and under is netbook, and 13+ inch is notebook. End of story. Say no more. If you noticed, netbooks have been inching higher from their 8.9 inch roots. Why? Keyboard size. Fit a full keyboard, and that would be the maximum size that a “netbook” can or should be. I would suggest that the 12″ allows for a full size keyboard. Leave 13″ plus for laptops. Again, they are trying to move a notebook into netbook territory. Sad really. I understand the economics of why, but let us rebel, and call all 12 inch and unders, netbooks.


    • Simon Cohen

      Hey Graham, you’re right – some netbooks are upping the performance ante with the addition of the Nvidia ION chip, but this is really a band-aid solution. Consider: The additional chip takes a toll on battery life, reducing a netbook’s advantage in the time-to-charge area. Plus, even though rendering of on-screen graphics gets a bump, the real work is still being done by the Atom processor. And so I’m going to disagree with you and stick by my original defintion: If it can’t keep up with a notebook in the performance department, it’s a netbook, no matter what size the physical machine may be. After all, if Apple produced a 10″ MacBook Pro with a Core 2 Duo processor, it wouldn’t suddenly be a netbook, right? It would just be a really small, really light, really expensive notebook.


  2. Graham

    Thanks for replying. What I’m really saying is, netbook is and should be considered a light portable computer. Specs are really a side issue. Of course you can say that “netbook” means limited power, surfing only, and no gaming abilities. I’m saying, wait a sec, that was the first gen of netbooks. When you see ION netbooks, then that whole limited power, surfing only pigeon hole goes out the window. At that point (coming very soon), how can anyone say that “netbook” means limited usage computer? It won’t. I will say it again, it’s a size and weight issue. Battery life? Not critical, those will improve even with the ION netbook. The fact still remains that size is what makes a netbook a netbook. The industry needs to realize that 12″ and under is netbook. In a couple months or less, you won’t be able to say netbook means small limited usage computer. When you are playing FPS games and watching HD on your netbook, the label will change.


    • Simon Cohen

      I totally see what you’re getting at, but I think that labeling any laptop smaller than a certain size a ‘netbook’ misses the point. When Intel coined the term, they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t just refering to a very small notebook. They wanted people to know that this was a new class of PC, one that could act as a portable companion, but not as a fully-fledged laptop. After all, if the only difference between a notebook and a netbook was price and size, who *wouldn’t* want a netbook? But the fact is, netbooks – that is machines powered by an Atom processor – are not the equivalent of a notebook in terms of raw computing power (even if they have an ION GPU), and it’s vital that people realize that before they buy.


  3. Graham

    I completely agree with you on that. I think it’s a real problem if anyone thinks that a netbook would be suitable for a primary computer. Yep, it’s a companion computer and nothing more. It’s nice to chat about this, because it’s an interesting situation to me. So yes, sounds like we agree, the whole point of a netbook is as a secondary pc, period. Perhaps that should be the guiding light on what is or isn’t a netbook.

    I do say, the confusion will be growing very soon. I mean, think about people selling netbook cases that are 11.6 or 12 inch. Are people searching netbook case or are they searching laptop case? Is it an 11.6 in netbook case or is it a 11.6 inch laptop case? Do we need pages for each catagory? This seems ridiculous, but it’s really only the tip of the ice berg. A lot of confusion will be for everyone. How about Amazon? Do they need to start shifting around all their links? Ooops, we have an 11.6 in the netbook listings, but it should be in the laptop section. Nuts.

    Further, let’s talk about the confusion, which is the crux of this and your article. There is now going to be another trend of people dissatisfied with their new ultrathin laptop purchase when they get it home and realize it doesn’t have a dvd drive. Talk about a reversal. I would suggest that people associate dvd drives with notebooks and laptops. People are starting to realize that netbook means no dvd drive, but who the heck out there who isn’t tech savy, would ever think that they could buy a notebook or laptop without a dvd drive? Lots, just watch.

    This whole thing is silly. Will it take months or years to sort out? Who knows. Thanks for the discussion though, I appreciate it.