Future of netbooks

Monday, January 24, 2011, 7:10 by Tech Correspondent

Are netbooks’ best years behind them? Can we realistically expect to have these mini-laptops around in, say, three to five to years’ time? Or, will tablet PCs–led by the thus-far indomitable iPad–and ‘ultraportable’ computing devices spell doom for netbooks in the not-too-distant future, as being predicted by many? Well, before trying to find answers to these intriguing questions, let’s consider some facts and estimates.

Netbooks, with sales of roughly 36 million units globally last year, seem to have run out of steam, considering that these ‘mini-notes’ recorded a nearly threefold year-on-year surge in sales to almost 30 million units in 2009. And if plans of leading netbook vendors are anything to go by, it does look like demand for these low-cost sub-notebooks has peaked–particularly in developed markets. ASUS, which transformed the portable computing industry in 2007 with the launch of its 7-inch, Linux-based Asus Eee PC 701, is said to have reduced prices of its latest Atom N450 and dual-core N550 netbooks to boost sagging sales. MSI is reportedly mulling exiting the netbook market altogether, while HP is apparently planning to make its single-core netbook model available for less than $343.

In contrast, the iPad, hardly nine months’ old, has already sold over 10 million units worldwide, making this Apple tablet PC the most rapidly embraced non-phone electronic device of all time! And the juggernaut looks all set to roll on, with DisplaySearch–a global market research and consulting agency–predicting the sale of almost 24.8 million iPads in 2011. Bernstein Research, a prominent Wall Street research firm, is also gung ho over Apple’s latest showstopper, forecasting that the iPad will this year become the fourth largest consumer electronics segment in the U.S., overtaking gaming hardware and cell phones–trailing only TVs, smartphones and notebooks.

As expected, the iPad’s success has triggered an unprecedented boom in the tablet space, with over 50 technology companies planning to roll out these portable PCs based on several operating systems including Android and Windows.

Which, then, begs a pretty fundamental question–should the iPad and other tablets be compared to netbooks in the very first place? Do tablet PCs and mini-notebooks both serve the same purpose, or each of them have their own USPs–be it in terms of functionalities, specifications, price, etc.?

Netbooks vs. tablets

Netbooks, if you might recall, became hugely popular worldwide within two years of being launched in 2007, largely due to the fact that these small, lightweight devices gave users a basic, 10-inch portable PC for an affordable $250–$300 price tag–making them an attractive alternative to conventional laptops. Typically driven by an Intel Atom processor and based on the Windows operating system, a netbook allowed consumers to execute essential computing tasks such as basic document creation, e-mail, Internet browsing–put simply, this device facilitated the creation of pretty much all kinds of content as was possible on a mainstream notebook. Not to mention factors such as a full QWERTY keyboard that offers tactile feedback, a far superior battery life (up to seven hours on average) than a laptop, etc. Plus, netbooks enable light content consumption, including Web surfing, on the move.

netbook nb250 a1110 photo

Photo: Will netbook survive the tablet onslaught?

But these clamshell style devices have their drawbacks, too, the most prominent being their rather limited hardware specifications–including a not-too-powerful CPU and only 1GB of RAM.

The iPad, on the other hand, proved to be a game changer for the entire computing industry, including netbooks, by offering consumers a portable utility device that lets them enjoy all sorts of multimedia content–browsing the Internet, checking e-mails, listening to songs, reading e-Books, watching videos, downloading apps, playing games, etc.–for a not-too-hefty $499 and above. Rolling a sexy form factor, sleek design, an impressive battery life of up to ten hours, fast processor, a user-friendly 9.7-inch multitouch screen and an exciting app store–all into one device, Apple gave us a completely new product that, as Steve Jobs aptly put it, does more than a phone and less than a full PC–at a price point in between those two devices.

ipad tablet photo

Photo: The 12-million iPad sales have got industry excited about tablets.

And as users increasingly look for a portable computing solution that checks off all the boxes–in terms of offering the right size, light weight, connectivity, battery life and price, of course–tablets, led by the iPad, are looking to tap this demand with a promise of enabling content consumption and very light content creation.

As a case in point, Asus is set to showcase two Android-based, 10-inch tablets–the Asus Eee Pad Slider and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer–sporting slide-out keyboards at the CES 2011 (Consumer Electronics Show) to be held in Las Vegas this week. While Asus Eee Pad Slider features a slide out keyboard, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer’s keyboard can be detached from the rest of the tablet.

Parameter Netbooks Tablets (Primarily the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab) Comment
Average price $250–$300 Between $500-$650 (depending on 3G bundling) Netbooks clearly score over tablets on this front
Portability (in terms of average weight) 1.2kg iPad – 0.68-0.73kgGalaxy Tab – 0.38kg Here, tablets outperform netbooks
Battery life Up to seven hours Up to 10 hours for iPad; Up to seven hours for Galaxy Tab iPad, clearly, the winner in this one
Performance Can handle multi tasking easily though graphics pose some challenge Struggles on multi tasking; no front or rear cameras; lack of Flash support, and no integrated HD video output Each has their own strengths, but netbooks have a slight edge
Storage 160GB hard disk drive and 1GB RAM (on average) Up to 64GB flash drive for iPad; Up to 32GB for Galaxy Tab Tablets are decidedly more dependent on the Cloud (Web)
Form factor keyboard makes content creation easier No Keyboard Tablets are great for browsing content but not for creating it
Social media Deliver ok–but not awesome–user experience Great interface for using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. You can do pretty much everything related to social media easily on tablets

Future netbooks

No wonder then that netbooks are trying to reinvent themselves. Expect the next generation of netbooks to be powered by Intel’s new dual-core Atom series CPUs, and to feature higher-resolution screens and new graphics hardware such as NVIDIA’s Ion graphics processing unit.

Several PC manufacturers are planning to reposition these mini-laptops as 11- and 13-inch ‘thin and light’ laptops with full keyboards. Lenovo declared Monday that it would launch the ThinkPad X120e, an 11.6-inch “ultraportable” that would be driven by an integrated AMD Fusion E-Series processor, yielding “65% faster graphics performance,” according to the company.

Toshiba, meanwhile, is poised to roll out the NB550D, a 10-inch portable device that, the Japanese tech giant claims, will be “much more than a normal netbook”–powered by a 1GHz AMD C-50 Ontario APU and boasting of 9.5 hours of battery life as well as Harman Kardon speakers.

The Google Chrome OS dimension

To add another dimension to this ongoing churn in the portable computing market, Google last month released its much talked-about Chrome operating system, saying that a new series of netbooks running on this browser-based OS will be launched by the likes of Acer and Samsung by mid-2011.

Apart from providing a new OS option for netbook vendors (most mini-laptops presently are based on Windows or Linux), the Chrome platform is touted to offer integration with Google’s array of web apps such as GMail and Google Docs–thereby making it a superior cloud-oriented OS than anything available currently. If Google is to be believed, the Chrome-based netbooks, given their lack of desktop software, will be fast (e.g. instant booting) and also secure, thanks to data encryption by default. Users can also look forward to features such as quick access to the Net, offline use, etc. If this indeed turns out to be the case, the Chrome OS could breathe fresh life into the netbook industry, facilitating creation of cheap, network-enabled portable computers.

The runaway success of the iPad, the downsizing plans of netbook vendors, and consumers’ increasingly changing buying patterns do pose a significant challenge for netbooks. But for anyone to conclude that tablets will replace netbooks altogether seems rather premature at this point in time–unless, of course, the tablet makers can come up with a product that can serve as an all-in-one solution for all of users’ computing requirements, both in terms of content creation and consumption.

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