The Netbook Revolution: A Whole New Niche in Computing

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Netbooks: Getting Past Today's Crippled Notebooks

Netbooks: Getting past today's crippled notebooks
Other than cost, there has been little to distinguish the current generation of netbooks from earlier portables. Netbooks have small screens and keyboards, and they typically lack optical drives, but otherwise they resemble most laptops. And while most manufacturers offer some form of Linux pre-installed on their netbooks, it's mainly a marketing strategy: According to Microsoft, fully 96 percent of netbooks actually sold ship with Windows.

But users who approach netbooks as they would any other laptop are likely to be disappointed. Netbooks' tiny screens and cramped keyboards can be fatiguing to use for long periods, and their low-power processors struggle under heavy workloads. Business users will be dismayed by their lack of security features, such as fingerprint readers and drive encryption. And with their closed hardware designs and limited drive space, most models have short upgrade lifecycle.

Flush with their initial successes, however, manufacturers have responded to these complaints with variations on the original theme. Asus, arguably the creator of the netbook category, now lists no fewer than 14 models of its Eee PC portables on its Web site, including some with 10-inch screens and nearly full-size keyboards. Both Asus and Acer plan to ship netbooks with 11.6-inch screens in the near future. But as netbooks' capabilities have inched closer to those of traditional laptops, so too have their prices. Some models list for $700 or more, leaving many customers wondering where the netbook category ends and where laptops begin.

Apple, which so far has stayed out of the netbook market, thinks the distinction is clear. "It's a stretch to call [a netbook] a personal computer," Apple COO Tim Cook said at a recent earnings conference, citing low build quality, inadequate software, and poor usability.

But in the Windows world, few PC manufacturers seem to share Apple's pessimism. On the contrary, there is every indication that the battle for the low end is only just beginning. As the netbook market heats up, the pressure is on to drive prices even lower.

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