What is a netbook?

The rise of netbooks has been a remarkable thing to watch. What started with a little Eee PC that was at best a curious novelty among enthusiasts has turned into the beginnings of a revolution in mobile computing. We've moved beyond the Eee now, and the market is teeming with fresh entries from Asus, Acer, MSI, Gigabyte, Samsung, Lenovo, HP, Dell, and others. Even Apple is rumored to have a netbook in the works.

So what is a netbook, exactly?  The term netbook was appropriated at a time when the market was pretty homogeneous. Despite coming from different manufacturers, most systems stuck to the same basic formula: 9-10" screen pushing 1024x600 pixels, single-core Atom processor at 1.6GHz, no optical drive, and a price tag of around $500 or less. It's almost as if Intel itself had carefully crafted a set of low-end specifications that wouldn't cannibalize more profitable notebook sales and then strongly, ahem, suggested that its partners not deviate from them.

Fortunately, netbooks have become such a hit that PC maker are quickly diversifying to meet what appears to be incredibly strong demand. The Atom processor, for example, continues to defy its roots and can now be found in select 12" systems that look and awful lot like proper laptops. One can't expect killer performance from these systems, but they do offer bigger keyboards and larger, higher-resolution displays. You can even get an Atom processor alongside an optical drive in Asus' new Eee PC 1004DN.

There is also a growing trickle of thinner, lighter, and more stylish netbooks that do little to change the Atom platform's core components. These luxury netbooks are even slower than their predecessors thanks to 1.8" hard drives, and they're selling at a premium, with prices starting at around $650 and going up from there.

Speaking of luxury, there's Sony's Vaio P, a featherweight by 9" netbook standards.  Although it's not cheap at $900-$1500, you do get a freakishly high-res 1600x768 display. The Vaio P may have an Atom processor, but it clearly thumbs its nose at the genre's affordable roots. Is it still a netbook?

As the Atom moves into new price and size territory, there's also the matter of smaller notebooks that have moved down to meet it. Take HP's Pavilion dv2, for example. For just $750, the dv2 offers a 1.6GHz Athlon Neo CPU that should easily out-muscle an Atom, a 12" 1280x800 display with a svelte enclosure to match, Mobility Radeon HD 3410 integrated graphics, a whopping 4GB of memory, Vista x64, and an external DVD burner. The dv2 certainly looks like a full-fledged notebook, but it's the same price as Asus' Atom-powered N10Jc-A1, which looks an awful lot like a netbook.

Truth be told, many of the qualities that define the so-called netbook are rather relative: "low" price, "small" size, "good enough" performance, and so on. I tend to think of netbooks as budget ultraportables that make sacrifices to hit lower price points while still delivering just enough speed for most applications.

Given the netbook market's current scope, I think it's reasonable to allow for some segmentation within the genre. After all, traditional notebooks go from low-rent 15.4" clunkers all the way up to pimped out gaming systems and ultra-premium thin and lights—a range of several thousand of dollars. A premium thin-and-light netbook may cost about as much as a budget 12" notebook, but that doesn't mean that the two are gunning for the same slice of the market. They involve very different trade-offs. Realistically, however, even a loose definition of netbooks shouldn't have to deal with a price swing of more than a grand.

At the end of the day, I couldn't care less what you call these systems. I was fine when the Eee PC was a budget ultraportable notebook. That terminology definitely lacks zazz, but it's a much more apt description.

What I really care about is the rapid democratization of portable networked computers, regardless of what artificial market segmentation banner they arrive under. In fact, I'm quite delighted to see a mix of alternative and oddball designs muddying the waters. That just gives consumers a greater variety of options to choose from, and I guarantee you they're interested. I've had more random strangers come up to me and ask about my Eee PC 1000HA than I've had random strangers approach me about... anything. And not one of them had any clue what the word "netbook" meant.

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