Time to drop the Netbook label

Microsoft offers the new Windows 7 for Netbooks.
Can we all agree on something? There’s no longer a difference between a Netbook and a notebook.

Thanks to Netbooks’ move to more features and larger-size screens, the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak. We recently wrote about the fall’s coming battle between Netbooks — a category now 2 years old — and thin and light notebooks with consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) processors. In theory, the value of a Netbook — with its small keyboard, small screen, and lack of an optical drive — vs. an ultralight laptop with a long battery life and a full-size keyboard for roughly the same price was very low. But now that we’re actually seeing how PC makers are packaging and selling CULV notebooks (take Dell’s recent introduction of its Inspiron 11z notebook) it’s obvious: Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks. The distinction made some sense early on. The first Netbooks were very small, around 7 or 8 inches, and were used for little more than getting online. They were marketed by smaller brands such as Asus and MSI as super portable, inexpensive notebooks that ran Linux, cutting out much of the cost tacked on with a Windows license. But they didn’t really take off until Microsoft began offering Windows XP specifically for Netbooks, long after it was no longer available on new laptops and desktops.

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The big PC makers, understandably, wanted a piece of the action too, but not at the expense of cannibalizing their budget-conscious traditional notebook lines. So Netbooks were sold as a “companion device.” As in, if you keep some of your data “in the cloud” as with e-mail on Yahoo or Gmail or pictures on Facebook or Picasa, and you stream music on a service like Pandora or Last.fm, you can use your regular notebook at home and use something smaller on the road that still affords access to a lot of your stuff. But then people outside the tech-savvy early-adopter crowd started buying Netbooks in droves — 16 million of them were sold in North America in 2008 — because they were so much cheaper than most traditional laptops, and with XP, had a familiar operating system. Their popularity, probably not coincidentally, began to grow right around the time the economy crumbled. Then, earlier this year, Intel started pushing the idea of ultra-low voltage processors that are inexpensive and offer better battery life. PC makers, of course, like this idea because they can package them in yet more new hardware and can charge a bit more than they would for a Netbook. Which brings us to Dell announcing its $399 Inspiron 11z. It certainly looks like a Netbook and has a Netbook-like price, yet to Dell, it’s not a Netbook. Instead, the company describes it as a notebook with a slightly faster processor, and 1GB of more memory. Acer says Netbooks “typically” have Atom processors, weigh less than 3 pounds, have screens between 10 and 11.6 inches, and are in the $299 range. HP says Netbooks are smaller than 12 inches and intended as companion devices designed for “content consumption, while the traditional notebook PC is also designed for content creation as well as consumption.” It’s clear this is mostly arbitrary. If there were a technical definition it wouldn’t be constantly in a state of flux: two years ago, Netbooks would have been defined as something with a much smaller screen, at least as small as 7 inches, and a more expensive starting price. But it’s most helpful to look at one from each category side by side. Let’s compare the $399 Inspiron 11z (whose price might go up slightly when the promotion is over) and the Dell Mini 10 Netbook, which I configured with roughly the same specs, but that comes out to a slightly pricier $424. Color, screen resolution, battery, Wi-Fi, Webcam The same. And they both lack an internal optical drive. The differences, though relatively small, can be summed up in the 11z notebook’s 1.5 inches of extra screen real estate, a more powerful Celeron processor, 1GB of extra memory, and a larger hard drive. Plus, by getting the notebook with Vista, you have an automatic free upgrade to Windows 7. With any computer with XP, it costs around $100 to get Windows 7 Home Premium Edition. The specs are so similar that the average shopper would likely be confused as to why one is better than the other. And the way Dell introduced the 11z doesn’t clear matters up. Dell’s official blog notes that “the Inspiron 11z blends Netbook-like portability with laptop-like capability.” If the specs and capabilities are essentially the same, and the size (both 1-inch thin) and weight (the 11z is 3 pounds, the Mini 10 2.6 pounds) are essentially the same, one of these is not more “portable” than the other. The only conclusion is that there really is no distinction between the devices besides names. Now, it’s true not every manufacturer will sell a notebook so similar to what it calls a Netbook. HP sells Netbooks and ultrathin CULV laptops, as do Lenovo, Acer, and many others. But Dell’s blurring of the line between the two appears to reflect the lack of clarity of the whole industry when it comes to how to balance selling more laptops, pricing them attractively when many buyers are pinching pennies, and still finding a way to make some sort of profit. Because the definition of Netbook is so arbitrary, and because you get so much more for your money with thin and light CULV-based Netbooks, it’s really not hard to imagine the former flood of Netbooks to the market slowing down to a trickle.