Whatever happened to Netbooks?

Netbooks were all the rage in 2009 and a dog in 2010.

The bloom came off the netbook rose early last year, possibly in anticipation of the iPad and then directly from the wildly popular tablet. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article in early April:

Netbook shipments to retailers from January through March are expected to grow 33.6% compared with a year ago, to 4.8 million units, IDC says. That’s significantly slower growth than in the first quarter of 2009, when netbook sales leapt 872%, to 3.6 million units. “Everyone tried to make these mini-notebooks out to be a different category, or different type of device,” says IDC analyst Richard Shim. “In fact, people think of them as just another type of PC.”

Falling sales aren’t the only problem dogging netbooks. There’s evidence that demand for netbook components is declining. The Web site DigiTimes reported on Mar. 30 that makers of the liquid-crystal-display panels used in netbooks are cutting production because of declining orders. PC makers including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), andAcer declined to comment on whether inventories of unsold netbooks are on the rise.

Netbooks have simply run their course. They are under-powered — Tweetdeck absolutely swamps mine especially when I follow something such as the tragic shootings yesterday in Arizona (“Giffords”) or live during a game (“Celtics or Patriots”).

Given a choice, wouldn’t you buy a full netbook? A  notebook with a full keyboard, display and more powerful CPU can be had for the same price as a netbook and sometimes for less. I bought a HP Pavilion notebook for $290 in late 2009 and it is superior to the two netbooks I own  (the Pavilion retailed for more than $600, but Best Buy discounted because it was an open box and gave me even more off the price because of a problem with another notebook).

Despite the onslaught of Android-based tablets (wither Win7?)  at the Consumer Electronics Show whose sales are forecast to tip 50 million this year, companies like Acer still see solid demand for a crop of faster netbooks and is operating on the belief 40 million will be sold this year representing 20 percent of all notebook sales. I wrote a post in early 2009 when netbooks were rising that reported that they comprised a fifth of the notebook sales.

These projections could be off given that price-wise comparing tablets is a bit apples to oranges, but the trend is right: tablets  presently average $500-$600, some $100-$300 more than netbooks.

Will the tablet as this year’s darling be next year’s dog? I doubt it. Tablets are a completely new genre of computer whose acceptance has been well-established by the Kindle and iPad. Virtually, the entire market for tablets lies in front of it with plenty of room for downward pricing actions. No doubt, a lot of you not reading books on a tablet will be by 2012. And tablets will relegate many netbooks to surplus electronics status.

The consensus at CES is that there were no iPad killers, by the way, but it’s good to see Apple get some competition.

The netbook’s position was always shaky given it is simply a smaller less powerful  version of the notebook PC which is pushing 25 years. In a word, it was a compromise whose only benefit was its size and price for a time.

I jumped on the netbook bandwagon in early 2009, but knew their popularity could not last. I still use mine in the family as a TV companion, not as a companion to a full notebook as many analysts used to say, often repeating the marketing messages of netbook vendor.

Hey, this the tech world. What’s wildly popular today will quickly be forgotten tomorrow.

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11 comments On Whatever happened to Netbooks?

  • Tablets are also underpowered, just like netbooks are. They do serve a much more limited need than a notebook and perhaps there are users for whom that is enough. In the long run, I think we will tend to have 2 devices – a pocket device which is phone, texting, quick email, browsing and maybe book-reading, and a second device that goes in the briefcase and can run powerful apps including Excel, Powerpoint, Email, with a real keyboard. Are tablets useful enough to be more than a niche? Or are do they fill the notebook segment for those users who don’t have real compute needs?

  • I agree tablets and notebook serve largely different needs, but there is some overlap. In fact, I see the iPad as more of a companion to a notebook than a netbook. My ipad is not underpowered, but suffers from no USB ports, a rigid charging system and the inability to run flash. Those, IMO, are HUGE drawbacks. That said, I am enjoying my iPad more and more, but am typing out this comment on my netbook. If you have all three, why not?

  • I have a 17″ notebook that I wouldn’t dream of traveling with unless really needed. I have an android smartphone that I love, but it’s too small for anything serious or sustained. I hope to get a tablet later this year, but I expect that to be a “den device” for the family. I also have an Acer netbook that I take with me whenever I travel. I love the small size (but big enough for a real keyboard and to do work on) and low weight. Yes, it’s a bit underpowered, but I can remote into a real computer for heavy-duty work when needed. I know I can use something like LogMeIn on a tablet or on my phone, but it’s just not the same. The netbook isn’t ideal, but it certainly fills it purpose and works for me.

  • There are good arguments for all three devices, and when someone builds a reasonably priced tablet that has USB, runs Flash and can do everything my netbook does, I might buy one. Until then, my netbook with Windows XP will be my traveling device (viewing recorded TV, video, photos, music, e-mail, etc. with 6+ hrs of battery life) and my home laptop and desktop will do the heavy lifting. Sure nice to set the netbook on the airplanes tray table and not have to hold it like an iPad.

  • I need to take care of my business round the clock and I’ve found a netbook a very good solution. I can easily carry it “under my arm” and open and view all kind of attachments. My netbook is powered by Atom N550 and 2Gb DDR3 Ram, which are more than enough to cover my needs on the road. I understand that the average netbook is “underpowered”, and If I need more “horsepower”, I use my desktop. I always new that with the proper specs and a “fine tuned” OS, It would be the perfect tool, at least for me.

  • Good articulation of the netbook legitimacy, but imagine if you had a notebook with a 14-inch display…very portable, IMO.

  • My netbook is a Samsung NC10. For a time it was my primary computer and worked well for surfing the Web and some video chatting (as long as nothing else was running). My old Toshiba was on it’s last legs and I couldn’t afford anything else at the time. I’m glad I was able to get a computer that could do what I needed a computer to do for under $400.

    Once I started school, I needed something with more power and by that time had the money to get a 15-inch Samsung. The netbook has become our travel and back-up computer. I think they still serve a purpose, but the market is probably shrinking with the arrival of the tablet.

  • I’ve seen some chatter about tablets gain popularity in corporations, too…tablets have broader appeal than just serving as a fun consumer device.

  • Love my Dell mini 9 netbook. Great for web browsing. I increasingly use it more than anything else. I don’t have problems with speed; maybe because it has Ubuntu and not Windows?

  • I used to travel with a 14″ laptop and a spare battery pack. This Netbook scheme I use now saves a lot of weight, even with a portable DVD burner in the bag. Haven’t found a laptop yet that can give me 6+ (real) hours of battery life running video, and costs only $350 to purchase. Your comments on lack of USB or Flash video support is also the #1 and 2 reasons I avoid the iPad so far. Most of the videos I record are in Flash format and I’d have to convert the files to something the iPad would support. I also backup my trip photos on DVD and give copies of those trip photos to the friends I’m traveling with on DVD or flash drive. Can’t do that with and iPad. I’m sure the tablet market will catch up some day.

  • The netbook served the purpose of driving laptop prices to netbook levels. It also served to show non-mobile users that mobile usage could be valuable. I was able to get a refurb Acer netbook w/DVD burner drive, wireless mouse, and case, for 175 bucks shipped. I use it for mobile photography purposes and others, and I will definitely consider a laptop to augment my desktop when this netbook fails……I discovered the mobile uses, then agreed that the full power of a good laptop would be useful.

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