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The new kid on the block

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There is a new guy in town. Netbook is indeed the new kid on the block and it has separated itself from the traditional laptop (notebooks), palmtops and the ultra portable PCs to create a massive market which has been growing exponentially. So what is exactly a “Netbook”? If I say that it is a stripped down version of a laptop I might be able do justice to the word. But matter of fact, “Netbooks” maybe the answer to so many computer users who are not and will not be using their laptops for serious computing. The truth is that a general person who carries a laptop would not usually use that computer for very complex tasks. He would usually use it to check emails, read documents or to browse the internet. These tasks do not need high end processors and also would not consume a lot of memory. So the question is, why spend money on a laptop which has a lot of processing power and a large memory if only a fraction of it is going to be used.

History

Do you know the “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC) program? This was the program that was started in 2005 by the members of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab pioneered by Seymour Papert and Alan Kay. The ambition of this program is to educate children around the world through the use of low cost laptops which allowed them the access to information from all around the world. Their first product was XO-1 which was also known as the “$100 laptop” since it was intended to cost $100. These computers did not have hard drives but instead ran on flash drives. The operating system was Linux rather than Microsoft Windows which most of you use. But these computers were sophisticated on their own. It was given access to WiFi or wireless networks so children could use the computer at their own comfort. Although at first most of the big names in the computer hardware industry turned down this idea, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and CEO of Intel, it did not take much time for them to see big money in it. Although many would give credit to Asus Eee PC as the birth of the netbook market which was release back in 2007, it was the “OLPC” program that ignited this massive portable computer market.

2008 was the year of netbooks as many brands put out their version. Brands such as Asus, Acer and MSI were the first to get the bite but the other big names like Lenovo, HP, Sony VAIO and Dell were not far behind. Software vendors are also backing up the industry such as Microsoft and also community developed Ubuntu. Netbooks are flooding the market as new names are merging with many different specifications and designs. Below are details of few of the popular netbooks in the market.

 

Asus Eee PC

Eee PC has always looked up to by the others since it was the first to start off a commercially viable market for the netbooks. Asus did not disappoint this time at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by introducing new netbook models. Asus came up with two tablet versions, T91 and T101H. The T91 has an 8.9 inch screen (diagonally) where as the T101H has a 10 inch. T91 is powered by Z520 Intel Atom processor and is also equipped with a TV tuner and a built-in GPS. The T91 would have Microsoft XP home as the operating system. The most interesting thing is like all tablets; it has a “multi touch” screen which is quite rare in the netbook market. There is not much information about the T101 but it is expected to have much bigger capacity in the hard drive than its little brother. Asus also introduced other netbooks in their line up such as Eee PC 1002HA and Eee PC S101. Both are powered by Intel Atom 1.6GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. What next to be expected in the Asus lineup is Eee PC 1004DN which comes with the newest Atom chip and also comes with a DVD drive (which is very new to netbooks). The price of Eee PC 1002HA would be in the range of $350 – $450 and Eee PC S101 would vary between $600 and $650.

 

Sony VAIO P Series

This was the most talked about netbook at Consumer Electronics Show this year. This probably would be the most elegant of all netbooks. It is thin, light and short with just enough space to give room for the screen and the keyboard. It houses a track point that removes the need to space a touch pad. For people who want a palm rest, this is not the laptop for you. With a resolution of 1600 X 768 it can make it harder for some people to read. But it does come up with a feature to zoom in so that a lengthy document can be read with much ease. The power cable is too is very compact and it also includes a small breakout box that includes a VGA and the Ethernet port. Although it comes with Vista as an option, it would be bit of a load for the small VAIO P. But the good news it that it did well with Windows 7 which would be the next operating system coming out of Microsoft. With a price tag of $899 for the basic model it is bit more expensive than an ordinary netbook.

 

HP mini Series

The HP mini series have become more popular since its first model HP 2133 Mini-Note. The newest editions of the HP mini series have taken a bold move by replacing the VIA chipset which was used by their predecessors and using the Intel Atom instead. The HP mini 1000 was announced last year that was equipped with Intel Atom 1.6 GHz with 2GB RAM, 10 inch display, 60GB or the option to select 16GB or 32 GB SSD (solid state drives) and Microsoft XP. This model ranges from $330 to $550 according to the configuration selected. The HP Mini 2140 is actually the next model which is to replace much loved HP 2133 Mini-Note. It retains the case of its predecessor but includes an Intel Atom chip instead of the VIA. But the best thing being it having better options such as to include a USB external optical drive, 80GB SSD, and a 6 cell battery to increase the battery life would help a great deal. It can range from $500 to double the price if 80GB SSD option was chosen.

 

Dell Mini

 Dell started offering its netbook range with the introduction of Dell Mini 9 (8.9 inch screen) and Dell mini 12 (12.1 inch screen). The best about this range was the ability for the consumer to order a customized netbook similar to the other dell products. Dell Mini 12 started out offering Windows Vista but later gave the user the option of choosing Windows XP or Ubuntu. Furthermore the hard drive options expanded with up to 80GB PATA hard drives or up to 64GB SSDs which was very encouraging for the consumers who liked larger disk space. Both netbook series are powered by Intel Atom processors (choice of between 1.33GHz or 1.6GHz) but only offered a maximum 1GB of RAM which insufficient if you are running Vista. The Dell Mini 12 can range from $399 to $599 and Dell Mini 9 could range from $299 to $449. The next netbook in their product range is the new Dell Mini 10 which also referred to as “perfect 10” by Dell. There is not much information about its price or when it will be available in the market but it packs a 10 inch display with multitouch support, an Atom Z530 processor, built in GPS, TV tuner and an integrated 3G WWAN. But the Dell is yet to spill the bean on its most hype laptop; the Adamo. There is nothing about this particular product but few photos that show it to be one of the sleekest laptops to date. But there will be a lot of talk about Dell Adamo in the months to come where more information with regard to its specifications and pricing would be revealed.

 

Laptop or netbook?

The choice of buying a laptop or a netbook should be done after careful consideration. Much of the decision is with regard to your usage. If you are a programmer who writes codes, use a lot of integrated development environments or run servers, netbooks would give you a headache. If you are a gamer who loves to play the newest games in the market, still netbooks are a “no no”. If you are a graphics person who does a lot of designs on the computer still netbooks are not your best option. So who should use a netbook? Netbooks are for the general users. Netbooks are for users who are using it for reading documents, surfing the web, checking emails or doing presentations. No sophisticated software on netbooks. So why buy them? The price paid by a general user for a high end laptop compared to a netbook in the market has a substantial difference. Why pay for the extra processing power, extra storage and other features that the user will never use? So a user who is well aware of his/her computer usage would be able to make the right choice between a laptop and a netbook.

 

Next in line

The netbook market is still growing. It is still a very young market. The cost of netbooks would keep dropping in the months and years to come. One of the biggest obstacles for netbooks is the price of the SSDs or solid state drives. Solid state drives are hard drives which do not have any moving part or head, quite similar to your flash drive. SSDs are very popular with netbooks since they allow the netbooks to have a smaller form factor. With no sensors to detect the movement of the netbook the consumer has the luxury to use the netbook at his/her own comfortable position without affecting the performance of his/her user experience.

The lack of good operating systems to support netbook specification is also a concern. Microsoft delayed the deadline to cease their support to Windows XP which was due by the end of last year. Windows Vista is still too bulky for the netbooks but the new Windows 7 which is due mid of year 2009 is focused on catering for netbooks. The first beta of Windows 7 was released in January 2009 and it is currently being tested in many netbooks and it is giving surprisingly better results than its previous windows versions. Ubuntu, which is a linux based (more specifically debian based) operating system is also a big favorite among the netbook brands. It’s rich user experience and much better performance is the ideal for netbook users.

Hardware manufacturers are also looking into improving their products. Intel is coming up with its Atom N280 chip which would surpass the current netbook processors. The other competitor in the netbook processors is VIA which would be introducing it’s VIA nano chip which looks promising. Currently AMD has not shown any interest in designing any chips for the netbooks and Apple is not interested in adding a netbook series to its range of products.

By looking at the hype in the market netbooks are here to stay. If the price of the hardware drops and if the software vendors can provide light weight products to suit them there would be a household product very soon.

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Isuru Devaka Wijeyaratne is currently a graduate student of Rutgers Business School studying towards his Masters degree in Quantitative Finance. Isuru is a product of Royal College and D.S.Senanayake College. He is also a graduate of Computer Science and Engineering from University of Moratuwa. He also carries 2 years of experience as a business analyst for capital markets at Millennium Information Technologies. He was also the first Microsoft Student Ambassador of Sri Lanka from the year 2004 to 2006 working to develop the technical enthusiasm in students. He is a tech lover and has written regularly to technical magazines. He loves to read DC and Marvel comics and enjoys watching Japanese anime.

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