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Trends in computer technology come and go, but despite the hype that often surrounds new products, the industry doesn’t often change radically. Desktops are still sold in the millions, Windows is still the most popular operating system, and Intel still dominates the market for PC processors.

Yet there is one recent trend that seems to have become the very definition of flash-in-the-pan – the netbook. After an explosive rise in 2008 and 2009, sales have stalled out. Is the tiny PC on the out for good.

Netbook Rising

The first netbooks hit the scene in 2007. Small and inexpensive, they ran older Intel processors at low clock speeds and usually came with a Linux distro instead of Windows.  They were never really intended to become a big deal in established markets – they were meant instead to be affordable, portable computers for markets where larger and faster laptops were unaffordable.

But there was something cool about these tiny computers, and hype began to snowball. Intel’s Atom processor was adapted to them to provide better battery life, giving them endurance to match their portability. By 2008 it was clear that netbooks were becoming their own niche and by 2009, they’d cornered over 20% of global computers shipments.  By comparison, smartphone market share didn’t exceed 20% of all mobile phone sales until the third quarter of 2010.

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Underneath the good news, however, there was trouble.

Consumers Tricking Themselves

Netbooks aren’t hard to make cool. They’re portable, active devices sold on the idea that you can take them anywhere. Consumers bought netbooks during dreams of writing a novel during a flight to Cancun or sending family photos while sipping a latte at the hip new coffee shop down the street.

Reality is less glamorous, however. One NPD survey found that 60% of netbooks never actually made their way out of the home they’d be brought to. And once you’ve stripped away a netbook’s portability you’re left with a cheap but slow laptop – which may be right as the same survey found that only 27% of buyers thought their netbook performed better than expected.  A somewhat less reliable report from a research firm called Biz360 found that consumers weren’t expressing satisfaction with netbooks online as aggressively as with other products.

Consumers were, in essence, tricking themselves. Yet they can hardly be blamed – according to most technology journalists, netbooks were The Next Big Thing. Even I bought a netbook, only to end up selling it about six months later.

The Tailspin Begins

And so, we come to today.

It’s certainly not hard to buy a netbook 5 Things To Consider Before Buying A Netbook 5 Things To Consider Before Buying A Netbook Read More online. They’re all over Amazon, Newegg and other retailers. Step into a big-box store, however, and you’ll have a harder time. They’ve been shoved aside. Tablets now take their space on store shelves.

Dismal reports can be found all over the web. Netbook sales have fallen by 40% in Western Europe according to Gartner, while a separate MBI research study has found that tablet sales overtook netbooks in Q2 2011.

There’s nowhere to go but down. The netbook as we knew it – a small laptop with a 10” display – looks set to vanish almost entirely from mature markets over the next few years. Even emerging markets may lose their love for them thanks to the constant downward trend in mainstream laptop prices.

Netbooks may not yet be buried, but the funeral procession has begun.

Leaving A Legacy

I don’t think many people will miss netbooks. My personal love for netbooks was never great, and took a definite turn for the worse after I purchased one myself and found it to be unsatisfactory.

Yet their bad traits have been corrected in a new class of small and inexpensive ultraportables that are among the best PCs sold today. I’m talking about products like the HP dm1z and the ASUS Eee PC 1215 – laptops that are large enough and powerful enough to be truly enjoyable, but sold for well under $500.

And then we have tablets The 3 Best Android Tablets Available Today That A Buyer Should Check Out The 3 Best Android Tablets Available Today That A Buyer Should Check Out While the iPad was able to jump on the tablet market before anyone else, Android tablets from competitors are starting to flow like water. There’s now a wide variety of options available and many of... Read More , which owe a debt of gratitude to netbooks for serving as a proof-of-concept. Remember, the “net” was there for a reason. These were supposed to be the perfect computer for people who don’t do a lot besides surf the web. They failed to fill that role, but in their failure they proved that there was demand for low-power content consumption devices. Would the iPad have arrived in 2010 if the netbook hadn’t caught on in 2008?

Netbooks may be on the outs, but that doesn’t mean they were pointless. During their short burst of glory they changed the path of consumer electronics forever. Light a candle, bow your head, and join me in a moment of silence for the netbook.

  1. Smurfalert
    January 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    I had a Sharp MM1110 before the term netbook had been invented (and it's thinner than the Macbook Air!) and have a more recent Dell Mini 9. I never expected them to be desktop replacements, graphics powerhouses or gaming monsters...

    I bought them precisely because they performed basic computing tasks in a small footprint and light weight device. They still do that, and newer versions have improved battery life too.

  2. Anonymous
    January 10, 2012 at 6:07 am

    As someone who actually travels with a computer frequently, I love my netbook. It's light and cheap, and sufficient for word processing, email, and Skype. If you want to do more than that, you shouldn't buy a net book, simple as that. The cheapness of the netbook was a key aspect (the initial hype about the EEE 701 talked about a $100 laptop). Claiming now that the netbook is dead because more expensive computers are better misses the point. More expensive computers were always better, but the cheap computer was cheap, and sometimes good enough is good enough.

    Finally I really don't see how tablets are supposed to replace netbooks because tablets lack keyboards. Tablets are toys, good for consumption and entertainment, but almost completely useless for business. I'm typing this comment on my tablet, an the process is slow and irritating.

    • Pablo
      January 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      Good points. 

    • M.S. Smith
      January 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      But netbooks aren't good enough. Their display resolution is too lower, their processors aren't powerful enough, and they aren't big enough to offer most users a comfortable typing position.

      Also, while cheap, you can buy larger budget ultraportables for as little as $400. Saving $100 by going with a netbook just isn't worth it. 

  3. Tony
    January 9, 2012 at 3:45 am

    My take is a little different.  As I recall, Intel didn't want the netbooks to compete with the more expensive laptop market, and 'insisted' that manufacturers had to limit the devices to 10" screen, 1 Gb RAM, and (ecch) Atom processors.

    A ramped up netbook with a decent x2 processor, 2 Gb RAM, and a reasonable SSD would work very well for me.  I hate having too many of these electronic devices like my Blackberry, Kindle, portable, etc etc.  I would much rather pop a netbook in my briefcase & be done with it.

    My problem was/ is that to get a netbook that way I want it would cost more than the discounted price of a portable or iPad clone. I don't think that's a problem with netbooks so much as it is an economic problem that nobody really built for the market that could have been.

  4. klu9
    January 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I've had an 8.9" Acer netbook for a few years. When I was an onsite teacher, it was fantastic: *so* much lighter than schlepping my 15" laptop back and forth every day to university (I'm a pedestrian). And thanks to the design (big gap for my fingers between open screen and main body), I could securely hold it in one hand and use it with the other, walking around the classroom or language lab and show things to students. And do *real* typing between classes. I even gave away my laptop to my mum when her desktop died.

    But once I stopped teaching onsite and went purely online, the tiny screen and feeble performance got really frustrating (altho less so when I installed TinyXP alongside the official bloated XP). Also the mic min-jack input is faulty/very noisy, so I've had to rely on (expensive) USB headsets for recording/VoIP etc.

    So I recently got... an HP DM1, just as mentioned in the article :). Very happy so far, and I got it during the whole HP "focus shift" kerfuffle, so the price was 25% off (and has since gone back up).

    As for tablets, I haven't really tried them. I think a tablet would just be a toy for me, unless I went back to onsite teaching: then I could appreciate the portability, altho the lack of a real keyboard would probably frustrate.

  5. James Bruce
    January 7, 2012 at 9:16 am

    I remember my mates and I huddling round one of those first dell netbooks that we'd successfully got OSX installed on. A stunning moment, until you realise the machines were an underpowered POS, useless for real computing with a seriously-no-one-but-a-3-year-old-could-type-on-this keyboard. My netbook is one of the few tech devices I really regret ever having spent money on. 

    Still, I could have done worse - I could have bought an ANDROID TABLET!!!! ROFL!!!

  6. gpvprasad
    January 7, 2012 at 5:11 am

    The main down fall is because of the no of app's :{

    • James Bruce
      January 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

      ? A netbook is a computer, there are millions of apps for windows, linux. 

  7. Anonymous
    January 7, 2012 at 4:08 am

    My netbook became my travel companion. I agree its not as powerful as a full laptop, but as a tool for my travel photography it's great! Small enough to easily carry and big enough to do whatever i wanted.

    A computer that allowed me to keep in touch with friends and a place to download pictures from my camera. For now, there are no tablets with enough storage space and for those of you suggesting I use the cloud, i didn't always have a decent net connection. I could also do some minimal photo editing allowing me to share photos while travelling.

    In a year or 2 when I'm ready for a replacement I'll make the decision between a tablet or a laptop, if they're still available.

  8. perry adams
    January 7, 2012 at 4:03 am

    I have two laptops, 3 desktops and one Dell Insipron 1020 netbook.  I didn't expect the netbook to perform as the other units.  I does perform for what I wanted.  It's fast, light, performs the basic document needs and I use it over the laptops every day.  Do I take my $2,000 laptop on my travels to India or my $300 netbook?  A tablet is next.

  9. Dan
    January 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Netbooks still have a market in the developing world, which is what it was originally designed for. I had an Acer netbook with an Atom processor, and it was adequate for my mobile needs. I sold it last year and now I'm using a dm1z with an AMD E350 chip. You call it an ultraportable, I think it's still a netbook, albeit with better performance and amazing graphics capability. We shall see if Cedar Trail is capable of beating Zacate.

  10. Nightwish
    January 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    I still love my little netbook and will not buy a bigger one. 10", 8h battery life, a proper browser, windows/linux support and not having to convert videos or calculations about what movies I want to take with me is pretty nice. A proper keyboard without gouging prices is a nice perk too.
    Sadly, the margins are small and wintel didn't like that, so they never received characteristics upgrades.

  11. Joel Lee
    January 6, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    Good points.

    This article hits close to home because I bought my netbook as a means of "writing on the go," so to speak. I had dreams of taking my netbook to the local Starbucks or library and pounding away word after word... only to realize that I haven't used it for anything other than writing at home.

    Netbooks are great if you plan on getting a laptop that only needs to browse the web and do simple tasks. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it seems like tablets are taking over in that regard.

  12. Marte
    January 6, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    I bought a Toshiba netbook last year, and I use it as it was intended--to be taken places easily and used for lightweight computing. The keyboard is great, it's fast enough for writing and internet research, and it was exactly in my price range at the time I needed it. I have no complaints.

    I did tech support for Toshiba years ago and had one of their original ultralights and it was a stone cold disaster. That turned me off the form factor pretty much for good. I'm sure they're better now, but they're also ghastly expensive. Tablets aren't suitable for super fast typists like me. I could have saved up and bought a lower-end notebook, but I couldn't see too many advantages in doing that.

    I'm definitely not one of the people who will let the netbook languish in a drawer or regret making the purchase. 

  13. Simon Smith
    January 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I have an ultra portable laptop, I had tablets but got frustrated with them so came back to my laptop. It's small and powerful,

  14. John
    January 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I sold my netbook a month ago (after nearly 3 years of good use) and bought a 17.3" laptop as a replacement. I wasn't dissatisfied with my netbook but could see innovation stall in this area. It seemed like 10.1" with 8 hours battery life was to remain the standard.

    I thought the next mutation on the netbook should have seen slightly larger screens (11.6" to 12"), thinner designs (both of these things we're beginning to see with the ultras) but also added *flip* screens (conversion to tablets). I think the flip-screen (touch-screen, tablet-mode) really should have been the next step in the evolution of the netbook/small laptop. The cost on convertibles is still too high and finding the right OS (think... speed) might be a year or two away.

    I would quickly ditch my 17.3" laptop for a 12", thin, 8+ hour, convertible netbook with at least an i3 core. Seems like the ASUS Prime might be the closest thing but I don't want to go 10.1" again.

    • Mark
      January 10, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      You just built a case for the 11.6" Apple Macbook Air. A compact, yet full scale notebook solution. If you haven't seen one, it's worth checking out. It's not cheap, but it will outlast anything Intel-based, and not get bogged down with image fatigue after a year (and this comes from someone who works for IBM).

      • Tina
        January 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm

        You just buried your case by claiming the Macbook Air would outlast anything Intel-based.

        The 11.6" model comes with a 1.6 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB L3 cache. Optional upgrade to an 1.8 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7 with 4MB L3 cache possible. I would call that Intel-based.

  15. Dave Parrack
    January 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Great article. Netbooks filled a void, but tablets have completely killed their raison d'etre.

  16. Nat Jay
    January 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Netbooks were always intended to be a "stopgap" technology till something better or equivalent (read tablets) came along. I think the demise of the netbook is directly proportional to the increase in popularity of the iPad and similar tablets since the time they entered the market.

    • James Bruce
      January 7, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Spot on. My netbook became absolute useless once I had an iPad, though my wife still uses it solely to stream chinese tv while she lazes around in bed...

  17. Trisha P.
    January 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Netbooks are like a glass of water that does not quenches the thirst completely but only makes you more thirsty and wanting. I think good old notebooks are much better if you can to spend a little bit more.

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