Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is the netbook dead?

The debate on the death of the netbook has been on for some time. Recently, raised the issue again, this time in the light of the imminent release of more tablets into the market.

The real netbook killer. Intel Core i3 inside. 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 screen at less than 30K.
And soon, to be cheaper.
It is a simple question to answer. Are netbooks dead. No, not yet. But soon. Not for the reasons people think though.

First, even without tablets, the netbook was causing its own demise. Three years ago, the cheapest laptops had 14-inch or 15-inch screen. Larger laptops costs more, and smaller ones much more. If you wanted a 3-pound laptop back than, well you had to spend a Php100K. Than came two things which changed this entire paradigm. First was the netbook, small underpowered laptops for less than Php30K and than the Consumer Ultra Low Voltage processors.

The netbook made is harder for manufacturers to sell. I still remember in 2008 when Lenovo launched its 11.1-inch U110, and a few months later released its first netbook, the S-10, the S-10 was a poor mans version of the U110. How much cheaper, 1/4th the price.

Than you have the CULV. Intel use to divert some of their finest chips not to make the fastest processors, but to undervolt them so they could fit into small laptops which could not provide adequate cooling or ordinary mobile chips. Intel production improved so they could pretty much start mass producing these low voltage chips, which they called CULV's. The current Intel processors are so efficient that they do not even need to use CULV's or ULV processors on larger ultraportables anymore.

So basically, the demand for netbooks created the cheaper ultraportable. If you look at the market today, a Intel Core i3 powered Acer Aspire 1830T at Php29,500 is the higher end alternative to a Acer Netbook at Php20-23K. The price gap now for a true ultraportable laptop versus a netbook is smaller.

Second, the netbook was made for content consumption. Sure it has a physical keyboard, but those keyboards which are 90 to 93% the size of a full-sized keyboard are not that comfortable in use. So why not drop they keyboard altogether. There, you have the tablet.

Well, it is not as simple as that. Netbooks were launched into a world where mobile internet had become accessible, and a mobile device was needed. What Intel failed to do was to provide a platform that would sustain its creation through the advent of the HD era. Netbooks cannot play the HD content that the web has to offer. There is the Nvida Optimus graphics, but this meant a larger form factor and size, and a much higher price.

Tablets provided better multimedia and better gaming capabilities. The netbooks have the keyboard, but tablets, despite being lower powered devices had the graphics power and are much lighter than than netbook.

Can you still call the AMD Fusion netbooks "netbooks". In graphics power
they blow away Intel HD graphics.

So what happens to the netbooks now? It moves forward or dies. Enter AMD's Fusion which can play 1080p HD and should make a decent gaming platform. This is really the killer blow, the low powered low cost web browsing platform is no more. The netbook will now evolve into a low cost laptop. In the end, it is really not the end of netbooks, they have evolved to the point that it is hard to distinguish what is netbook from a ultraportable laptop. But the era of the Atom with its outdated GMA3150 graphics is over.

Will the tablet kill the demand for low cost 10.1-inch to 12.1-inch laptops. The answer is of course not? Now whether you call them netbooks or something else the demand for small laptops will always exist. Some of us still do need the keyboard. 

Besides... it won't be long before you can play Starcarft 2 in your "netbook".

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