Editorial: The rise of the notbook, the fall of the netbook

Notbook (n.) -- An affordable ultraportable laptop, typically with a 11.6-inch or 12-inch display that is not a netbook. It packs more power than a netbook (i.e. can handle 1080p video and Flash at fullscreen) and provides a more comfortable computing experience than the typical, 10-inch underpowered, shrunken Atom-based laptop. Most do not have optical drives, but do last for over five hours on a charge. Unlike pricey ultraportable laptops, notbooks are more affordable and start at around $400.

About six months ago, the 11.6-inch Dell Inspiron M101z arrived on my doorstep for review. The AMD Neo-powered system looked like a slightly enlarged netbook, but in a briefing with Dell, the product manager reinforced quite a few times that the system was absolutely "not a netbook." I can't remember his exact wording, but he made it crystal clear -- the $449 Inspiron M101z was so much more powerful than an Intel Atom netbook that it could be one's primary machine. Obviously, I started calling these sorts of laptops "notbooks," and over the next few months, more and more of them started popping up. Some of them paired Atom with an NVIDIA Ion GPU (e.g. Eee PC 1215N), while others used AMD's Neo chip and more recently AMD's new Fusion Zacate APU. (Intel's Core ULV-powered systems are frankly too expensive to be considered in this category, though some Pentium / Core 2 Duo systems, like the Acer Timeline X1810T, could qualify.)

Uh, so what? There's a new crop of more powerful, affordable, and highly mobile laptops -- what's the big deal? Well, while many think tablets are what will ultimately cut the netbook market down to size, it's the notbooks that will also seriously hit the Atom-based lilliputian laptops of today where it really hurts. Don't get me wrong, ARM-powered tablets like the iPad and Motorola Xoom are going to impact netbook sales in a big way, too (heck, they already have!), but mark my words, notbooks or affordable ultraportables will take a noticeable chunk of both the netbook and the mainstream laptop market. There's finally a class of laptops that provide a terrific balance between primary and mobile computing without breaking the bank. Think I'm crazy? Hit the break to understand what I'm talking about.

Obviously, the definition of a netbook has changed quite a bit over the past few years -- let's not forget that the first Eee PCs ran Linux and had 7- and 8.9-inch screens -- but for better or worse, today most consider a netbook to be a $250 to $400 10.1-inch laptop with an Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Starter edition. Sure, there are variations out there -- there's the Jolibook that runs the Linux-based Jolicloud OS and Google's Cr-48 with Chrome OS -- but for now those are niche devices. (That might change if and when Google and its partners start to put the marketing dollars behind Chrome OS.) I'm really talking about the Acer Aspire Ones, ASUS Eee PCs, and HP Minis of the world; the sorts of little machines that have come to be known as secondary systems with long battery life and just enough power to handle e-mails, surfing the web, and watching standard definition video (okay, maybe 720p when you're not doing anything else with the system).

I'd say that we could call this new crop of affordable ultraportables "evolved netbooks" since people now associate small laptops with the word "netbook," but Intel's Atom has also become so closely tied to the term that it's almost hard to shed the slow and underpowered reputation. And that's because Intel's purposefully aimed to keep its netbooks, well, slow and underpowered. Since the introduction of the Atom N270 processor in 2008, Intel has kept its smaller laptop chips growing in endurance but stagnant on performance and graphics muscle. Even the evolution from the Intel N270 / N280 processor to the Pine Trail N450 saw very little performance improvement -- those netbooks still gasped for air when it came to playing HD video. While the more recent N550 processor picked up an extra core, the performance delta was still quite minimal. Intel's message has been clear: netbooks are meant for light productivity and web based activities, and if you want more power in a portable form factor, save up and buy a more expensive ULV-powered thin-and-light or an ultraportable. If you're just looking for power at an affordable price, Intel's answer has been buy an inexpensive, chunky 15.4-inch laptop for about $500.

Source: Intel

Except, of course, more than just a few people out there want the best of both worlds: they want a three-pound, inch-thick machine with useful power without having to go over to a $1K-plus Core i3 ULV ultraportable -- something mobile but good enough for primary use. NVIDIA was one of the first to actually figure that out with its Ion GPU, which brought all the wonders that come along with a discrete graphics to Atom netbooks. For the most part, Ion systems like Eee PC 1215N are quite good, however the Atom processor makes the computing experience fairly uneven -- you can rock full HD and faster media stuff, but you can't multitask all that well. AMD has been trying to blend performance and graphics in an affordable package for a while now, and while the Neo CPU and Radeon graphics made a decent interim solution for systems like the Dell M101z, the long-promised Fusion platform is ready to seriously shake things up.

Yep, AMD's Zacate Fusion APU (and to some degree the Ontario APU) is what finally makes notbooks a very viable and real category. As we have seen with the Pavilion dm1, AMD has finally delivered a chip that brings seriously solid performance and graphics to thin and light laptops without having to sacrifice battery life. If you haven't read our review of the new dm1, you really should -- the 11.6-inch laptop is extremely peppy and also lasts for about six hours on a charge. That's not as long as some eight-hour netbooks, but the system doesn't lag like Atom systems and the graphics / HD performance is pretty remarkable for the size and price. It also handles mainstream games and supports DirectX 11. And yes, it can do all the things most people want in a mainstream system -- edit photos and video, handle multiple applications without needing to pull over for air, and stream Hulu like a champ.

The real kicker? It only costs $450. Sure, it's about $50 to $100 more than your average netbook, but the power increase and comfort of a bigger screen and keyboard seems very well worth the relatively small premium -- especially since Fusion chip handily outpaces the CPU and GPU performance of some Pentium and Core 2 Duo Intel processors with integrated graphics. I think it's pretty darn obvious why a notbook like the dm1 is an obvious choice over an Atom-based system: would you rather have a $379 10-inch netbook, which takes 15 seconds to open a program and can't play Flash at full screen, or a slightly larger 11.6-inch laptop for $450, which is snappier and can even output 1080p video to a HDTV? Yeah, I think most would search their pockets to find the extra $75 and go for the notbook.

And I even think it's pretty obvious why some would choose a notbook over a $500 mainstream 15.4-inch system, like the AMD Turion II HP G62 or Intel Pentium-powered Dell Inspiron 14. While those may provide bigger screens (though not necessarily with better resolutions) and larger keyboards, notbooks now pack just as much power and more graphics muscle than those aforementioned machines and don't require you to lug around a five-pound unattractive chassis to the coffee shop or airport. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these ultraportables eat into the entire mainstream -- millions will still buy mid-range and high-end PCs with Intel and AMD's latest CPUs, but on the budget end, those looking for just good enough performance for surfing the web, light video editing, and solid multitasking will be able to get it in a seriously thin and light chassis for under $500. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

What does it mean for a company like Intel that's been trying to protect its mid- and high-end product margins for so long? Well, Acer, ASUS, Toshiba, and HP are standing by their respective Atom-powered 10-inchers for the time being -- each of them claim there's a place for traditional netbooks next to their new tablet and notbook offerings. However, others like Sony have already made it clear that netbooks are getting the boot. That company's 11.6-inch AMD Zacate VAIO YB is set to hit later this month for around $550, and it plans to discontinue the VAIO W netbook. Of course, there's no telling whether Intel's marketing dollars can sway some of these companies to stay in netbook space, but it's obvious that as more of these Fusion systems hit retailer shelves, they will begin to eat into netbook and Atom sales. And that certainly doesn't bode well for Intel, especially considering the rise of ARM-based tablets and Microsoft's incoming ARM support. Hopefully, that new tablet / netbook unit formed at Chipzilla is working to address both the notbook and tablet threats as I think Fusion is as serious a competitor as ARM. To make matters worse, I've heard from a few sources that the Sandy Bridge ULV processors will be extremely pricey, leaving Intel's newer ultraportables north of $800. But hey, maybe Intel's putting that recent NVIDIA patent deal to good use and looking to soup up Atom or cheaper-ULV processors with awesome GeForce graphics. A girl can dream, right?

Center: Toshiba Mini NB305. Clockwise from top: ASUS Eee PC 1215N, HP Pavilion dm1, iPad, Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, Dell Inspiron M101z.

Now, I'm not saying netbooks or cheap mainstream laptops will totally perish -- I think netbooks will evolve into interesting form factors like the Samsung Sliding PC 7 Series and Inspiron Mini Duo. Or hey, maybe they'll return to their roots as simply internet connectivity machines, like the Cr-48, but even so, my guess is that there are still some out there that will continue to pick up $250 laptops because they're cheap. And thankfully, like some others have said, there's no golden rule that requires you to own just one mobile device.

Still, the reality is the netbook has shots being fired at it from two sides now – extremely power-efficient ARM-tablets on the low end provide the next step in mobile computing with app-centric operating systems that can take care of email, web surfing, and media consumption, while affordable notbooks finally provide just the right amount of performance, graphics, and battery life for a very mobile full computing experience. A consumer at Best Buy now has more choices than ever before, and neither netbooks nor cheap, chunky 15.6-inch laptops seem as appealing as they did two years ago. And assuming that Intel catches up, two years from now we might just be calling notbooks... laptops.

Update: To clarify, we don't have to call these new affordable ultraportables "notbooks," this is merely a clever term I came up with to describe what are "not netbooks" anymore. This message seems to have been lost in translation here. The point of the editorial was not coin a new term, it was to talk about this emerging class of laptops and how they impact netbooks. Call them whatever you like!