As Computex draws near the so-called netbook and nettop market seems set to boom, mainly thanks to Intel's brand spankin' new Atom CPU and a pinch of hype. Oppenheimer's Fat man rocked the world back in July 1945, and Intel plans to unleash its Atom on the unsuspecting public this June, in slim, light netbooks.
This means you can probably expect volume shipments of Atom-based gadgets in late June or early July. Let's get one thing straight: here at FUD Central, we love the idea of dirt cheap, ultra-portable PCs, but in this case, love isn't blind. Keeping true to our tradition of moaning and endlessly complaining about stuff for no apparent reason, much like those two old geezers on the Muppet Show balcony, I feel obliged to rant a bit. Just a bit.
First of all, I don't like the names. Netbook and nettop ? Why on Earth should you call them that ? For years now, you can access the net using your mobile phone, but I doubt many of us would start calling the humble mobile phone a Netphone. Of course, if you're a Nokia PR apparatchik you already call your phone a "mobile multimedia computer" or something like that, but nobody gives a damn about what you think or say, anyway. Furthermore, Atom as a brand reminds me of the Atom Ant cartoon.
Only Apple's marketing armada has the liberty of inventing such sick names and terms and making the general public accept them with an iSmile, while cuing for new gadgets in front of shops. It might be a bit odd that someone from Fudzilla, notorious for its abuse of English around the world, complains about this particular issue. Well, if these neologisms ring warning bells in my Slav ears, I see no reason why they shouldn't bother native English speakers. As if we didn't have enough half-witted, ridiculous, duck taped words in the industry already.
Secondly, nettops and netbooks are supposed to be cheap and fun. Nothing cheap is ever fun, ask anyone who experienced the joys of communism. Netbooks aren't cheap and they ain't that fun, either. Let's take a look at some prices, as I'm supposed to put at least one fact into an article in order for Fudo to publish it. The Eee PC 701 sells for €279 to €349, depending on color and SKU. It's 8.9-inch successor, the Eee PC 900 is listed at €399 in both the 20G and 12G flavors. In the States you can get an 8.9-inch HP2133, powered by a pathetic VIA C7M ULV processor, starting at $549, while the priciest SKU with a 1.6GHz CPU costs an utterly senseless $729. MSI's Atom powered Wind and its Medion sibling are supposed to retail around the €400 mark. So let's see what a regular notebook costs these days, shall we?
Heavy and morbidly obese is what you get if you go for the cheapest option, i.e. a 15.4-inch machine that can also be used as a weapon of last resort, to bludgeon someone to death with a single blow. HP sells its Celeron powered 530 with an 80GB HDD for €344 and Acer's Extensa 5220 sells for €345. Both of them look hideous, but offer great value for money. True, comparing these two fat inbreds to a featherweight "netbook" doesn't make much sense, so how about a compact 12.1-inch for less than €600? MSI has three of them, the not-winning-any-beauty-contest-ever VR201, the fat-and-reaching-EOL S262 and the sexy Red Dot design winner PR200. All three are powered by Intel Pentium dual core CPUs and listed at €569, €586 and €599 respectively.
Nexoc is also selling its Celeron powered 12.1-inch Osiris II for €599. In terms of hardware, no netbook comes close to these babies and for a €150-€200 premium you get a real computer, with an optical drive, 1280x800 screen and whatnot. Sure, these 12.1-inch notebooks are 500-1000g heavier than "netbooks," but I think it's worth it. Besides, carrying more stuff around is good for you, summer is coming and putting those atrophied muscles to good use isn't a bad idea.
The third point of contention is the size of an average netbook, which is, coincidentally, its main selling point. Yes, there's a market for ultra-portable notebooks: frequent travelers, businessmen, journos of all shapes and sizes and metrosexuals, to name but a few.
However, the companies producing netbooks seem bent on flogging them to regular folk, who don't really have much use for notebooks to begin with, let alone ultra-portable ones. I'm guessing a lot of them are going to take the bait and get something they don't really need or want, but that's just the way the industry works, or rather what it thrives on.
For most, if not all of these consumers, the netbook will be their first ultra-portable PC. Many will not even bother to try out the midget keyboard and low-res screen before getting one. In other words, it might very well be the last ultra-portable anything they buy in quite a while. Acer apparently plans to launch a 12" Atom powered Aspire and I hope other vendors follow suite, with bigger screens, more storage and an optical drive.
At number four there's the issue of image and appearance. True, netbooks are very compact and they can do most of the things you expect from an ultra-portable notebook. However, most people who get business ultra-portables don't get them just to meet their basic everyday needs: they get them to show off, as well. Now imagine talking business with a bunch of corporate types in expensive suits and bringing your Eee along. While they're PowerPointing and presenting their stuff on machines such as Lenovo's X300, MacBook Air, or that leathery Asus U1, you're taking out your candy colored toy and shoving it into their faces so they could see what's on the tiny screen. HP's 2133 is a step in the right direction, compared to other netbooks it looks like a much more serious machine. The same can be said about Medion's version of the Wind, which looks a bit more classy than MSI's plain model.
Lastly, number five, netbooks are in. They're fashionable and people want them. This probably means they will be out of style next year. Everybody who wants one will get one and there will be very few models to choose from, at least this year. Even when all Atom-powered once hit retail, it will still be damned hard to choose which is the right one for you, as they will all be very, very similar.
In spite of all this, I still think netbooks are a great concept. They just need a bit more time to evolve, find and fill very different market niches. We need variety: very cheap and small plastic toys for kids and students, their more expensive, slimmer siblings in sturdy metal cases for businesspeople, 12.1-inch versions with bigger keyboards, both in the thin and light flavor, and the chunky ones with more storage and an optical drive. I almost forgot, there's still no dual-core Atoms and we'll have to wait quite a bit to see them in netbooks.
There's no doubt we will see a lot of such machines appearing in the next months, in all shapes and sizes. This will give us much more choice and truly allow us to find a netbook that best suits our needs. Therefore, I think it might not be a bad idea to wait just a bit more before getting one, just so you wouldn't feel like a sucker in six months.