The netbook lives!

Sales may be down, but don't write off the netbook yet. It's still a viable form factor for Windows PCs. Netbooks have a few key advantages going for them, and computer manufacturers should just stop and take a moment to consider them.

The three mobile PC form factors are netbook, notebook and tablet. I own all three now, and I like each one for different reasons. As a software developer, I saw the need to move away from the desktop and to finally get mobile. Since mobile PCs are the future, I felt this was the year for me to get some portable Windows computers so I could better test my software on these form factors. It's not rocket science: There's a big difference between laptop and desktop user experiences (there will be even more so with Windows 8). I needed to see how my software feels on these devices.

I tend to be a bit on the thrifty side, so I spent months researching my purchases. I didn't want anything that was "bleeding edge" technology, but instead wanted low-cost, mass-market computers (which reaches broader audience of people using my software). I wanted a netbook first, but instead I opted for a slightly bigger netbookish laptop with an 11.6 inch screen, 1366 x 768 resolution and dual-core CPU, which I picked up on sale for only $299. I really like this computer, especially the screen size. Because I wanted to have some experience testing software on a real netbook with an Atom CPU, I shopped around. Walmart offered a tempting Acer model, but it wasn't until the newer ones came out with dual-core Atom CPU's that I finally decided it may be worth it. Finally I found a great deal on the ExoPC Windows tablet.

Being able to actually own and compare these three different form factors for some time now, I've reached some startling conclusions about netbooks.

Tablets Are Great, But Will Never Replace Laptops!

I like the Tablet PC and touch is quite interesting when you get used to it, but a Tablet PC will never replace a well-designed laptop computer. Why? First the keyboard is integrated into a laptop, while a tablet it is external (or soft touch). Let's face it, typing on a tablet will never be the same as on a laptop. On a tablet your keyboard has to take up screen space and the feel will never be the same as real keys. Also your finger gets in the way (view) on a tablet, unlike a touchpad on a laptop. So while tablets have their use, if I want a more complete Windows experience, a laptop wins hands down.

Netbooks Can Sub for Notebooks

So which form factor is better for the notebook category? Each has its uses and benefits. If you need the larger screen and a powerhouse CPU, of course a laptop is going to be better. That's why my first choice for a moble computer was larger and better than a netbook. Yet, there is just something about that little netbook which draws a person. What is it? Price and small form factor.

I have elderly friends on budgets and the low price at Walmart was just irresistible -- they love their netbooks! The netbook I bought is primarily for my wife to use, and she loves it. Now that Netbooks come with dual-core CPU's. They're powerful enough. Manufacturers like Acer and Asus would be better off keeping the specs as they are and instead make lower pricing the priority. Acer's D257 Netbook sells for $249 at Walmart -- at $199, netbook sales could possibly improve. Go for the price point, not features, I say. Stores like Walmart also need to display more models of netbooks. One netbook for every ten laptops on display isn't enough.

Low price, with small size and weight, is appealing. Even if a tablet weighs less than a netbook it will likely cost more -- certainly on a screen-size comparison basis. So netbooks win the prize for lightweight mobility.

I love my little Acer Netbook! It is so small and lightweight and it has a great keyboard. I don't need a special stand for it, like I do with the tablet to hold the screen at the right angle to work with it. The netbook is so inexpensive and so small, it is the first choice when one may want to grab a computer and take it on the road. Sure if you plan on some serious work, the larger laptop may be preferable, but if you only need the computer for simpler stuff, watching a movie, web browsing, reading using the Nook freeware application, the netbook is the better choice. The size and weight are just right, and it has the physical keyboard a tablet doesn't.

Now I know everyone is looking to ultrabooks as the future of mobile computing, but consider this: For the price of one ultrabook one could buy a Netbook for every person in a family of four. The price of a netbook is so low, that parents who want to buy mobile computers for their kids are more likely to be able to afford them.

Manufacturers Should Look At Netbooks Differently

What would I do if I was a Netbook manufacturer?

  • Lower selling prices as much as possible on netbooks, without totally killing margins
  • Turn the netbook into a consumer device just like our television sets are
  • Drop hard drive sizes down to 100GB
  • Drop the external VGA connector
  • Drop the Ethernet connector
  • Have one USB port
  • Keep the HDMI port and SD slot
  • Design them to use rechargeable AA batteries
  • Offer some models without WiFi
  • Offer Windows 8 Starter Edition

Manufacturers' goals should be to create the ultimate, tiny Windows PC that would be just as common as televisions and priced in the $150 to $199 range. Windows tablet computers currently cannot reach a goal like this, but a redesigned netbook computer could.

Photo Credit: Maran Garai/Shutterstock

Chris Boss is an advanced Windows API programmer and developer of 10 year-old EZGUI, which is now version 5. He owns The Computer Workshop, which opened for businesses in the late 1980s. He originally developed custom software for local businesses. Now he develops programming tools for use with the PowerBasic compiler.

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