Is MacBook Air a netbook killer?

The answer to the question may be a question: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a goose?

By analysts' criteria, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air is no netbook. Strange then that many Betanews readers regard Air to be a netbook -- and an overpriced one at that. But even if Air is classified as something else, it could easily suck away netbook sales, as analysts contend iPad has done. MacBook Air being a netbook or not is really independent of its impact on netbook sales. That said, in researching this story, I found that many readers (and real consumers) don't separate the two concepts. I wonder if they really need to.

Last week, I asked "Will you buy MacBook Air?" and yesterday posted Betanews reader responses. Among the commenters to the stories, Douglas Utley says he has "no use for a thousand dollar netbook." Alan Clapsaddle: "No not buying, this is an expensive netbook." An e-mail responder, who asked not to be identified (I'll refer to him as Frank Payne): "It's basically an overpriced netbook, and I already have one."


These three short responses say much about how potential buyers might classify MacBook Air: Benefits -- what will the computer do for me? Benefits that Air shares with smaller notebooks include size, weight, portability and battery life but not price. A low price tag is another benefit often associated with netbooks, and one these readers apparently don't see the 11.6-inch MacBook Air as sharing. Netbooks also tend to pack underpowered processors compared to larger notebooks or desktops and they are typically considered -- but not necessarily used solely as -- adjuncts to faster PCs rather than their replacements.

What Is a Netbook?

This morning I asked Bob O`Donnell, IDC's vice president of Clients and Displays, about netbook classifications. "The short answer is no, we don't consider the MBA a mininotebook/netbook -- it's an ultraportable notebook. Our mininotebook/netbook definition calls for an Atom or other low capability CPU." But what is an ultraportable? Sony's VAIO X Series portable is even lighter than the smaller MacBook Air. VAIO X dimensions: 0.14 cm high, 27.8 cm wide, 18.5 cm deep and 780g (1.6 pounds) weight. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air dimensions: 0.3-1.7 cm high, 29.95 cm wide, 19.2 cm deep and 1.06 kg (2.3 pounds) weight. The VAIO X uses an Atom processor, so does that make it a netbook then?

If price is a major measure -- and it is based on several years discussion at Betanews and other tech sites -- the answer is likely no. VAIO X sells for even more than MacBook Air. Also, Sony shipped small ultraportable models with 11-inch displays long before there was a netbook classification. That said, I see the lower-gigahertz Core 2 Duo processors shipping on 11.6-inch MacBook Air to be much closer to Atoms than faster chips like the Core i3 or i5.

This morning, I tweeted: "Today's Q for the Twitter intelligentsia: What is a netbook? Meaning, by what criteria do you classify a portable PC a netbook?" I got just a few responses, but they mostly divided the line at screen size. Steve McMex: "Around 10-inch screen, hard keyboard, lightweight, thin and not made for heavy processing." Andrea Smith: "To me it's a smaller screen, under 10-inches, and no optical drive."

If Not for Price

Based on Betanews reader responses by e-mail and story comments and ongoing discussions at other Websites, I believe that many potential netbook buyers will also consider 11.6-inch MacBook Air; major benefits are similar. However, price will prove to be a barrier for many people weighing benefits against low-cost netbooks.

"I do not regard the smaller Macbook Air as a notebook killer -- but not because of any technical point," says Betanews reader Richard Windmann. "If you are calling a form factor of 10-11-inches a netbook, then the MBA is the best netbook ever created." However, Windmann's son will be carrying a Samsung netbook and not Air when he leaves for the Navy next week. Why, because Air is simply too nice. "I don't want him scratching it up, losing it, etc.," Windmann says.

"The biggest reason the MBA will not be a netbook killer is simply price-point," Windmann asserts. "Aside from us geeks, there are people in the world, a lot of them, that will go '$269 or $999, hmmmm, $269!' It's a rough economy, things are tight...a cool $1,000 is a hard nut for people just managing to afford, and people just managing to get by just so happen to be most people. The MBA is not a netbook killer or competitor."

Betanews reader Jim Cooper agrees. "I don't see the 11.6-inch MBA as a netbook killer. However, I do see many people replacing their netbooks (and travel notebooks) with one. It is just too expensive at $999, when you can get a $299 netbook for web/chat/Facebook, etc."

Cooper, who is a CIO, believes that like iPad, Macbook Air will open a "new market." He adds: "I do foresee all the executives currently carrying an iPad to be purchasing a 11-inch MBA as a sidekick. IT executives who are not prepared for Macs in the enterprise will not like this development at all. Watch for it."

Stephen Baker, NPD's vice president of industry analysis, is one of the best retail analysts on the planet, because he tends to apply common sense to data -- a surprisingly rare talent. MacBook Air is "not a netbook killer but a netbook competitor," he says. "One problem is price. At $999, it costs too much compared to a netbook. But I agree that the 11.6-inch form factor is great. I have a gateway 11.6-inch, and I like it a lot."

Competing Against What?

The 11.6-inch portable segment is one where IDC's O`Donnell sees MacBook Air competing. "Given that the MBA is about 3-4x higher-priced than 'true' mininotes, I really don't see it impacting these devices. It does impact the ultraportable market, but to be honest, that's a small category -- especially for consumers."

It's a small but growing category, and Microsoft is one of the drivers. A year ago, with the launch of Windows 7, Microsoft started pushing businesses, consumers and PC manufacturers to adopt thin-and-light notebooks over netbooks -- and for good reasons. The company generates more per-license revenue selling "premium" Windows 7 versions than Starter Edition, which is more typically installed on netbooks. The ultraportable category, which increasingly is defined by 11.6-inch models, also has expanded since Intel's release of Core i3 and i5 ULV processors; these chips are rapidly becoming the standard processor for 11.6-inch portables.

Apple isn't offering more modern Core i Series processors but older Core 2 Duo chips on MacBook Air. Many readers answering the "will you buy" question, cited Core 2 Duo as reason not to buy MacBook Air. But one Betanews reader, who goes by Chopingman, offers surprising satisfaction with a recently-purchased 11.6-inch MacBook Air. The computer is for his wife. Chopingman used Apple's Bootcamp to scrap Mac OS X and to load Windows 7 Enterprise 64-bit Edition, and later Office 2010. "Using the Bootcamp drivers the thing has a Windows Experience Index of 4.2! This blows the crap out of the Atom netbook that is in the low 3's. The SSD makes the 1.4 gig Core 2 very snappy." I'd say that WEI number would be pretty good for many lower-cost, bulkier laptops, too.

Chopingman's 11.6-inch MacBook Air buying advice:

  • If you are the kind of person that must make every penny count, this is not for you.
  • If you are the kind of person that can only have one computer, this is not for you.
  • If you want to rip your entire DVD and CD collection, this is not for you.
  • If you want to play (insert your favorite PC game here), this is not for you.
  • If you want to move effortlessly through an airport, pull some pictures or video off your camera [or] run mainstream business software, this definitely is for you!

How strange. I would say the same about most netbooks.

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