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netbooks are the new notebooks

I have two netbooks, a Dell Mini 9 and an HP 5101.  One is my personal machine, purchased back when the netbook segment started to appear, and the other is a machine on loan from Mozilla, as we’re always striving to better understand our users by using hardware that represents what’s being purchased today.

There have been three generations of netbooks since the Asus Eee first appeared in late 2007.  That machine had a repurposed portable DVD player screen and a flexy white chassis.  The Dell was one of the first Intel Atom machines, a computer that packed early 2000’s processing power into a very low power package.  Build quality was markedly better than the Eee, and the screen retained a 16×9 aspect ratio (belying a portable AV device origin) but with a web-usable 1024×600 screen.  Still, with a small keyboard and plastic construction, the machine feels more like a casual device than a real computer.  The HP, recently released only a month ago, has a magnesium chassis and a much larger keyboard.  Its six cell battery and 80GB ssd make it a perfectly usable Vista machine with an 8-9 hour battery life.  The 1366×768 display packs more pixels than a 13 inch macbook on a 10 inch screen.  The entire machine is about 2 lbs and a base configuration is $400.  The machine I’d buy would have the HD display for $25 and the standard 160gb 7200 rpm drive, as the SSD almost doubles the cost of the machine.  I’d go to Fry’s and get a 2GB SO-DIMM for another $20.  I might go with the standard battery for the slim form factor.

If nothing else, the usability of my netbook (even with Vista!) illustrates that there is no Moore’s law analogue in software.  Firefox 3.5 runs faster than Firefox 1.5 does on older hardware, and even operating systems are doing more with less these days.  Windows 7, when it goes on the HP, will be a nice performance upgrade for a machine that seems perfectly fine for everything my parents would use a computer for.

If anything, my netbook experience has shown me that for general purpose computing- the facebooking, twittering, blogging, sharing that most people do- a netbook is a full computer running a full “desktop” operating system.  While I like the room and power of my Macbook Pro, I’ll probably use the netbook for travel, especially once I get a 3G SIM card for it.  My prediction- the netbook/notebook divide is going to disappear as people will be able to do more with less.  I think phone capability will increase, and once they get to the point where they can run cloud based productivity apps, that’s when you’ll start to see netbook form-factor sleeves that add keyboards and better displays to your phone.  In other words- the phone becomes the new netbook.

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