Netbooks are a new category of laptop computer, defined mostly by their small size and cheap price. The category started only a year ago and has evolved drastically since. I tried the first netbook, an Asus Eee PC with a 7-inch screen and didn't like it; the keyboard and screen were much too small. But many disagreed with me, and the popularity of that first Eee PC led to dozens and dozens of imitators.
In their current state, with bigger keyboards, bigger screens and the ability to run Windows XP, I think netbooks will be hugely popular. Certainly they are lacking in some respects, but I suspect that many people will judge them to be "good enough," especially considering prices as low as $350 for a machine running Windows XP with a 10-inch screen.
Netbooks don't have nearly the horsepower of current full-size laptops, but they have more than enough for most of the things most people do most of the time.
Linux-based models will appeal to non-technical users with minimal computing demands. Windows XP models appeal to the millions of people already comfortable using Microsoft's now 7-year-old operating system. Not interested in Vista? Netbooks are the easiest (although not the only) way to get a new computer with XP.
The small size will appeal to some, the low price will appeal to others and the combination was, to me, irresistible.
As an adult techie, my interest in netbooks is mostly for traveling. Any laptop computer that gets dragged around on trips is sooner or later going to be lost, stolen or broken. When that befalls one of my machines, I want it to be a netbook. That is, I don't want to carry around a heavy, expensive laptop with all my applications, files and email on it. Rather, I want to travel with a machine that has only minimal software installed and has only the files I need while traveling (if nothing else, that makes securing those files easier). And, if something bad happens to the computer, better it be a cheap one rather than an expensive one.
Someone who travels all the time has different needs, but I only travel occasionally and can make do with a somewhat limited machine when I'm on the road. Plus, if there is a safe in my hotel room, the small size of a netbook increases the odds that it will fit.
But which netbook? A smaller one with a 9-inch screen or a larger one with a 10-inch screen? Windows XP or Linux? How big a battery? A traditional hard disk or solid state?
While high-end netbooks cost more than low-end laptops, I chose to focus on lower-end netbook models. For one thing, I find the value to be amazing. That you can buy a usable ultra-portable computer running Windows XP for $350 is truly a breakthrough.
Also, I think the growth will be in the cheaper models. Spending well over $500 for a laptop computer with a very small screen and keyboard doesn't seem like a choice many people will make. Spend less, get less, however, should be very appealing - assuming the machine is judged good enough.
From left: The Acer Aspire One, The MSI Wind, and the Asus Eee PC 1000.
Are they good enough? To answer that question, I purchased three netbooks. That wasn't my initial game plan, what follows is how the experience of each netbook led to another.
Acer Aspire One
While researching netbooks (a field that changes very quickly) Acer dropped the price of their Aspire One, making it the cheapest machine running Windows XP. I paid $350 at a time when the next cheapest XP based netbook was $400. The Aspire One is popular, gets reasonably good reviews and at that price, I couldn't resist.
It came with an 8.9-inch screen, an Intel Atom processor and a gigabyte of RAM. The majority of netbooks ship with an Atom processor and a gigabyte of RAM but the field is split between screen sizes of roughly 9 and 10 inches.
Almost all netbooks have a screen resolution of 1024x600, which means that 9-inch screens, with the same amount of information crammed in a smaller space, are a bit harder to see. Much of my initial use involved dealing with the small screen. For example, I set the minimum font size in Firefox 3 (Tools -> Options -> Content tab -> Fonts and Colors -> Advanced button) and told Windows to display larger sized icons (Control Panel -> Display -> Appearance tab -> Effects button).