Why netbooks will still trump tablets in 2010

Tablet backers miss the key point: price. There are four others.

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Netbooks get ergonomic

In my colleague Mike Elgan's article "Hello tablets. Good-bye netbooks!", he argued that netbooks were on the way out because users hated interacting with them.

"Netbooks suck for typing. Believe me. I'm a professional," he writes. "One problem is that the keyboards are too cramped. But the other is that tiny netbooks force you to have the screen too close for comfortable reading."

I wonder if Elgan owns a first-generation netbook or if he is 6-foot, 8-inches tall and has Kielbasas for fingers. Certainly, a number of his readers disagreed with him.

"My netbook, the ASUS 1005HA -P... has an excellent keyboard, extremely easy to type," wrote one reader. Another wrote, "I am quite fond of using a netbook for taking notes in class."

Manufacturers have wised up to the size issue. Last year's crop came with keyboards that averaged 92% of a standard laptop.

This year, they edged up again, with many models coming in at 95% of a standard laptop. Samsung went further: Its latest NC series netbooks all boast 97%-size keyboards.

Others, such as HP's Mini 5101 have the same flat, widely-spaced keys (the "island" keyboard) as Apple's MacBook (while keeping the 95% size.)

Today's netbooks have screens that, while not as big as a desktop monitor, can offer just as much real estate. That's because most netbooks, whether their screens are 10 or 12 inches in size, can be upgraded to 1366x768 or 1280x800. That's the same as a 19-inch LCD desktop screen. Even at the basic 1024x600, that is as wide as your 17-inch CRT was earlier this decade.

The latest netbooks are also able to take advantage of those screen sizes. Lenovo's IdeaPad is one of many using Nvidia's Ion GPU -- the same engine in Apple's MacBooks -- to render smooth video on its 12-inch, 1,280x800 screen.

Lenovo IdeaPad S12
You don't have to worry about squinting at stuttering graphics on new netbooks like Lenovo's IdeaPad S12. It has a 12-inch, 1280x800 screen powered by Nvidia's Ion graphics chip.

Netbooks seem to have found the ergonomic sweet spot for many if not most consumers. Combine that with their low entry price, and ABI analyst Jeff Orr expects netbooks to remain much more popular than thin-and-light/CULV (consumer ultra-low-voltage) laptops costing several hundred dollars more.

Big forces back the netbook

Two years ago, it took a renegade Taiwanese firm Asus to defy Microsoft and Intel and come out with the groundbreaking Eee.

Today, the forces that hated on netbooks are now backing them. Microsoft made sure Windows 7 supports them, and is pushing Windows Embedded CE for them, too.

Intel keeps pumping out new Atom chipsets, and is keen on fending off competitors like Nvidia (ION graphics) and ARM chip makers like Qualcomm, FreeScale, Texas Instruments and others.

And Google is so hot on netbooks that it is not only developing its Chrome OS exclusively for netbooks, but it is, according to the rumor du jour, now thinking about building its own branded netbook.

A netbook. Not a tablet.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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