Netbooks disappoint consumers, says survey

Netbook owners are more likely to be disappointed with their machines than people who purchase larger and more expensive laptops, a retail research firm said today.

Just 58% of consumers who bought a netbook rather than a notebook said they were very satisfied, compared to 70% who admitted they planned to buy a netbook all along, according to a survey of 600 American adults conducted by the NPD Group.

The disappointment with netbooks -- NPD analyst Stephen Baker preferred that term rather than "dissatisfaction" -- stemmed from expectations that a netbook was the same, more or less, as a laptop. Six out of every 10 netbook buyers, said Baker, thought that the two were equivalent, and figured that their new netbook would have the same functionality as a laptop.

Notebooks generally sport larger screens, larger keyboards, larger hard drives and more memory than do netbooks. They also run different operating systems. Microsoft, for instance, sells its aged Windows XP Home to netbook makers, but markets Windows Vista to laptop OEMs. Rival Apple doesn't even play in the netbook category, and instead aims for the higher end of the laptop price spectrum.

"OEMs aren't marketing [netbooks] properly," said Baker, "because consumers think they can use it just like a notebook."

One age group was especially unhappy with netbooks. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, an important demographic to netbook sellers, who tout low prices to the money-challenged college-aged crowd, 65% said they expected better performance than they got from their netbooks. Only about one in four, 27%, said their netbooks performed better than anticipated.

Of the factors that netbook buyers prized, portability was tops, with 60% of those surveyed putting it at the No. 1 spot. But even there, consumers said one thing and did another, since that same percentage said that once theit netbook was home, it never left the house.

"I was impressed with the number of people who chose a netbook because of the mobility factor," said Baker. "That means that at least some of the marketing message [by netbook makers] is getting through." 'The attraction of mobility, even if it's a chimera to most buyers, gives OEMs something to work with, said Baker. "There is a value proposition to mobility, and the CULV stuff will address the mobility piece in a form factor that people might appreciate more than a netbook."

CULV, or "consumer ultra-low voltage," is the term slapped on the processors from Intel, AMD and nVidia that are to power a class of notebooks priced above $500 but below $1,000. They sport screens larger than netbooks, but cost considerably less than current ultra-portable notebooks.

"I think OEMs will be able to convince consumers to spend more on something with a bigger screen and a bigger keyboard," said Baker, answering a question about netbook sales cannibalizing laptop sales.

One response by the consumers NPD polled, however, may make Microsoft a little nervous. "Of the features they cited as important, they said the operating system was the second-most important to their decision," said Baker. Nearly all netbooks now sold run the ancient Windows XP Home.

Microsoft hopes to get computer makers to drop XP Home and instead install Windows 7 Starter, the lowest-price and least-capable edition of the new OS that will be available worldwide. To quiet a growing revolt by analysts and users angered over news that Starter would restrict them to running only three applications at the same time, Microsoft ditched that limitation last month.

"Retailers and manufacturers shouldn't be putting too much emphasis on PC-like capabilities that could convince consumers that a netbook is a replacement for a notebook," advised Baker. "Instead, they should be marketing mobility, portability and the need for a companion PC to ensure consumers know what they are buying and are more satisfied with what they purchase."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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