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Are netbooks dead? The prognosis is grim

Loyd Case | Feb. 22, 2012
Remember netbooks? Those inexpensive, highly portable, long-battery-life laptops made primarily for lightweight tasks like Web browsing? Netbook sales have declined. In the United States, sales have dropped precipitously since 2010, and the trend in the rest of the world is starting to follow.

Apple is likely responsible for another factor in the decline of the netbook. In late 2010, Apple released a more affordable MacBook Air, replacing the original, pricey 13-inch model with lower-priced 11- and 13-inch models. The base 11.6-inch model costs $999. Taking note of the MacBook Air’s success, Intel developed the Ultrabook idea, a branded standard for very thin laptops. Manufacturers looking to build higher-margin products in the ultraportable-laptop segment, at least for the U.S. market, have turned to Ultrabooks. The jury is still out on the long-term success of Ultrabooks, but early reviews have been favorable.

A Limited Future for Netbooks

The netbook seems to be returning to its roots in the education market. Originally launched as a response to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, the netbook is once again targeting education, particularly in emerging markets outside the United States. But the rising tide of low-cost Android tablets may eventually swamp even that niche.

The netbook isn’t dead yet, but it’s clearly on its last legs--at least as a general-purpose, lightweight machine for Web computing. Tablets are filling that role for content consumers, low-cost but better-performing laptops are taking over for home users, and Ultrabooks (plus the MacBook Air) are taking the higher-end slots. The netbook may have a niche in certain markets, but its future is clearly limited and shrinking. Our advice: Don’t buy a netbook today, however attractive the price. You’ll just end up with a dead-end product.


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