It's always refreshing when a lateral-thinking-inspired product revolutionizes a market. And that's partly what makes the netbook computer so interesting. Netbooks are growing up fast, and both market-leader Acer and its original maker Asus have big plans for the tiny PCs this year.
Asus, of course, gave the world its first real netbook, the Eee PC 701. It embodied all the now iconic netbook features in one package: Linux OS, small screen, Intel Atom processor, small form-factor and cheap-as-chips pricing. Now it's a year later, and the technology has moved on, so Asus has announced that it will release another genre-stretching Eee PC that has an 11.6-inch display. Asus CEO Jerry Shen even thinks that Eees with displays of that size will end up being around 30% of the netbooks his company sells this year.
It's a response to the news that Acer, which currently sells more netbooks than anyone else, will also be releasing an 11.6-incher soon. That machine, the Acer One 751, is due to have a full-size laptop keyboard, a 1366 x 768-pixel screen and cost around $500.
Both of these machines are right at the top end of what we think of as netbooks: A portable PC with an 11.6-inch display is not very pocket-friendly after all. Apart from the pricing, which we can expect to remain competitive, and the not-quite laptop-spec processors aboard, you can argue that they're just cheap notebooks. That argument gets an extra spin when you learn Asus also has 13.3-inch, 14-inch and 15.6-inch models planned. Is the netbook magic running out?
Not quite. The processor choice is where these netbooks begin to get interesting again. Acer is expecting to sell up to 50% of its netbooks this year in the "ultra-thin" category, powered by Intel's upcoming "Consumer Ultra Low Voltage" CPUs. Meanwhile, Asus is planning on selling just 10% of its machines in that category, presumably eschewing the CULV chips for next-gen, more powerful Atom CPUs. That sounds like two very different approaches to ultra-portable computer making, and that should make for some worthwhile netbook choices in the future.