The incredible shrinking laptop

While laptops have been getting progressively cheaper over the last few years, the arrival of a whole new sub-genre of ultra-portable machines has seen the laptop become far more affordable and attractive than ever before.

Referred to as netbooks, mini-notebooks and ultra-mobile PCs amongst other things, these small laptops generally weigh less than 1kg, have screens as small as 7” and take up about as much space as a mid-sized paperback book. Despite packing a functional computer into such a small space, something that could only previously be done at great expense, these devices also tend to cost less than €500 – usually far less.

Taiwanese company Asus’s EeePC was the first netbook device to reach the market and it has been an unstoppable success thanks largely to its equally miniscule price which goes as low as €240 on websites like The cheapest model has a 7” screen and comes with as little as 2GB of hard disc space, while also allowing for internet connectivity through WiFi or a traditional Ethernet port.

Manufacturers like Acer and Hewlett Packard amongst others have brought their own iteration to market since then, with the remaining big players such as Dell in the advanced stages of launching their own netbook range – all suggesting that this range of devices is no passing fad.

“This is a new segment in the mobile computing space – people are looking for something ultra-portable,’’ said Martin Cullen, general manager of the personal systems group (PSG) at HP Ireland. “Standard technology is getting smaller but now there’s a middle ground between the PDA or smart-phone and the standard laptop which we hope to fill.’’

HP’s first netbook device on the market is the Mini-Note 2133, which has so far been a huge success seeing demand outstrip supply. The basic model has a 9” screen, a 4GB flash hard drive and 512kb of RAM, along with built-in WiFi internet connectivity and a webcam. The device can be bought for $499 (€320) in the US although no Irish price has been set yet.

“What we’re trying to offer with our customers is the size benefits of the PDA or smart-phone and functional benefits of a laptop,’’ said Cullen who added that their Mini-Note would soon become a whole range of netbooks rather than a single device.

With built-in webcams, wireless internet, SD card slots and in some cases Bluetooth connectivity it is hard to suggest that these machines offer just the bare-essentials, however such a small and cheap computer does not come without its compromises.

In order to reduce size all manufacturers competing in the ultra-mobile market have done away with the CD/DVD drive as well as the likes of the powerful processor, large hard drive and impressive graphics card. The cheapest netbooks also come with a Linux operating system as opposed to Windows, however most manufacturers offer customers the choice of the Microsoft platform if they wish to pay that little bit extra for it.

“Losing the CD drive may seem like a step too far for some – it certainly did for me at first – but in all reality people don’t really use their optical drives anymore,’’ said David Ooms, HP’s PSG sales specialist. “There has been a huge drop in the price of flash memory so people tend to use USB keys to exchange data between colleagues – everything else is increasingly being done via email.’’

What some users may find a step too far is the tiny screen and keyboard that the smallest of these devices – usually the 7” models – tend to carry. Manufacturers like Acer are hoping to avoid this by striking what they see as the balance between portability and usability.

“Our Aspire One has a 95% keyboard so it’s only marginally smaller than what most computer users are used to,’’ said John Roberts, Country Manager for Acer Ireland. “The problem with some netbooks is that they sacrifice too much in the keyboard and they’re impossible to use, especially if you have bigger hands.’’

Acer’s Aspire One will sport a 9” screen and will also be available in Ireland in early August, with the cheapest model selling for €299. The machine will run on the Linux platform and house an 8GB flash hard drive – it will also have a webcam and WiFi connectivity as standard. For those with a bit more money and patience two more versions of the machine are due out towards the end of August and in early September – one with a 120GB hard drive for €349 and another with the same large hard drive running on Windows XP for €399.

“When you see the actual product it becomes a must-have,’’ said Roberts. “That’s why we’re targeting retail channels first to ensure that they’re easy for consumers to find.’’

Traditionally desktop computers have always cost less than technically comparable laptops, while the cheapest laptops on the market have tended to be the bulkiest. With both of these issues addressed with netbooks, manufacturers like Acer are expecting to get interest in the device from across the board; including students, business users and families.

“This is the kind of thing that would make sense for people who have a PC at home and want a laptop for portability or to keep their kids off the main computer, it’s also for people who already have a 15” laptop but want something they can easily take travelling with them,’’ said Roberts. “Students are also going to find it attractive as it sure beats carrying some €1,200 machine around that might get lost or stolen.’’

Martin Cullen from HP agrees:

“We had expected most sales to come in education but we’ve seen interest broaden out across the market,’’ he said. “Corporate users doing a lot of travelling don’t need to have every document on their laptop with them and they don’t need to be carrying such a heavy machine either – this is perfect for people who want to stay connected on the go but need to do more than their smart-phone allows.

“It’s particularly useful for people flying, especially when you consider the space and weight restrictions in place today.’’

In fact manufacturers and retailers, including the Carphone Warehouse, say the netbook will be the next mobile phone – that must-have item that will become ever-present in a relatively short space of time.

“We’ve had research done in the UK which asked young people if they’d rather have a mobile phone or a laptop; in the past it was 100% in favour of mobiles but now it’s 50/50 between the two,’’ said Tara Blake, Head of Marketing at the Carphone Warehouse in Ireland. “3G mobile broadband has been a phenomenal success for us too and being able to connect to the internet anywhere has also made laptops more attractive.’’

Carphone Warehouse are so sure of the way things are going they have commissioned manufacturer Elonex to produce a netbook of their own which will be available in Ireland from the 1st August for €380. The ‘web-book’ will have a 10” screen, an 8GB hard drive along with 1GB of memory. The initial device will ship with Windows XP built in but a future model, including a smaller 7” version will also ship with Linux.

Besides its own upcoming machine the Carphone Warehouse has also begun to push laptops generally in its outlets, rather than just mobile phones and accessories.

“We want to do with laptops what we did with mobile phones, which were expensive when we first started up but became more and more affordable as time went by,’’ said Blake. “As we’re selling in stores across Europe we can buy in bigger volumes so that drive prices down too.’’

The Carphone Warehouse’s recently agreed link-up with US retail giant Best Buy is likely to only enhance that buying power in the future.

As Cullen points out, devices like the Mini-Note and Aspire One are ideal for the social-network generation that is growing up today, so perhaps suggestions of mass usage in the future are not so far-fetched. There is sure to be an attraction for many in being able to monitor their Bebo or Facebook page on the go – although there is the minor detail of being able to connect to the internet first.

“Many young people just spend their time on social sites and they don’t need flashy graphics cards – but they will begin to demand internet access whenever, however.’’ Said Cullen. “People had expectations that the mobile phone would bring us internet everywhere but now it’s really coming and businesses like café’s should ensure they’re ready to facilitate demand for WiFi in the very near future – if they do it will only make them more attractive to a new generation of customer.’’

While only a few types of netbook have hit the shelves in Ireland so far August looks set to be a busy month as an already interested audience begins to see more and more options become available. As more models come to market and the devices begin to appear in cafés and colleges alike in the run up to Christmas, that interest is only going to rise and there is every chance that it will make the netbook this year’s Nintendo Wii.

“In recent times we’ve noticed people become less interested in the technical specifications of a machine and more interested in the design and how it fits into their lives,’’ said Roberts of Acer. “It’s never going to replace their core computer needs but it will become a part of their lives be they using it for business or pleasure – I really do expect them to sell well.’’

An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 1st August 2008.

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