For the longest time, the netbook market has stagnated, with no truly innovative or revolutionary products coming out since the debut of the Atom processor. Now, with the release of Dell's CULV-running thin and light, the Inspiron 11z, confirming the arrival of CULV ultraportables, the netbook market will be forced to reinvent itself to remain relevant.
First, the 11z. Dell's contender in this segment features an 11.6" LED backlit, WXGA screen and is based on Intel's Consumer Ultra Low Voltage computing platform, similar to Acer's Timeline 1410 and 1810 notebooks. It weighs 3lbs, comes with a Celeron ULV 723 (1.2GHz) processor, 2GB of memory, 250GB hard drive, no DVD drive, Intel GS45 integrated graphics, and 3 hours of runtime on a 3 cell battery, all for the low price of $399. First things first, the Dell's got some issues. For $50 more, the 1410T gets you a faster, more power efficient Core 2 Solo processor and a 6 cell battery offering 6 hours of runtime (Dell charges $150 for a 6 cell battery - ludicrous). The 92% sized keyboard is a glaring oversight - why wouldn't they use the extra width necessitated by the screen to add a full keyboard? Acer did it. Dell's options are pricey, but the only processor option is the low-end Celeron unit. And with HP set to release their own 11.6" CULV system in the very near future, the competition in this segment is only going to get hotter.
However, comparisons with other CULV units aside, what does this new brand of ultraportable spell for netbooks? Since they occupy the same $399/449 price range as the newer and higher end netbooks (Asus 1005 - $389, Toshiba NB205 - $399, Asus 1008 - $429, Asus 1101 - $429, Samsung N120 - $439, Lenovo S12 - $449; just for examples) and offer superior performance, more features and better usability in a similarly sized package with essentially no drawbacks, how can netbooks compete? Simple - they can't, not successfully at least.
To see where netbooks need to go, we must look back to see where they came from. Back in June 2007, Asus dropped a bomb on the computer world with the original 7" EEE PC. It was low powered, lightweight, and was supposed to launch at $200. That's where netbooks need to be. $200-300 devices that weigh 2lbs and don't complicate themselves with things like a mechanical hard drive or HD video or any of the like. Intel's new Pine Trail platform, featuring the Atom N450, will help streamline the hardware with a dual-chip solution - combining the processor and graphics chip onto a single chip (the other chip being the chipset controller). With Pine Trail, 16-32GB of flash memory, 10" WSVGA and WXGA LED backlit screens, and a gig of RAM, the hardware can be easily done for under $250. So long as Pine Trail handles Windows 7 well, netbooks can, by going further down market to the $200 pricepoint we all expected them to reach, find even more success and generate more interest in the segment once again.