Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dell's Mistake: Killing 12-Inch Netbook

Dell's dropping its 12-inch netbook raises the question of where netbooks stop and laptops begin. From a vendor profit perspective, the answer is simple: 10-inches, but for users the answer is different.

I am with TechCrunch's Michael Arrington on this one, at least in spirit. I believe Dell made a mistake and that netbooks need to be a bit larger than the standard 9 and 10-inch models.

Dell doesn't deserve too much blame, however, as Microsoft is the real force behind the intentional stunting of netbooks.

Customers want decent-sized screens on suitably powerful $300 portables, call them what you will. Nevertheless, at some point, an Intel Atom processor just doesn't have the oomph for the job and trouble follows.

Last month, I purchased an Acer Aspire One netbook with an 11.6-inch screen. The reason for the purchase was the full-sized keyboard more than the larger screen. This computer does as much as I can expect from an Atom processor and 1GB RAM and I am happy with the purchase.

Which is to say it is a tad underpowered for using multiple applications at once. However, since I can live with its limitations, this is a great $329 computer. Now, if I could get a faster processor and more RAM for another $100, I would be really happy.

Larger mouse buttons would also be nice, though I am not sure how Acer could accomplish this. I just use a Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 6000, which works great (even on a bed sheet).

Still, for not much more than what the Acer cost, especially with a $60 mouse and $60 USB DVD drive added to the price, I could purchase a more powerful, though less portable, standard-sized laptop.

I am still weighing that decision and whether the netbook's small size and weight outweigh the downside of it being a tad underpowered for how I am used to working. So far, I come down in favor of the netbook since I have other machines to use when I need to do more serious work.

The Acer is the perfect size for a netbook screen and keyboard. There is enough LED real estate to be able to see what I am working on and the keyboard is well sized for my fingers. For $329 (at Costco), it is a great deal.

Sadly, the days of such larger netbooks may be numbered. Some vendors are concerned that they cut into sales of pricier (read: more margin) laptops in the 13-15-inch range.

While it is true that I did not purchase a larger laptop, if the 11.6-inch Acer had not been available, I would have made do with what I already have. Thus, by building a machine that attracted me, Acer got margin it would never have gotten otherwise.

Intel charges more for Atom processors used on netbooks with screens larger than 10-inches. Microsoft actively pushes against netbooks with screens larger than 10-inches, more than 1GB RAM, or a hard drive larger than 160GB.

While I understand wanting to protect laptop sales, this is simply wrong. Intel and Microsoft should know better than to stand in the way of progress.

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