Netbook or notebook? Confusion reigns at 12 inches

Netbook or notebook? Confusion reigns at 12 inches

Summary: Market researcher NPD says that consumers are confused about the difference between a netbook and a notebook. It's no wonder.


Market researcher NPD says that consumers are confused about the difference between a netbook and a notebook. It's no wonder.

In the world according to Wintel, the distinction would be fairly clear: Netbooks have 10-inch or smaller displays, use Atom processors and 1GB of memory, and run Windows XP. Notebooks are bigger, use "real processors," have 2GB or more, and run Windows Vista. But PC makers have refused to stick to the script. Nowhere is this more evident than in 12-inch category, where things are getting more muddled by the day.

The latest example is the Gateway LT3100, a 12-inch netbook that first caught my eye at Computex in early June (Acer had apparently been showing it off even earlier), but has only just been released. From the outside the Gateway LT3100 looks like any other 12-inch netbook. It measures less than an inch thick, weighs a little more than three pounds, and comes in a couple of colors (in this case, black and cherry red). But inside this model is completely different. Here are the specs for the $400 base configuration, the Gateway LT3103u:

  • 11.6-inch WXGA (1364x768) LED back-lit display
  • 1.20GHz AMD Athlon 64 L110 processor
  • 2GB of memory
  • ATI Radeon X1270 integrated graphics
  • 250GB hard drive
  • Windows Vista Basic SP1

The Acer Aspire One 751h has the same display size and resolution, but looks a little more like a typical netbook with an 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520, 1GB memory, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP for about $380 (with a 6-cell battery). The Dell Mini 12 uses the same processor and 1GB of memory, but it starts at $400 with a 12.1-inch display (1280x800), 40GB drive and Ubuntu Linux. A Windows XP version with a slightly larger hard drive is $100 more. Asus refers to its 12.1-inch model, the S121, as a notebook, even though it uses the same Atom Z-series chip and is basically a scaled-up version of the Eee PC S101 netbook.

Why exactly all of these use the Z520 rather than the Atom N270 found in smaller netbooks is a mystery. PC makers claim the Z-series results in all-day battery life, but the performance falls short of even the N270. The new Lenovo IdeaPad S12, on the other hand, has all the "proper" ingredients of a 12-inch netbook: 12.1-inch display (1280x800), Atom N270 processor, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP starting at $500. That sounds straightforward enough . . . until Lenovo releases an S12 with Nvidia's Ion chipset, which swaps Intel's GMA950 graphics for the GeForce 9400M GPU. That configuration will cost more and have shorter battery life, but it should offer better performance.

The Gateway LT3100 is also a bit of a surprise because AMD had previously indicated that it was not going after netbooks. The Athlon 64 L110, which did not appear the company's roadmap, is a 1.20GHz single-core processor with 512KB of cache paired with the M690 chipset. Instead AMD has been focused on its Neo processor for low-cost, ultra-thin notebooks. The HP Pavilion dv2z, a 12.1-inch laptop, is currently the only model that offers this processor. It starts at $599.99 with a 1.6GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40, 1GB of memory, Radeon Xpress 1250 chipset, 250GB hard drive and Windows Vista. The Pavilion dv2z is now also available with two dual-core Neo processors: the 1.6GHz Athlon Neo X2 L335, which has 512K of L2 cache, and works with either the Xpress 1250 chipset or the MS780G with Radeon HD 3410 graphics with 512MB; and the AMD Turion Neo X2 L625, which operates at the same frequency but has 1MB of L2 cache, and is available only with MS780G and the more powerful graphics. To further confuse things, AMD says this Neo X2 is a custom chip, not the standard "Conesus" dual-core Neo processor the company plans to release this year as part of the platform previously known as Congo. I expect to see that platform on more 12-inch laptops.

Of course, Intel has its own solution for this niche: its ultra low-voltage (ULV) processors. This isn't really a new area for Intel--the company has been selling low-voltage and ultra low-voltage chips for years, but they were typically only in premium laptops with displays of 13-inches or smaller. What is new is that you can now find these chips in laptops such as the MSI X340 or Acer Aspire 3810 Timeline that cost well under $1,000. Right now, these are mostly 13-inch laptops, but there's no doubt that Intel's lower-cost ULV chips are designed to compete directly with AMD's Neo in this emerging category. Both provide an alternative to 12-inch netbooks for a bit more money.

The bottom line: there are a lot of choices at 12-inches, arguably more than in any other laptop segment. There's a good argument for the latest 10-inch netbooks--they're highly portable, have nearly full-size keyboards, offer sufficient performance for basic communications and productivity tasks, and cost around $300. Notebook prices are dropping fast, but still no laptop can match that price. But there's a real difference in performance, and most users who want a 12-inch display (and Windows Vista) will be better off spending more for a true notebook.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility, Processors, Windows

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  • There's also a real difference in battery life

    So if battery life is more important than performance (and this is true for many people on the road) you're better off with a netbook.
    Michael Kelly
    • Disagree

      Netbooks vary between 4 and 8 hours, something like that. My MSI Wind U100 Plus, with a 6-cell 4400 mAh battery, gives me 4 hours on XP and 3 hours on Win7 RC.

      Some notebooks already offer 4 hours also.
      Daniel Breslauer
      • less than 6hrs for a netbook = ripoff nt

      • Depends

        I'm running 7RC on a Lenovo S10-2 with a 6-cell.
        1gb mem and 320gb HD
        Running Chrome and Open Office and MS Security
        On an average session I am getting 5 - 7 hours
        depending on what I do.
        My Dell M1530 with 9cell or Lenovo T400 with 9cell
        can't come close to that.

        I have mine for weight, size and life.

  • Netbooks and ultralights

    I've long been a fan of the ultralight category of laptop, which I defined as anything under 3lb (though by the time you add a larger battery some I've owned have crept over 3lbs). However the ultralights always cost a lot more than other laptops.
    To me the arrival of the netbook just meant that manufacturers have finally seen the light, and realized that millions of people want a light weight laptop at a decent price, and are willing to accept a small screen to get it. Most of my laptops have had 10 to 12" screens, though I did try a smaller Jornado a few years ago.
    • same here - portability is highest priority

      Unlike for those people buying >15" 'laptops' that are effectively used as desktops all the time.
  • Battery life metrics??

    Quoting battery life for netbooks and notebooks is a bit
    complicated. Here are a few articles and snippets that
    explore this.

    See them here:
  • RE: Netbook or notebook? Confusion reigns at 12 inches

    The netbook market is really a combination of three factors: 1) small (but useable) size, 2) low cost and 3) usable processing power.

    These are all subjective. What is small and portable enough? When is a keyboard too small? When is a screen too small? What is low cost enough? Does portable mean fits in bag or battery life?
  • RE: Netbook or notebook? Confusion reigns at 12 inches

    U say tomato, I say tomatoe. Who cares? It is still a
    laptop. It does the same thing. It is a portable PC, or a
    laptop. In the older days we would have called it a
    Compaq... let it go and move on to things that REALLY
    matter. Sheesh...
  • You are stupid if you buy a netbook

    The fact is that for the features in them, they are
    DRAMATICALLY overpriced and.... I'll be blunt here: how
    many people out there have EVER needed 6-8 hours of
    battery life?
    When have you EVER been away from a outlet that long?
    Truthfully, I cannot remember anytime I have been away
    from an outlet that long, not even on a plane flight.
    • re: You are stupid if you buy a netbook

      <font color=#808080><em>"I cannot remember anytime I have been away from an outlet that long, ..."</em></font>

      You need to get out more often. Go take a hike, pun intended. ;)

    • I like my Eee PC

      It has all the features I need for that task (if I need more I take the heavier MacBook Pro) I just wish it had a longer battery life.

      [i]I'll be blunt here: how
      many people out there have EVER needed 6-8 hours of
      battery life?
      When have you EVER been away from a outlet that long?
      Truthfully, I cannot remember anytime I have been away
      from an outlet that long, not even on a plane flight. [/i]
      You've obviously never flown to Hawaii from the East coast, or New York to Anchorage, or to Hong Kong from anywhere in Canada.
      My old Journada 820 is 11 years old (WinCE 3.0) but I kept it until I got the Asus because it had a 12 hour battery life and usable keyboard. If you earn a living by creating text and have a need to travel, you'd be stupid [i]not[/i] to get a netbook.
      Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.
      I kept my Journada
    • Yes, I'm stupid:Not!

      My Dell Mini 9 runs Ubuntu and cost $200.00. It was a gift, but I would consider buying one for myself otherwise.
      This thing is very, very portable (2.2 pounds), the battery lasts about 4 hours, and I've upgraded it to Netbook Remix to dump the proprietary Dell stuff.
      I found a 16 GB SDHC card for $29.00 to overcome the small (4 GB) drive, and I've connected it to my home network so I can access other documents as necessary.
      It couldn't function as my primary PC, but I'm very satisfied and have turned a couple of people on to these devices, and they're very pleased also.
      Different people have different needs, and I hear netboooks are the fastest growing segment of the PC market. Makes sense to me.
      • Genesis of the Idea began with providing a $100 educational PC

        Of course, the whole thing has perverted into the presently confusing market. Providing more of this and that along with xenOSphobia (those that fear and are stuck into using only one OS) have distorted the idea. Kids were the intended benefactors but the the original premise is threatened (along with contributing to the terrible environmental trend of increased e-waste).
        For me the idea includes the ultra-mobility requirements of lightweight and battery life, useful apps (limited by one's programming skills and availability), some document publishing, wireless or wired networking, and the ability to interface or transfer data to a computer or network that serves the grander function.
        Processing that serves modest performance needs, driver friendly, a lean open source GUI OS that doesn't glut the available drivespace and supports readily available open source apps, Flash or SSD, useful interface ports, and limited customization are my only desires.
        Portable external peripherals such as HDD, optical drive, and printer may be supplemented. For now that would suit the needs. People have got to realize the present hardware limitations while getting to know and embrace open source.
        Btw, kids are getting the PC's I've mentioned. They are rugged, useful, and even have batteries that are recharged by using a handcrank.
    • 6 - 8 hours?

      Try the twice weekly LAX to EWR flight.

      Try a day trip

      Try a ......

    • Ever flown international?

      Umm, many international flights are easily 8+ hours long.

      Granted, though, I haven't flown in a long time. I don't know if airlines have outlets yet.

      Also, my college has a lot of old classrooms with only an outlet for the projector the instructor uses, and 10 minutes between classes isn't enough to get a battery up to 100%, especially considering I'm spending most of that 10 minutes moving between classrooms.

      . . . and, frankly, I'm not really getting that much battery life. I wish my battery would last 6 hours.
  • I tried smaller and discoverd this...

    Once you get below a standard laptop, it is all crap for most people. Invariably you end up needing the memory, disk space, or CD/DVD drive that you don't have.

    Man-up for carrying the extra couple of ounces of a real laptop. Get a good laptop and carry a good phone/blackberry/Iphone etc.

    There are guys in Iraq carrying 100 pounds plus in packs and equipment, in 100 plus degrees, while being shot at; so stop your whining.
    • re: I tried smaller and discoverd this...

      <font color=#808080><em>"There are guys in Iraq carrying 100 pounds plus in packs and equipment, in 100 plus degrees, while being shot at; ..."</em></font>

      They have no choice.

    • 135 plus degrees

      everyday at noon in August...

      Regardless if you are using Linux, 40GB can go a long way. Also, I hardly use the CD/DVD drive on my desktop and I never carry discs. This is the internet age, you can put your data on the cloud. Or if you are savvy, you can set up a personal data server and store your big stuff there and access it from anywhere.
      • Well said!

        Both of you!
        It's weird, people on the site often got offended when I mention that I have no use for Vista ( "You haven't really used it", "You don't know anything about computers", "You're a fanboy" etc ) yet this is the perfect example. My first computer had 16k (that's sixteen [i]kilobytes[/i], or approximately .016 MB!) so I learned to make do, and you know what, a 512MB Netbook with a 4GB SSD and a small Linux distro makes do quite nicely, thank you.
        But in the same way I wouldn't haul a 20+ foot boat with my 2 litre Jetta, I wouldn't expect said system to be a total replacement for a desktop. On the other hand, while the Jetta gets about 20k miles a year, the F250 only gets about 2k. Oh, and did I mention it's a nightmare to park downtown and gets about a third the gas mileage of the Jetta.
        So, would you call me stupid for driving the Jetta?