Netbook or notebook? Confusion reigns at 12 inches

Market researcher NPD says that consumers are confused about the difference between a netbook and a notebook. It's no wonder.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

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.

Editorial standards