Sony, Nokia plan premium netbooks

One way to wean customers off of cheap netbooks is to offer a better alternative. Many computer makers are now offering ULV-based laptops.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

One way to wean customers off of cheap netbooks is to offer a better alternative. Many computer makers are now offering ULV-based laptops. Another is to raise the price of netbooks. Both Sony and Nokia are planning to give this strategy a go. I've written about this before, and it still seems like a long shot.

According to reports from IFA in Berlin, Sony gave a preview this week of a new half-inch thick laptop, the Vaio X Series. Sony doesn't like to use the word "netbook"--they refer to the Vaio P Series as a "lifestyle PC" and don't even use the moniker with the new W Series, a straightforward 10.1-inch netbook that starts at $500. The X Series is no different; Sony says it is a replacement for the discontinued X505 subnotebook. But the prototype has an 11.1-inch display and uses an Intel Atom processor. (Engadget has an X Series hands-on and says the use of Atom is "far from decided").

Though Sony hasn't announced detailed specs or pricing, the company has said the X Series will cost "less than $2,000," which as far as I know would be a new high-water mark for an Atom-based laptop (even the P Series starts at $1,000). . There are two reasons why the company is hoping you'll pay a premium. First the carbon-fiber frame is not only extremely thin, but also lightweight. The X Series weighs an amazing 1.5 pounds. Second, Sony claims that the 31Whr battery will be sufficient for all-day computing when it launches with Windows 7 in October.

There's no doubt thin is in, but it seem like we may have reached a point of "thin enough" with laptops. The initial enthusiasm for Apple's MacBook Air has cooled considerably, and Apple has lowered the price to $1,499. And attempts to emulate Apple's ultra-thin aesthetic, such as Dell's Adamo and HP's Voodoo Envy--have flopped. At this price range, most laptop buyers will opt for a slightly thicker and heavier laptop that offers better performance and longer battery life. On top of this, Intel's ULV processors are lowering the price of ultra-thin. Acer's 11.6-inch Aspire 1410 may be twice the weight and thickness (3.1 pounds and 0.9 inches thick) of the X Series, but it has a faster processor than Atom, the 1.40GHz Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500, and costs $450. Let's hope Sony switches to ULV and cuts the price before the X Series launches in late October.

Nokia is also steering clear of the word netbook. They refer to Booklet 3G as a "mini-laptop," but it's a netbook. The Booklet 3G will have a 10.1-inch display (1280x720), a 1.60GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor, 1GB of memory, 120GB hard drive and Windows 7. Nokia says that the $810 price is likely to be heavily subsidized by wireless carriers--but that's still about twice the price of competing netbooks without similar or better specs without a wireless contract. In this case, Nokia is hoping wireless services and applications will justify the premium. The Booklet 3G will have a SIM card slot, a hefty battery good for up 12 hours, and features such as Assisted-GPS with Ovi Maps and an Ovi Suite (this new Nokia video doesn't shed much light on the Ovi Suite).

The trouble is, the hardware features will be easy for other computer makers to duplicate. And Nokia clearly still has lot of work to do before its Ovi Store and applications will be compelling for smartphone or laptop users. Nokia hasn't announced the release date.

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