When does a netbook stop being a netbook?

So-called business-class netbooks are blurring the distinction between consumer-oriented toys and the traditional corporate laptop

When is a netbook no longer a netbook? I ask because, as I work my way through the current crop of devices from Asus, Acer, Hewlett-Packard, and MSI, I keep running into features and configuration options that seem to blur the distinction between notebooks and netbooks.

For example, should a netbook have a fingerprint reader? In a business-oriented, security-conscious environment like enterprise IT, I'm guessing such a feature would be welcome. However, it adds cost and support complexity to what has traditionally (if you can call 18 months a tradition) been a fairly simplistic device. It's a valid question, and my gut reaction is to answer, "No, such a device is an unnecessary feature." Yet here I sit looking at an Asus N10Jc "corporate netbook" with a fingerprint reader wedged prominently between the trackpad buttons.

[ Follow Randall C. Kennedy's netbook odyssey. | See which systems the InfoWorld Test Center rates as the best netbooks for business. ]

Another example: accelerometers. HP's Mini 2140 netbook includes the company's proprietary 3D Drive Guard technology to protect the unit's hard disk in the event of an accidental fall. Again, this is a feature I expect to find on a corporate notebook, but I'm surprised to see it popping up on a low-cost netbook, even one advertised as being a business-class device.

Of course, in some cases the pricing itself cries out, "Not a netbook!" Take the aforementioned Asus, for example. With a starting price point of $649 and with pimped-out configurations running just shy of $800, it's a struggle to reconcile the N10Jc's pricing with its specifications. This is low-end corporate notebook territory, and yet the N10Jc is most definitely a netbook, with its underpowered Atom CPU, small screen, and cramped keyboard.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for bringing business capability to the netbook form factor. I just wish vendors would settle on a consistent definition of what is and is not a netbook. But then again, maybe it's the netbook nomenclature itself that is causing so much confusion. It suggests a very limited, consumer-oriented device suitable for simple browsing and e-mail access. However, as I've so gracefully demonstrated over the past few weeks, today's netbooks are perfectly capable of assuming many of the roles traditionally occupied by low-end corporate notebooks.

Perhaps the ultimate solution is to stop using the "netbook" name outside of the consumer space. So-called business-class netbooks are really more like ultracompact laptops, with many of the key value-added technologies migrating downward to this emerging form factor. And while I might object to the idea of spending laptop-type dollars on a product category whose netbook name still invokes memories of the original Eee PC, I have no problem shelling out $400 to $700 for a highly mobile business laptop with a 1,366-by-768-pixel display, 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard disk running Vista or Windows 7.

In other words, the HP Mini 2140 I'm typing this from right now.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies