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.

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