Electronic Design
With iPad Sales Soaring, Are Netbooks Dead?

With iPad Sales Soaring, Are Netbooks Dead?

With sales of the Apple iPad soaring and a slew of Android-based tablets poised to lure consumers this holiday season, you have to wonder if netbooks are dead. This category of portable PC, with its small form factor, long battery life, and low cost, has been the darling of the computing world since it was first introduced in 2007.

Sales are still strong, but do these pared down notebooks have a future? According to ABI Research, final 2009 shipment numbers totaled 36.3 million. In 2010, netbook shipments will reach 58 million. ABI Research sees the pace of netbook market growth slowing to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23%, as media tablets start to steal some netbook thunder.

I purchased an HP Mini 210-1010NR earlier this year and am quite happy with it. I paid $299, but have seen it for as low as $229 in a Micro Center store near me. That’s a lot of computing power for the buck, so I don’t think the netbook is dead.

My only gripe has been with connectivity, but that’s not the netbook’s fault. My Verizon 3G USB stick just doesn’t cut it as a broadband solution. It’s serviceable for getting online and doing text-based tasks, but falters when it comes to sites with high graphics content and video.

Thus, I don’t use the netbook as much as I was planning to on my train ride to and from the office. Hopefully, this will change when 4G USB sticks become available.

Curling Up With A Good E-Book
I have been pleasantly surprised by the netbook’s ability to function as an e-reader, at least for netbooks with Windows. I use an application called Adobe Digital Editions to launch an e-book, and then I rotate the Windows desktop 90°.

Turning the netbook to match the display makes for a very familiar reading experience. The drawback is that the mouse pad on the netbook loses its orientation and is difficult to control.

Brian Shannon, senior product marketing manager of the PC Business Unit at Synaptics, says that this version of the Synaptics mouse pad was not designed to work with the screen rotated 90°, but future versions would.

At Computex in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this year, Synaptics demonstrated ClickEQ, the industry’s first hinge-less uniform-force, uniform-click depth ClickPad mechanical design, which makes it easier for users to activate typical “button” actions. ClickPad eliminates the need for physical buttons—the touchpad is the button—and provides a larger area for gestures.

In addition, the new ClickPad features
ClickSmart technology, which enables users to control the left and right button commands on their ClickPad universally. Users and OEMs aren’t burdened with having to select click usage behaviors. ClickSmart provides a new “universal” support mode that accommodates both traditional and modern user click behaviors.

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In the meantime, I recently purchased a wireless mouse for my netbook, and it works in any screen orientation.

A Netbook Docking Station
Unlike standard-size notebooks, netbooks usually forego an integrated DVD player. This is fine if you plan on downloading all your movie content from a service like Netflix or Apple’s iTunes. But if you have movies on DVDs and would like to play them on a netbook, you need a DVD player.

I recently got a chance to review an interesting netbook accessory—a combo DVD player and hard disk. The Aegis NetDock from Apricorn is a 3-in-1 USB docking station that incorporates a 500-Gbyte hard disk, a dual-layer DVD burner, and a four-port USB hub.

The Aegis NetDock is about the size of a portable DVD player. When it’s mounted in the vertical position, though, it has a footprint about the size of a staple gun.

Connecting the NetDock to the netbook is as simple as connecting the included USB cable to both devices. To play a DVD on the netbook, I had to install player software that came with the NetDock. I didn’t think about the fact that without a built-in DVD player, the netbook might not be prepared to play DVDs, but it makes sense.

The candy-apple colored NetDock comes with an ac adapter and needs to be plugged in, so it is meant to sit on a desk, like any other docking station. Included in the four-port USB hub are two always on USB ports, which you can use for charging mobile phones and MP3 players.

The Aegis NetDock costs $189 with a 500-Gbyte hard drive and $89 without. The latter model can be upgraded at any time, since the enclosure fits any 2.5-in., 9.5-mm SATA hard drive. It would make a nice gift for any college student using a netbook in a cramped dorm room.

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