Why were netbooks successful when they were first introduced? The reasons were simple enough, they were cheaper, reasonably powerful, and were ultra portable. Optimum use of power meant that they offered a battery life of between four to six hours under general usage condition. What really made it come together was Intel’s Atom processor, which has since then seen several levels of optimizations and improvements. Netbooks were chartbusters because they offered something that was never offered before, they were truly revolutionary. Today, a standard netbook running a free OS costs a little more than Rs.11,000, this kind of pricing is what defines that category. The Asus Eee PC X101H that runs MeeGo sells for anywhere between Rs.10,800 and Rs.11,500. And it lets you do pretty much everything a standard notebook does. 

But the fact remains that netbooks are on their way out. Tablets are the in-thing, and demand for netbooks has collapsed in addition to the saturation of netbooks. Tablets were assumed to be taking a big bite of the PC market share, but they’re definitely eating much more into the netbook share, making the category seem irrelevant. 

A lot to offer, but will it be as revolutionary as the netbook was?

A lot to offer, but will it be as revolutionary as the netbook was?

Time for a new category then! Intel is hoping that with their Ultrabooks they will create another revolution in portable computing. Their hope is that customers will fall over themselves to buy MacBook Air-like notebooks for around Rs.50,000. The processor that’ll drive Ultrabooks is going to be Intel’s Sandy Bridge (for the time being) till their upcoming Ivy Bridge processors show up, early next year. 

Here’s where the problem lies, and why I think this time around Intel and supporting manufacturers may not see the frenzy they saw when netbooks first arrived on the scene. While Intel’s Atom were a whole new line of processors, different from their mainstream processors at their time (Core 2 series), the Sandy Bridge processors are exactly the same and are used on any other notebook today. While the Sandy Bridge processors might be an improvement over the last generation of processors, they’re certainly not as power efficient as the Atom. Intel claims that Ultrabooks will be able to offer up to 5 hours, and in some cases, nearly 8 hours of battery life. I just don’t buy that as a possibility. Nothing I’ve seen over the last few months based on the Sandy Bridge platform suggests that such kind of battery life is possible. So, where is that breakthrough performance in battery life going to come from? 

Next up is the size zero issue. If Apple could use the Sandy Bridge processor and build a notebook like the MacBook Air, earlier in the year, what’s stopping the other manufacturers from doing something similar? Why does Intel, a processor and chipset manufacturer have to hand-hold ultra-slim designs to notebook manufacturers who’ve been making laptops for more than a decade now? Regardless, it’d be great if manufacturers do release MacBook Air like designs, but the 67,000 rupee question is at what price?

Netbooks were cheap, and that was the primary reason for their success. At Rs 50,000 a piece, Ultrabooks are not going to be cheap, and I for one think that days of pricing notebooks in this bracket are surely numbered. At the moment, they are priced well above Rs 50,000, even in the U.S and when they hit Indian shores, those prices should swell up some more. The Lenovo U300s that was just launched in India is selling at a price of Rs. 67,900 – far from the estimated 50k mark. I’m not sure how many people would want to buy sleek looking notebooks for such a hefty premium? 

The only chance Ultrabooks have is if Ivy Bridge delivers a brand new performance benchmark. They have to be more affordable as well. Give us super-slim, powerful Ultrabooks for around Rs 30,000 based on the Ivy Bridge, with a minimum battery life of about 6-hours, and it’ll blow every other portable computing device out of the water.

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