When I saw Lenovo's recent announcement about its new, 12-inch netbook, the IdeaPad S12, I did a doubletake. Netbook? 12-inch screen? That's what my Mac PowerBook, circa 2004, had, and I remember carrying it everywhere.
It was called a "laptop," but that was virtually eons before netbooks launched, the economy crashed and the appetite for mobile computing gobbled up the landscape. If you don't have a BlackBerry or an iPhone now, maybe you've got an Acer Aspire One or Asus Eee.
No question, we like to take our e-mail and Internet with us everywhere we go. Helping to feed that appetite, despite a lousy economy, has been a slew of $200 (more or less) smartphones, as well as netbooks, little laptops of 2 to 3 pounds, that start in the mid-$200 price range.
And on their way: computing form factors in between the smartphone and netbook that will sate the need to be able to continuously connect. The 12-inch screen size seems to be a new sweet spot for netbooks, laptops or whatever name you want to give to these portable computers.
Most netbooks now have a maximum screen size of about 10 inches. One of the first to take off in late 2007 was the $299 Asus Eee PC which had a 7-inch screen — "toy-like," notes Phil McKinney, HP's vice president and chief technology officer for the personal systems group.
Toy-like, but clearly distinguishable from bigger brother and sister laptops, which started at 12 inches in screen size but typically did well in the 14- to 17-inch screen category.
Lenovo's calls its 3-pound IdeaPad S12 with a 12.1-inch screen a netbook, and pricing will start at $449. Dell has its Mini 12, which it dubs "laptop/netbook" (giving users the choice of deciding what it is). The Mini 12 weighs under 3 pounds, with prices starting at $399.
Shown in a recent Best Buy advertising insert was a 15.4-inch widescreen Toshiba laptop with a 160-gigabyte hard drive for $349.99, and a Dell 15.6-inch widescreen laptop, also with a 160-gigabyte hard drive, for $449.99.
That's the kind pricing similarity that worries PC manufacturers, with PC shipments worldwide down 13 percent from the first quarter of 2008 compared to the first quarter of 2009. Netbooks have been a bright spot, but some question at what cost.
"There is concern about the cannibalization issue," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group research firm. "I don't want someone who was going to spend $499 to spend $349; I want people who wouldn't have bought anything to spend $329. That's a win."
As far as what defines a netbook versus any other type of laptop, "the lines are blurring," Baker said. "The lines were sort of artificial to begin with. The way we've put these products out into the market right now, it's still hard for the consumer to know what we're trying to offer them."
The netbook market has come a long way, he said, in offering consumers improved devices with bigger screens, keyboards and battery life. "You're hard-pressed now to find any of the original products that set up the netbook market," he said.
Still, "they all look pretty similar: the 10-inch screen, a gigabyte of RAM, a 120-GB hard drive, two or three USB ports, Intel's Atom processor and Windows XP operating system." (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
"There's some color differences, and that helps a little bit, but from a feature perspective, the manufacturers are having difficulty separating from each other because of the platform and just the limits of what you can do in something that size," Baker said.
Hence, laptops in the 12-inch screen range. Lenovo boasts of a full-size keyboard in its IdeaPad S12. Most netbook keyboards are about 92 percent of the size of a full-size keyboard, and sometimes smaller. Toshiba just announced its "mini NB205," a 10.1-inch netbook with a "full-size QWERTY raised-tile keyboard and a generous laptop-sized touchpad." Pricing starts at $349.
Netbooks vs. thin-and-lights
What makes a netbook? The answer, most manufacturers say, is in the processor, most commonly the low-voltage, low-cost Intel Atom processor, with Intel's development of it having partly created netbooks. AMD has its Athlon Neo processor, and just announced its dual-core Athlon Neo to serve larger but lighter laptops.
The Athlon Neo is used in HP's Dv2 which has a 12-inch screen, but is not considered a netbook by the company. The $699 computer, weighing just under 4 pounds, is described as an "ultrathin."
"The Dv2, in our thin and light category, has a full-powered AMD processor, full capabilities just as you would have with any traditional notebook, but it's in that 12- to 13-inch category, vs. our Mini Notes, which go up to a 10.2-inch screen," said McKinney.
"We see the Mini Note, in many cases, as being viewed as kind of a step up from the smartphone," he said.
"We find the 10.2-inch screen is that perfect tradeoff between getting to be too big, too heavy that I'm not going to carry it all the time, yet not too small to where the screen becomes hard to read and isn't usable."
Acer, which makes the popular Aspire One netbooks, this week unveiled its "Timeline thin and light notebook family." The smallest member of that family weighs 3.5 pounds and has a 13.3-inch display; the largest weighs 5.3 pounds and has a 15.6-inch screen. The laptop with the largest screen is the least expensive at $598; the smallest, the most expensive at $899.
David Daoud, research manager in IDC's personal computing, PC Tracker and Green IT programs, said netbook buyers are divided into a few different groups. Among them are, as would be expected, travelers, but travelers who are "used to using a product like the BlackBerry or iPhone, and therefore are somewhat comfortable with the screen size and the keyboard size limitations."
IDC also is finding that a "substantial number" of people are buying netbooks as a "primary device," he said. "The way they're designed, the price points, the small, light size of the product makes it pretty compelling for many people."
Compelling and confusing — something Daoud, like Baker, says consumers are faced with when it comes time to decide what to buy, if they are going to buy. "There's really no clear-cut definition of what a netbook is," Daoud said.
One thing consumers can count on is more choice (and confusion). There will be a lot of both coming as manufacturers scramble to draw buyers back in, be it via netbooks, mobile tablets, media tablets or laptops — no matter what size or shape those computers take.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints