Netbooks have become very popular in the last four years. While Asus pioneered the system category with its first EeePCs, Intel is responsible for the technology behind it. Without the relatively cheap, cool, small, and slow Atom CPUs, small-sized notebooks would likely still be luxury items with mediocre battery life. Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) Core Processors have become increasingly popular and more affordable, but Atom CPUs still completely dominate the netbook market. The definition of a netbook is murky, but it generally means a notebook computer with the following properties: long battery life, low price, relatively slow processor, and a 12-inch-or-smaller screen. Intel very pointedly notes the slow speed of netbooks, and says that they are not suitable replacements for notebook computers.
Battery life is another important factor. Atom-based netbooks have become successful partly because of their low power requirements and very long battery life. CULV processors open the door for faster and more powerful ultra-portable notebooks to last just as long as inexpensive netbooks. The Alienware M11x notebook retails for $799 and up, but it only has an 11-inch display and Dell boasts it can last over 8 hours on a charge. Were it not for the hefty price, the M11x would easily qualify as a notebook.
Intel will be lifting a restriction on LCD panel size for Atom-based CPUs with the upcoming N550 processor. Their report implies that Intel currently restricts Atom-based systems to 10.2-inch LCD panels or smaller--a limitation that many people believe is a strict rule--and that the change will open up the possibility of netbooks with 11.6- and 12.1-inch displays. However, the existing EeePC 1201N uses an Atom N330 CPU and features a 12-inch LCD, and the HP Mini 311 is powered by an Atom N270 CPU and features an 11-inch LCD. According to Intel own website, "If the computer in question is powered by an Intel Atom processor, it is a netbook."
We went straight to Intel to clarify the situation. An Intel spokesman we contacted noted that the Atom was designed with 7-10" screens in mind, but that this range is "guidance" from Intel, and not necessarily a hard technical limit. Since 11 and 12-inch Atom-based netbooks already exist, we're not too surprised by Intel's official stance. The confusion over what technical counts as a netbook may actually stem from Microsoft, which as its own guidelines and restrictions for what type of devices quality for OEM discounts of Windows 7 Starter Edition--a significant contributing factor for the low overall cost of netbooks.
Where is the netbook line drawn? Does it cease to be a netbook if it measures over 10 inches? If it costs more than $500? If it lasts less than 4 hours of general use? If it uses a CULV Core processor instead of an Atom CPU? For a category of computer that's become so successful, it's very ill-defined, with plenty of overlap with other small, light, long-lasting notebook computers.