Ultraportable vs netbook: The next computer battle is in the (messenger) bag

Traditionally, the big computer battles have revolved around platforms (Mac or PC) or manufacturers (Dude, it's a Dell!). However, in the latest development of the ongoing digital revolution, it appears that the real battle will be over a fundamental question of functionality and price.

As we reported, computer manufacturer Dell (DELL) recently released the Adamo laptop Tuesday. A super-thin, high-powered "luxury computer," the Adamo has a hefty price tag of $2,000, and is designed to propel Dell into the top tier of "ultraportable" computer makers.

For many computer makers, these laptops seem to represent the future of the business. The Adamo joins an impressive pack of competitors: Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air, HP's (HPQ) Voodoo Envy, and ThinkPad's X-301 all combine slick design, impressive processing power, and daunting price tags in machines that offer power and prestige in one compact container.

However, with an ailing economy, many users are asking whether they need to have the full functionality of a luxury laptop tucked into their messenger bag. As Clive Thompson noted in a recent Wired article, "the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high [...] so coders took advantage of that surplus power to write ever-bulkier applications and operating systems." At some point, many analysts argue, the computer industry exceeded the needs of its audience, which means that it now finds itself relying on what Thompson calls "what-if paranoia," as in "what if I need to launch an Apollo rocket from my laptop while I'm simultaneously editing a movie and slogging through hour 57 of a marathon gaming session?"

Thompson's point is well taken. Recently, while shopping for a new computer, I found myself pulled between two choices: a $2,000 laptop loaded with all the extras and an $800 desktop, with a respectable slate of features. Given that I am loathe to take my entire life onto the subway, and admitting that I probably won't be editing a movie on my computer any time soon, I find myself increasingly drawn to the inexpensive desktop (not to mention its luxurious 22" screen).

On the other hand, I work from home, which means that portability isn't all that important to me. People who regularly take their computer to and from work (like my wife) get extremely excited about three-pound laptops with extended battery life. Targeting them, the ultraportable market has simultaneously catered to the desire for a sexy excess of processing capability and a functional desire for light, compact computers. However, luxury laptops draw a huge amount of energy, which means that they generally top out at around five hours of use. Moreover, their extreme price tags mitigate against their functionality: simply put, the idea of losing a $2,000 computer is daunting for most consumers.

Enter the netbooks. Originally designed as a supercheap, superportable laptop for underprivileged children, the stripped-down computers have become the newest fad among middle-class users. Unlike their luxury competitors, netbooks have fairly puny specs. 512 MB of RAM is standard, and the basic processor speed is somewhere in the 1.6 GHz range. Their hard drives seem to top out around 160 gigs, and their displays are a miniscule 1024 x 600 pixels.

Still, netbooks are powerful enough to easily run a stripped-down operating system, generally either Linux or Microsoft Windows XP. With built-in WiFi, they can access the internet, and the fact that the most common user activities can now be performed online means that they are highly functional. For that matter, a single netbook can easily replace a $350 Kindle reader, a portable movie player, and an iPod.

Also, as the netbooks demonstrate, there are many metrics for functionality. With battery lifespans that are often superior to those of luxury laptops, netbooks could actually be more useful to the average user. Moreover, most models are under three pounds, which is the holy grail for luxury laptops, and under $350, which makes them far more disposable than their premium brethren.

While companies will continue to built prestige machines for the foreseeable future, the smart money is on the small, underpowered laptops that are chugging their way into a major market share.

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