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2012: The year that netbooks DIED

Last remaining makers preparing to exit market

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Netbooks – those compact, underpowered, inexpensive notebook PCs once hailed as the future of mobile computing – are set to disappear from retailer shelves in 2013, as the last remaining manufacturers of the devices prepare to exit the market.

According to Taiwanese tech news site DigiTimes, Acer and Asus are the only two hardware makers still producing netbooks, and they are mainly doing so to sell them to emerging markets such as South America and Southeast Asia.

Even that won't last long, DigitTimes reports. Acer has said it has no plans to develop any further netbook products, while Asus announced in September that it planned to discontinue its Eee PC netbook line by the end of 2012.

Once the last netbooks roll out of Acer's and Asus's factories, it will spell the end of a once-crowded market. Other big-name competitors – including HP, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba, among others – have long since ceased production of the tiny devices.

It's not hard to see why. Analysts were initially bullish on netbooks because of their compact size and low price tags. The devices were so cheap, in fact, that it was easy to overlook that their real-world performance was generally lackluster.

Underpowered Intel Atom processors made netbooks useless as number crunchers, while their miniaturized keyboards often made even basic word processing a chore. Their tiny, low-resolution screens made for a cramped desktop experience, and 3D gaming was pretty much out of the question.

It soon became clear that, given their low-end specs and their impracticality for day-to-day computing, netbooks really had only one clear edge over traditional laptops: price. Manufacturers moved swiftly to nullify that advantage, offering more traditionally sized notebooks with beefier components at prices roughly equivalent to those of netbooks.

Today, the most popular use case for netbooks – that of a secondary computing device for web browsing – is largely being filled by tablets, which are generally priced the same or even cheaper than netbooks but offer touchscreens, and are therefore more fun to play Angry Birds on.

Many newer tablet models can more accurately be described as hybrid devices, with optional detachable keyboards that lend them a decidedly netbook-like user experience.

About the only company still actively marketing devices that look like netbooks is Google, with its line of Chromebook boot-to-browser devices. The Chocolate Factory has not disclosed how many Chromebooks – which are manufactured by Acer and Samsung – it has sold, but estimates are low.

Meanwhile, the original netbook concept of a compact, ultraportable PC has reemerged in the form of Ultrabooks, Intel's attempt to encourage PC makers to develop devices to compete with Apple's extra-slim MacBook Air.

Ultrabooks will likely fare better in the market than netbooks did, if for no other reason that unlike netbooks, Ultrabooks won't be a race to the bottom for manufacturers. Instead of being marketed as cheap, secondary computing devices, Ultrabooks will carry premium specs and price tags to match.

But even Ultrabooks' prices will eventually decline, and according to Juniper Research, by 2016 virtually every notebook will resemble an Ultrabook, leaving the netbook era as little more than a quaint and whimsical memory.

If you still have a soft spot for netbooks, however, take heart. There are still plenty of the devices in the channel, and if you think they're priced cheaply now, wait until Acer, Asus, and retailers begin liquidating their remaining inventories in 2013. ®

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