Netbooks: Mini Laptops, Bigger Cell Phones

Technology commentator Mario Armstrong talks with Steve Inskeep about netbooks, mini laptops that have some of the functions of a computer and some of the abilities of a cell phone. Netbooks are very portable, very stylish and cost about $300.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, let's talk about the way that two technologies are converging. Telephones are becoming more and more like computers, with email and Web access and more. And at the same time, computers are getting more like your phone. They're getting smaller. Many laptops are now a good deal smaller than your lap. And if they can't quite fit in your pocket yet, some are heading in that direction.

Our technology commentator, Mario Armstrong, has brought by some netbooks. Hi, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hi, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing okay. You've got one, two, three, four, five different versions of these netbooks. Let's just describe this one right here.

ARMSTRONG: Okay. The one closest to you is the Dell Mini. It's got a 10-inch screen on here. But look at this.

INSKEEP: It's like half the size of a laptop screen.

ARMSTRONG: That's exactly right. They're about a half to about two-thirds the size of an average laptop, a conventional laptop.

INSKEEP: What is the point, though, of having a smaller and smaller computer here?

ARMSTRONG: The point is portability, and the point is that the prices for netbooks has really entered into the market at such a low rate. You know, we're talking $349 on average for some of these devices.

INSKEEP: And is there something that I cannot do with this smaller computer that I could do with a larger laptop or one of those desktop computers?

ARMSTRONG: Most of the netbooks have one glaring thing that's missing, and that is called an optical drive - you know, the ability to put in a CD or a DVD and actually play those things back.

INSKEEP: So this netbook is really built for a world that assumes that you're getting all your movies or music online.

ARMSTRONG: And that's exactly kind of the point. These machines are really kind of light in that they don't come with a lot of processing power. They don't come with a lot of software already installed. So how do they function? And that is with the Internet - simple but basic computing needs like email, Web browsing, word processing, basic computing tasks.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, before we discuss some more of these things, I just want to go on here, because we were until just a second ago looking at the Grammy Awards Fashion Wrap. It's coming from somewhere online on this laptop here. Lets' bring up the sound of that.

(Soundbite of program, "Grammy Awards Fashion Wrap")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Welcome back to our "Grammy Awards Fashion Wrap." Okay, it's time to check out the stars who shine year after year, starting with Sheryl Crow.

INSKEEP: Oh, it's great to know that I can check out the stars who shine year after year without a big, bulky laptop. You know, if you're wearing your Grammy awards fashions like some of the women in the photographs here, you are - it's more stylish to be just carrying this. It looks like a purse.

ARMSTRONG: This is a size of a purse. It's funny that you bring that up, because one of the netbooks that we'll talk about, this Vivienne Tam edition from HP, is kind of like a push towards being the new digital clutch, is actually what they're actually calling that.

INSKEEP: Digital clutch?

ARMSTRONG: You want me to show it to you now?

INSKEEP: Please.

ARMSTRONG: Everything is red - beautiful kind of artistic design here with different shades of red and purple…

INSKEEP: Flowers on the outside. It's like, yeah, I mean, you really like…

ARMSTRONG: It's like lipstick red.

INSKEEP: So that's the way that these are becoming like phones as well, because people now buy so many different styles of phones to go with their look.

ARMSTRONG: They do. And now we're starting to see that actually integrate itself into the manufacturing of these computing devices. We're also now starting to see phone capabilities being integrated into the netbooks themselves. In other words, these high speed data networks typically known as 3G and faster broadband speeds are actually being integrated into the design of the netbooks.

INSKEEP: This one here looks like it might be stylish for Kermit the Frog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: What is this? Well - this one here. It's just green and white and plain and kind of clunky looking.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it's the XO laptop, the laptop that was created for OLPC, which is the One Laptop Per Child Program.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay.

ARMSTRONG: And the idea was to create a laptop that could be at a $100 price point. The purpose of these were for underserved countries.

INSKEEP: Right.

ARMSTRONG: But it was a very interesting moment in history when this happened because it started making computer manufacturers kind of shake a little bit and have to - they had to pay attention to this noise that was taking place.

INSKEEP: I know. Let me just ask, then: This computer, which is very simple, very basic looking, spawned all these other much more fashionable and stylish looking computers you have along here. Let's just mention some of the brand names. You said Dell. This is…

ARMSTRONG: This is the Lenovo.

INSKEEP: Lenovo.

ARMSTRONG: Which is another 10-inch screen.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned this one. The stylish one is…

ARMSTRONG: Yup. The HP Vivienne Tam edition.

INSKEEP: Is anybody staying out of this in the computer industry?

ARMSTRONG: Apple. They already have what they consider a small computer. It's the iPhone. It's the iPod Touch. These handheld devices that you can carry in your pocket can surf the Web, can do email, can do a lot of things that these netbooks can do in a smaller form (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Well, if you end up with phones competing directly against computers -which seems to be what we're having here right now - who's likely to win that?

ARMSTRONG: This is a new competition that hasn't, you know, really been discussed. And I think it still remains to be seen whether or not this netbook category is just something that's really hype right now, or if there will really be longevity and sustainability to netbooks. Right now, I think the netbooks have the popularity contest going on for them and they're winning. But I think, all in all, we'd like to see these things become a little bit more powerful, do a little bit more than they are capable of doing now. Then I think the phones won't be able to compete with it.

INSKEEP: Mario Armstrong, always good to see you.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Steve, for having me in.

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