...the MSI Wind U100 netbook. I picked up a couple of these on Black Friday to goof around with as sandbox machines. Never in a million years did I expect to buy two, count 'em two laptops in one purchase out of my own pocket. Then again, I never expected to see a well-reviewed laptop for $299.
The Wind isn't perfect. The touchpad is kind of wonky, the screen's WSVGA aspect ratio is a little odd, I'm forever fumbling for the period and slash keys, and the included 3-cell battery's life absolutely SUCKS. But, holy cow, this little machine has so much going for it that I can survive the other stuff--after using the Wind for a few weeks, I'm finding that my 13" MacBook (which is by no means ginormous) feels huge by comparison. The 1024x600 screen isn't all that tall, but it looks awesome--and is more than bright enough, courtesy of its LED backlighting technology. The 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU has the guts to power the operating system/s of your choice with cycles to spare.
And, most importantly, it's compact.
Note I'm not saying small. To me, small is the Asus Eee PC in its 7" and 9" versions. The 7" feels like a child's DVD player, while the 9" feels like something one might store recipes on. The difference of an additional inch (actually, 1.1 inches between the 8.9" and 10" screen sizes) of real estate is a big deal. Having synchronized my MacBook with one of my Winds, I now rarely leave the house without throwing the Wind in the car. Sure, Apple fanbois can gush all they want about their iPhones, but when I need a keyboard, a real screen, and a 120 gigabyte hard disk with all my applications and content on it, a phone (be it an iPhone or my BlackBerry) ain't gonna cut it. Maybe in a couple of years, but not today.
The ironic thing about my purchase of the Winds is that I didn't even know they existed less than 72 hours before I bought them. Read my post on the benefits of transparency, and you'll understand what I mean.
I was a pretty big cynic when Intel announced the Atom in March, 2008. The mobile Internet device (MID) class Intel espoused in their initial releases didn't resonate with me; I maintained a healthy dose of skepticism when I attended the Intel Developer Forum in mid-August, and saw a bunch of Atom-based devices that looked like they should be, uh, displaying recipes.
How quickly times change.
The turn of a single season from autumn to winter has delivered devices which are not just functional, but are downright cool. Moreover, they're useful--I've owned some very cool tech over the years that was also pretty worthless, but this new crop of MIDs (in the form of 10" and 12" netbooks) is making a lot of people stand up and take notice, because they're cool, functional, and inexpensive. A lot of my friends and colleagues have talked about how they'd love to get their kids an inexpensive, kid-sized laptop, but could never justify shelling out $500-800 or more to pick up a machine with way too much computing power, way too big a screen, and way too much heft for little Johnny or Janey to carry, drop, and break.
Dads and Moms of the world, you can stop justifying quite so hard. Netbooks are here to stay.
One final note--not everyone loves the netbook class of device. In addition to the potential for customer confusion (e.g, "why is that called a netbook and that's not, even though they're the same size?"), retailers pretty much detest netbooks, at least in this instantiation, and not only because by themselves they're low-margin devices and have introduced so much segmentation confusion. Today's netbooks are very self-contained--consumer goes to store (bricks 'n' mortar or online), buys netbook, takes netbook home (or has it delivered), uses netbook, throws netbook in existing bag or briefcase when on the road.
The problem for the retailers is that there's pretty much nothing else in terms of attach rate (or basket sale, if you prefer) going out the door with the netbook. Some vendors are even shipping their devices with a carrying case, further hurting sales on the high-margin accessories retailers love to sell along with the main device. Case in point--you rarely see an HDTV go out the door on its own. And, if you do, the consumer is typically back at the store in short order to buy a longer HDMI cable or an upconverting DVD player. People typically best understand the concept of attach rate by thinking of gaming consoles; the Xbox 360 currently leads the market with an attach rate of 8.1 games per console. That's huge.
But, today, the attach rate on netbooks is well-nigh zero. Users aren't kitting them out with Bluetooth mice, docking stations, large monitors, et.al. They're buying 'em, taking 'em home, and loving 'em. From the retailers I've spoken with, neoprene sleeves seem to be the sole item going in the basket with most netbooks.
Maybe scuba divers should be wary; everyone else, rejoice.