Friday, May 30, 2008

Subnotebook vs. UMPC vs. Netbook: WTF Is the Difference?

When Blam broke the news on Dell's mini Inspiron, there was one he was stuck on: How to categorize it. Is it a subnotebook? A UMPC? A netbook? (Knowing the specs might have helped, but probably not much.) Part of the problem is that the category names themselves are very new and pretty vague. Here's a mini-compendium of the most popular terms for dwarfish laptops being tossed around, where they come from and what they're trying to say. Help us decide which ones to keep, and which to ditch.

Subnotebook: Judging by Google results (1,660,000) and the presence of a Wikipedia entry, "subnotebook" appears to be one of the most popular and closest-to-legit terms, with a history going back to at least Toshiba's Libretto, according to our friend Mark Spoonauer, editor-in-chief at Laptop. The real sticky point appears to be on the edges—when does a UMPC become a subnotebook, and when does a subnotebook become a real notebook? At 11 inches, Lenovo's IdeaPad U110 is probably the breaking point for subnotebook. In fact, that's our new rule: to classify as a subnotebook or ultraportable (see below), you've gotta be 11 inches or under, and less than 3 pounds. (Sorry Walt, the MacBook Air might be light, but its ginormous, full-notebook footprint means it ain't really a subnotebook in most people's eyes.) Judgment: Like a pair of loafers, "subnotebook" is unsexy, but it gets the job done.

Ultraportable: That's a really tricky term, probably the most amorphous. Spoonauer classifies small notebooks with fuller keyboards and displays like the IdeaPad U110 or HP's Mini-note 2133 as "ultraportables," leaving the "subnotebook" moniker to devices in the UMPC class, like the HTC Shift. However, added confusion comes from the fact that ultraportable sounds like ultramobile, as in UMPC (see below). Still, it's the most compelling alternative to subnotebook, because it sounds sexier, and has over 3 million Google hits alone and 1.27 million tagged to notebook or laptop. The big knock against "ultraportable" is that it redirects to "subnotebook" on Wikipedia. Judgment: I don't mind it, but without a firm identity it'll never be useful. Plus I feel like it's trying too hard.

Mini-Notebook: While "mini notebook" seems like a less popular and unwieldy derivative of "subnotebook," with fewer Google results (1,110,000) and no Wikipedia page (it doesn't even direct back to subnotebook), Spoonauer says that it's distinguished from subnotebook as being the class of small form-factor notebooks that are under $600, like the Eee PC. Judgment: I think this one should be junked, though determining a class on price is probably a good idea.

ULPC: This most generally stands for ultra low-cost PC, though I've seen ultra-light PC, too. (How about that for a red flag?) It isn't overly popular, but it obviously refers to small, cheap notebooks like the Eee or XO OLPC Laptop. While it might be useful in distinguishing the Eee from, say, the pricier U110, overall the term seems pointless, especially when there's already a better alternative. Judgment: Garbage heap.

Netbook: This is actually the brainchild of Intel's marketing department to describe sub-$500 notebooks centered around internet-connectivity, such as its Classmate PC. The original Eee PC, XO OLPC Laptop and Cloudbook would fall into this category. While it is technically flackspeak, I actually like it because it's short and fairly specific. Besides being endorsed by Intel (obvs), Ubuntu has officially picked up the term. Judgment: A keeper, even if it was coined by the Man.

UMPC: The term stands for ultra-mobile PC, and actually has fairly concrete origins in the Project Origami catastrophe headed up by Microsoft. Under Intel and Microsoft's guidelines, technically the form factor is defined as touchscreen mini-tablet smaller than eight inches with a resolution of at least 800 pixels wide. However, we (and most others) include the OQO in this category. Even though it doesn't have a touchscreen, it otherwise fits the slabby form factor to a T. Judgment: Works, we just have to disabuse people of using it in reference to stuff like the Eee.


Hopefully focusing on three terms that bear the least ambiguity will help with this confusion. Here's where you guys come in, since believe it or not, we do like standards. So while UMPC has dried to a firm, tasty shell, Netbook and subnotebook are still pretty jelly-like. Or maybe you'd prefer ultraportable to subnotebook? Should low-cost dwarfish notebooks be called netbooks, or is there a better term? Help us clean up this semantic cesspool.