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MacBooks vs. netbooks: Guess which one wins with students

August 19, 2009 |  9:55 am
HP Mini
Netbooks such as the HP Mini shown here have been gaining popularity. Credit: Hewlett-Packard.

Money talks. Especially when you don't have much of it.

Cash-strapped students returning to school may be looking toward less pricey computers called netbooks and shunning premium-priced products from Apple. Priced as low as $170, these minis have become popular among road warriors who want lightweight laptops with longer battery lives.

Now students may be taking a page out of the business traveler's handbook, according to a survey of 300 Americans released this morning by Retrevo, a technology review website based in Sunnyvale, Calif. A third of those polled said they planned to buy a netbook for school. About half said they would buy a desktop. A majority of students said they would not be buying a Mac.

“While Apple has done well historically in the education market, 2009 marks the dawn of the netbook,” says Vipin Jain, Retrevo's chief executive. “Students told us they wanted longer battery life, smaller size and a lighter laptop."

More than half of those polled, 58%, said they planned to spend less than $750 on their computer, while 18% had a budget over $1,000. Apple laptops start at $949.

"At a time when many people are experiencing economic hardship, having a new Apple laptop isn’t a necessity,” Jain said.

Of course, Apple has never counted on having a majority of computer users to be profitable. Apple has rarely claimed more than 10% of the market for computers. Big players such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard own much larger shares of the PC market, but nevertheless walk a financial tightrope as aggressive pricing slices away their margins. Meanwhile, Apple has been perfectly content to charge a premium to the minority of buyers willing to fork over the extra cash, even in hard times.

Would Apple follow the same premium pricing path for future products such as a tablet computer, for example? 

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.