The still-growing popularity of netbooks has likely robbed Apple much of its target audience for back-to-school Mac sales this year, a study from Retrevo found on Tuesday. Just over a third of notebook-buying college students, or 34 percent, plan to buy a netbook from any make for their return to class. About 49 percent of the total also specifically plan to buy a regular Windows notebook, leaving just 17 percent either buying a Mac or uncertain about what they will buy.
The discrepancy is almost directly linked with budgets, the researchers said. Almost matching the number of more likely Mac buyers, only about 18 percent of all buyers had a budget of more than $1,000 for their college computers. In contrast, a large 58 percent have a budget of $750 or less. As the least expensive MacBook costs $950 with an educational discount, the bias not only rules out Apple entirely for more than half of those asked about their plans but heavily favors netbooks, which most commonly sit between $300 and $400.
Retrevo claims the choices are primarily guided by a desire for smaller and lighter low-cost systems and particularly tries to draw a link to the current poor economy's limits on what students or their parents can buy.
Whether the results of the 300-person survey will apply broadly is unclear. Although researchers at the NPD Group believe that netbooks will represent a quarter of all portables sold in 2009, Apple was one of the few computer builders to post year-over-year gains in shipments as a new, lower-cost MacBook Pro line triggered a sharp jump in sales even with a minimum $1,100 asking price for student buyers.
Apple has historically refused to produce netbooks as it believes them too slow and usually of poor build quality compared to what it expects. However, Intel's recent creation of the Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) category partly eliminates these arguments by providing much higher performance while still nearing netbook prices. Dell on the day of the study's publication launched the Inspiron 11z at the common $399 price of a netbook but with a quicker Celeron processor as well as more RAM and storage.