Students Abandoning Apple MacBooks for Cheap Netbooks

A survey finds that students no longer want their MacBooks, preferring cheap netbooks instead. A UC Berkeley CTO bears witness to this trend.

Apple's once-faithful student consumers are forsaking MacBooks for cheaper PC laptops and lightweight, ultra-cheap netbooks, according to a survey by Retrevo, a consumer electronics shopping resource.

"The majority of student laptop shoppers will not consider buying a Mac," the report states.

[ Apple's rumored tablet with the 10-inch touchscreen might be aimed at colleges, CIO reports. ]

Retrevo surveyed some 300 people from its pool of 4 million monthly visitors to its website. One out of three students plan to purchase netbooks, prompting Retrevo CEO Vipin Jain to declare that this year "marks the dawn of the netbook." Nearly half of the respondents said they're buying full-sized PC laptops.

All of this adds up to fewer students buying MacBooks.

If the survey is an accurate reflection of students' buying habits, then Apple better take notice. Apple, of course, cannot afford to lose this customer segment—one that has helped bring Apple products into the next-generation workforce. Apple owes a large part of its success to its ability to court the student set with products such as the Macintosh, iPod and MacBook.

But Retrevo says students are now looking for cheap laptops in tough economic times. Only 18 percent of respondents, for instance, have a laptop budget of more than $1,000. The majority of respondents plan on spending less than $750.

That's why the cheap netbook has become popular in a short amount of time. Most netbooks cost less than $500, with some as low as $170. Low-end PC laptops cost just a little more. Apple laptops, on the other hand, start at $949.

Apple has said time and again that it won't enter the netbook market. Earlier this summer COO Tim Cook said in an earnings call, "at this point, we don't see the way to build a great product for this $399, $499, this kind of price point unit."

Yet Apple won't give up the student market without a fight. Industry analysts speculate that a mysterious Apple tablet with the 10-inch touchscreen, rumored to hit the market as early as this fall, will fill the void. It'll likely have an e-reader component aimed at the biggest reading population of all, students.

Grad students at University of California, Berkeley, have been filling the halls of the campus for the past two weeks, many of them carrying full-featured PC laptops, says Yau-Man Chan, CTO of the chemistry department at UC Berkeley. However, this isn't unusual since grad students in sciences require intense computational power for some key PC applications like ChemDraw, Mathcad and Mathematica.

It's the undergrads that have been MacBook aficionados, says Chan. Chan and other IT professionals at colleges and universities have borne witness to a rise in Macs on campus over the last few years. Indeed, Mac OS X installed user base has tripled in the last two years.

Yet Chan has seen signs that support Retrevo's survey, as undergrads make their way to the UC Berkeley campus this week. "I was at the recreational sports facility (on campus) yesterday all afternoon ... and most of the undergrads were using small netbooks," Chan says. "The few non-netbooks were 13-inch MacBooks, but netbooks outnumbered other laptops by far. I'd say there's definitely a trend."

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer at CIO.com. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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