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Who is really buying netbooks? You may be surprised

New data from NPD Group suggests our perception of the netbook market, and the reality, may be very different

There’s a perception that the netbook PC market is dominated by the college and university student demographic, but new data from Toronto-based market research firm The NPD Group indicates the market is actually decidedly older.

In its recent report, Understanding the Canadian PC Buyer, NPD found a stark difference between perception and reality in the netbook segment. The study found that 65 per cent of Canadian consumers believe netbooks are intended for university and college students. However, 18 to 24-year-olds accounted for just 14 per cent of netbook sales, the smallest group of netbook purchasers. In actuality, 66 per cent of actual netbook purchasers were age 35 or older.

It’s the second year in a row that this same dichotomy has held true said Darrel Ryce, director of The NPD Group.

“We’re seeing an older demographic purchasing netbook products, which is not unique,” said Ryce. “Early adopters usually have more disposable income.”

Still, the market perception remains largely skewed to the younger demographic, a perception not reflected in the sales numbers. Ryce said it’s an indication there is a lot of potential still to grow netbook sales in the younger demographic. It also races the question, though, if vendors and the channel are marketing the products properly.

The NPD study does suggest there are still market perception barriers for industry to overcome around netbooks. Some 56 per cent of respondents had concerns about the capabilities of a netbook, while 54 per cent were concerned about the small screen and 44 per cent lamented the absence of an optical drive.

Those concerns dissipated amongst netbook buyers which suggests once they get over the perception of the device, it does often fit their needs. Still, lack of power may remain a barrier for many, particularly in the younger demographic, something that could change as more powerful models come to market.

“Right now, netbook owners use them as a product to surf with,” said Ryce, noting netbooks are being bought as a secondary, not a primary, PC by 77 per cent of buyers. “The majority are surfing the Internet, doing e-mail and using social networking.”

While it’s still too early in the existence of the product category to begin gauging the typical refresh cycle of the netbook, Ryce said if technology advances continue it could be similar to that experienced in the early days of the digital camera space.

“We saw replacement ramp-up fast as digital cameras added megapixels and other technology advances, making it unfeasible to keep using a two-megapixel device,” said Ryce. “We’ll want to keep an eye on if there are going to be technology advances within the netbook space that will incent netbook buyers to upgrade or replace. I think that’s still to be seen at this point though; it’s so early on.”