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Tuesday, August 18, 2009, 12:55 pm PT (03:55 pm ET)

School shoppers choose netbooks over Apple, for now

A new study suggests students prefer low-cost netbooks over Apple's MacBook, but some believe the Mac-maker's long-rumored tablet could take a large portion of low-end laptop sales.

In a survey of 300 students headed back to school, Retrevo, an electronics product review search service, found 34 percent said they intend to buy a "small lightweight netbook," while 17 percent stated they will opt for an Apple MacBook. Most respondents intend to buy a full-sized, full-powered PC laptop, with 49 percent aligning with a more traditional Windows configuration.

While the 17 percent total for Apple fares worse than competing netbooks, it should be noted that the share among students is twice that of overall U.S. sales.

It is the rising popularity of netbooks that has led market research analysts like Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster to speculate that the yet-to-be-announced Apple tablet would earn an additional $1.2 billion in revenue for the company. Munster, who predicts the product will launch in early 2010, does not believe Apple's secret device will be a netbook or will be marketed as a netbook. But he does suggest the core strengths of a low-cost PC — Web browsing and checking e-mail — will be basic features of Apple's new offering, thus cutting into the netbook market.

The Retrevo survey finds that most laptop buyers (36 percent) intend to spend between $500 and $750, followed by the $750 to $1,000 price range (24 percent). The low-end market of below $500 came in third (22 percent), with the costliest option of $1,000 and up in last (18 percent). Users rated the most important features, in order: battery life, screen size, weight, ability to watch movies, style, and gaming.

With regards to the in-the-making tablet, a new report Wednesday from BusinessWeek reconfirms reports that Apple tested a number of screen sizes in development of the device. The story states that Apple has two prototypes of the iPod touch-like device: one with a 6-inch screen, and one larger. It also suggests the products could debut as soon as September. However, AppleInsider's own sources have firmly stated that a 10-inch device will launch in early 2010.

Whatever form the upcoming device takes, the latest survey on the popularity of netbooks suggests Apple could make an impact in the $500 to $1,000 price range, where 60 percent of responding students intend to spend their money on a laptop. That range is exactly where numerous analysts expect the upcoming tablet to be priced. Consider, also, the rumor that surfaced last week that the device would have two models, with one of them marketed toward education.