Technologizer

The Netbook Isn’t Dead — It’s Just Resting

There's still a market for light, small, cheap laptops

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Two models brandish Eee PCs at an Asus press conference in October 2008, back when netbooks were at least sort of glamorous

Remember netbooks? Back in their golden age — which was around four years ago — I wrote about them a lot.

I liked having them around as a computing option and found it amusing that the same PC industry that was selling them by the million didn’t seem to like them very much. At the time, industry experts kept confidently predicting the imminent demise of netbooks — but consumers ignored the experts and kept on buying ’em.

Still, it’s obvious that netbooks peaked a long time ago. They lost whatever sex appeal they had the moment the iPad was announced, and it’s been years since anyone announced an interesting one.

And now Charles Arthur of the Guardian is saying netbooks are dead, dead, dead — which seems like a reasonable assessment, since the industry has stopped making them. Including Asus, which invented the category with its Eee PC line. I hadn’t realized until I read Arthur’s story that the company had announced that the Eee PC wouldn’t make it into 2013; it’s the closest thing imaginable to an official end of the netbook era.

And yet …

Even though I liked netbooks, I said all along that it was silly to think about the netbook as a category of computing device unto itself. A netbook was merely a lightweight notebook with a smallish screen and a low price tag. It’s not like lightweight notebooks, small screens and low price points will go away, even if nobody makes a computer that’s officially called a netbook.

And in a way, it’s amazing that netbooks as we knew them did as well as they did, since the industry always had a passive-aggressive attitude toward the whole idea. One of the best ones was Lenovo’s IdeaPad S12 — a proto-Ultrabook that had a relatively spacious 12.1-in. screen and a roomy-enough keyboard. But Intel supposedly responded to the S12’s introduction not by congratulating Lenovo for building a nice computer but by punishing the company by denying it chip discounts. (Bigger-screen netbooks were too competitive with laptops based on chips, which delivered a better profit margin to Intel.)

Microsoft, too, pressured PC manufacturers not to make netbooks too good, specswise, since their low price points forced the company into supplying Windows at a lower price than it liked.

Thanks in part to Intel and Microsoft’s meddling, most netbooks were at least a tad underpowered and chintzy, almost by definition. Today, everybody in the industry is more excited by Ultrabooks (and variants like HP’s Sleekbooks), in part because they’re posher machines than netbooks and sell at higher prices with more room for a profit margin.

But just watch. The smallest Ultrabooks are similar in size to the largest netbooks, and at some point their prices will tumble into the sub-$500 territory where most netbooks lived. Once that happens, the netbook will be back — whether or not anyone in the PC business admits it.

26 comments
S_Deemer
S_Deemer

"Microsoft, too, pressured PC manufacturers not to make netbooks too good, specswise, since their low price points forced the company into supplying Windows at a lower price than it liked."

And that is the rub. Windows on a netbook with 1gb of RAM and an Atom processor was a miserable proposition. Some manufacturers made a half-hearted effort to ship Linux netbooks, but it was a failure because they usually shipped fatally crippled versions. I have been running Ubuntu on an Acer netbook for 3 years, and after tossing the HDD (and Windows), it fairly flies with a 32gb SSD and 2gb of RAM. Startup 20 seconds, shutdown 4 seconds, and almost every application launches in 2 seconds. 

But Linux isn't "for the masses," which is where Google enters the picture with their Chromebooks. Chrome OS is a lightweight, pared down version of Linux that hides the OS to as great a degree as possible, and focuses on ease of use, low maintenance, and security — Chrome OS could truly become the first mass market desktop Linux distribution.

ezekielpr
ezekielpr

The netbook is dead, long live the Chromebook!

talseti5
talseti5

@Harry McCracken - the Acer AO722 is recently released (a year or so), and it's netbook class.  But it violates that class' artificial limits.  8 GB RAM in my AO722 netbook, running Win7x64 with 7.75GB RAM available. 

So is this Acer's way of giving a BirdFlipOff  to rediculous mandated netbook limits?  I think so, and I love it.

eric.0.dujardin
eric.0.dujardin

If only their memory could be upgraded more easily. A computer with 1GB is a joke today.

websquad
websquad

I got one of the early HPs when the second rounds of these devices hit the market.  I first doubled the RAM to 2GB. It had 16GB SSD, but I was able to add another 16GB chip for drive "D".  Replaced Windows XP with Windows 7.  Alas, when I got my iPad 2 the little device sat on a shelf for a long time, but I've repented.  I agree with many of the posters: they DO have a place in the device spectrum. And since I have a WiFi hot spot on my Motorola Droid 4, the hunt for a safe WiFi is no longer an issue.  New Years Resolution: fix up that little sucker and start using it again -- I miss it!

talseti5
talseti5

Summer 2012, I bought an Acer AO722 netbook for around $250. Added 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD. It's Win7x64, runs Office 2010, Visio 2010... OneNote... Lasts a long time on plane, and small as MacBook air. So much that I do simply isn't tablet friendly, including corp websites with flash crap, that this machine sees daily use as the 'go everywhere device'. It's built light and one could argue frail. But it has withstood road warrior use and has an exceptional keyboard, decent resolution screen. A true HDMI out port you can display to hotel LCD panels for a big desktop display capability. Yes, MacBook air is sexy, but way pricey, and a Windows 8 tablet hybrid ultra... Either are $1500 well equipped to start. I was done at about $500 and it's proved one of the best buys I've ever made. Not in speed, so no games or HD vid, but in convenience, compatibility, portability, and endurance - it rocks. I love the AO722 with Win 7 x64, and I am using machine daily for the foreseeable future. For me, it's a stealth machine, aspiring to be a MacBook air but delivers Win7/office power, and no thief would give it a second look! Hahahaha. I leave the monster lenovo W530 with 24GM RAM, SSDs and 2TB of External RAID at home and remote access it. the W530's power supply weighs more than the Acer its adapter combined! Ah, the back thanks you Acer netbook! Thanks Acer for building a kick a$$ mini Windows machine - I love it. It's also an inexpensive yet potent Win7 spare PC if you ever have need for one.

jfwick
jfwick

My new Samsung Chromebook is a bit bigger than my 10.1" netbook but the $250 price is about the same. Open the cover and it is ready to go. Close the cover and it is off. Lots of fun using it.

arslan.arsal10
arslan.arsal10

iPad and tablets are good looking but notebook is not out right now. I am talking about myself that I always prefer notebook over tablet or iPad.

WrightAaronM
WrightAaronM

I don't care what anyone says, I love my netbook. I have an Asus Eee, and I build websites. Most of my work is done on my desktop, but when I am out and about, I can pop open my netbook and star writing code. It doesn't have to be very powerful, because all I need is a text editor and Wi-Fi connection. And having the full keyboard is essential for a typing-intensive activity like coding. I am glad I bought a netbook when I did.

bibleverse1
bibleverse1

Netbook and tablets have many good uses in medicine. But are not best for all people.

InfoDave
InfoDave

The netbook is a great concept, but as often the case with Microsoft, implementation was horrible. With Vista, Microsoft introduced the fancy new Aero interface (3D look, transparency, etc.) The trouble was it was too much of a burden on Intel CPUs with integrated graphics. By turning off Aero, performance was acceptable. Microsoft further cheapened the brand with marketing restrictions that restricted screen size and prevented netbook owners from changing their desktop wallpaper. Acer set the design specs by making netbooks out of cheap plastic and ignoring keyboard ergonomics (i.e. my fat fingers can't find the keys.)

Netbooks sold like hotcakes, but it was really short lived. A lot of people bought only one netbook. Meantime, nobody made any money on netbooks. It was a fight to the bottom. To combat this, Intel introduced the Ultrabook. Some say the design specs are patterned after the MacBook Air. The price points certainly pattern the Macintosh rather than the netbook. So far, consumers have been slow to warm up to the Ultrabooks.

Fast forward ahead to the Windows 8 era. First of all the Intel integrated graphics have improved, capable of playing 1920x1080 video. Interestingly, Microsoft has completely done away with Aero. This creates and entirely different landscape moving forward. Tomorrow's netbooks will not be underpowered. They may not have an SSD or 8GB of memory, but they will be plenty capable. Use a decent keyboard, trackpad and screen, keep the price low, and you'll have a winner. Just don't call it a netbook. That name has been tarnished.

SactoMan81
SactoMan81

Actually, I see the netbook being replaced by this: a lower-cost Windows 8 touchscreen computer with a fold-out or slide out keyboard that uses a new lower-cost Intel chipset comprised of a low-powered version of the Intel Core i3 chip and a new Intel graphics chipset. The screen will be about 8-9" (diagonal) in size, and will be easy to carry around, especially when the cost of 256 to 320 GB SSD's get cheap enough.

marshall.staxx
marshall.staxx

You hit the nail on the head, Mr. McCracken.

Despite efforts by Microsoft and Intel to hobble netbooks with arbitrary software and hrdware constraints, they were popular because they were what most people wanted and needed: lightweight, small, economical, long battery life, and able to do everything most people needed them to do.

Too bad the powers that be were so quick to abandon them in pursuit of poorly executed me-too iPad knock-offs.

SusanTanHMC
SusanTanHMC

It disgusts me that female models are holding the netbooks. This undermines women in STEMS and pushes negative stereotypes about women.

Synpax
Synpax

@S_Deemer But make it 2gig of ram and it was a fantastic machine that I took with me all around the world, developed websites, and wrote a book on. 

talseti5
talseti5

@eric.0.dujardin 8GB max RAM was why I selected the Acer Aspire One AO722 series netbook (see these at Target, Walmart, some gumball machines.)  So yes you still need to research whether the one you are considering can do more than 1GB...   

Easy upgrade?  Yes.  AO722 was literally this:  One screw, lift off rear panel, replace 4GB RAM DIMM with a single 8GB stick, replace the 320GB HDD with a 256GB SSD (after drive imaging) and close up.  Easiest 35 minute upgrade for RAM and Disk I've ever done.  Phenomenal keyboard.  Win7 x64 shows 7.75GB free on boot up.  Run Off2010x64, Project2010, Visio2010, Lync2010, remote desktops, VPN, and several IEs with multiple tabs in each....  and it delivers.  Just don't try to do anything graphic intensive, or let your Excel recalc at will... or you could be delayed sometimes... other than that, workhorse running all of that every day, day in day out....

JosephRice
JosephRice

Can you please post up what exactly you used to upgrade your AO722. I would love to do this cyz I need portability and speed with reliability.

t1oracle
t1oracle

@SactoMan81 LOL Nobody wants Windows 8

talseti5
talseti5

@SusanTanHMC agreed, stereotypical employment of women to represent product, because we are about high fashion and kardashism, and sex sells, I guess. It happens occasionally.

True geeks filter the human model out because it's irrelevant to the machine displayed. Does that help at all? OMG, geeks are bad too - We dehumanized women... into mere automaton display apparatus... Ugh.

DaveyH9
DaveyH9

@SusanTanHMC They were probably getting handsomely paid, probably a lot more than two greasy fat bedroom coders would have got holding the same items. So that must tick a feminist box somewhere surely. Anyway...bore off darlin'

chrissomerry
chrissomerry

@SusanTanHMC So, two very nice yet not tacky, and dare I say elegant looking women are holding computers... which somehow insults you?

I'm sorry, let's go get the bleach-blonde cheerleaders in bikinis instead. Or let's just take all the women out and make it a men-only event. Surely neither of those two ideas will get complaints...