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January 05, 2009

The amazing success of "netbooks"

These days, "netbooks" get a lot of press. You' think a "netbook" were some sort of miraculous new device, a technological breakthrough that lets you do new and wondrous things. In fact, "netbooks" are nothing more than little notebooks. There is absolutely nothing new or exciting about them. And there is nothing that makes them earn the "netbook" name.

Nor are they new. There have been numerous attempts at selling downsized miniature laptops over the years, going back to the early 1990s and before. None were ever successful. People simply did not want an underpowered mini version of a notebook with a small screen and a keyboard that was not full size. Apparently that's changed and "netbooks" sell by the millions. Go figure.

One difference perhaps is that technology has come a long way. Even an underpowered mini notebook can do just about anything anyone would ever need in terms of computing. Standard wordprocessing, scheduling, spreadsheets, presentations, email and internet access tasks can all be done on a mini notebook. Let's take a look at what "netbooks" offer:

For the most part they are clamshells measuring about 10 x 6.5 inches and weighing between two and three pounds. They have displays measuring between 7 and 10 inches diagonally and they usually offer WSVGA resolution, which means 1024 x 600 pixels. Their keyboards are usually around 90%-scale, which is infuriating because that makes touch-typing a pain and also because there'd actually be enough room for a full QWERTY layout by making punctuation keys smaller, but apparently Taiwanese and Chinese ODMs and OEMS do not realize that. Memory is usually limited to a gigabyte, though some can be expanded to a gig and a half. Storage is either via Flash for Linux-based netbooks or generously-sized hard disk for Windows-based units. Most come with a rudimentary onboard cam, SD card or multi-card slots and, of course, Bluetooth and WiFi. And most are powered by Atom chips, generally the 1.6GHz N270.

How do they work? It depends on your expectations. Benchmark performance is about a third of that of a modern notebook, so routine stuff can take much longer than you're used to. The biggest limitation is the small screen. My Acer Aspire One, one of the most popular netbooks, has a 8.9-inch screen which is bright and sharp, but 1024 x 600 pixels simply isn't enough for anything these days. Working with it becomes a continuous for screen real estate, which means turning off unneeded toolbars and a lot of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. The term "netbook" is also a total misnomer as the one thing where the current generation of netbooks falls way behind is fast web access. Pages take forever to load.

If they are such a pain to use, why do I have a netbook? Because they have a lot going for themselves, too. My Acer One runs Windows XP speedily on 1.5GB of RAM, and the 160GB hard disk is both quick and large enough. With its 6-cell battery the little Acer can run as long as six hours on a charge, and sometimes more. I like its dual SD card slots. I occasionally miss an optical drive, but have my office network set up so I can access the DVD drive of a desktop. Most of all, I like the Acer's small and handy size. Packing and transporting even a compact notebook is usually a pain, but the little Acer netbook fits absolutely anywhere. Even its power supply is tiny. In my office, I hook it up to a 20-inch LCD and a full-size keyboard and mouse. I get full 1600 x 1200 pixel resolution, which makes working on the little Acer feel like working on a "real" computer.

So, "netbooks" they are not. But there does seem to be a good-size niche for surprisingly competent little notebooks that go for less than US$400. Price is definitely an issue. I'd rather have a more rugged device with a touch screen. Fujitsu and Panasonic and others make them, but for several times the money. Why not a rugged netbook with a very small price? It might sell in large quantities.

Posted by conradb212 at January 5, 2009 05:29 PM