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February 04, 2013

The needless demise of the netbook

Three or so years ago, netbooks sold by the millions. Today, they're gone, replaced by tablets and larger, more powerful notebooks. What happened? I mean, it's not as if tens of millions of people wanted a netbook a few years ago, and today no one wants one.

What's not to like about a small and handy notebook computer that runs full Windows and costs a whole lot less than even inexpensive larger notebooks? So much less that the purchase price of a netbook was close to making it an impulse buy.

The problem was, of course, that while the price was right, netbooks themselves weren't. Slowly running Windows on a very small display with marginal resolution quickly turned the netbook experience sour. The very term "netbook" implied quick and easy access to the web, an inexpensive way to be online anytime and anywhere. Well, netbooks were so underpowered as to make that browsing and online experience painful. It didn't have to be that way, but market realities painted the netbook into a corner where it withered and died.

It's not that the technology wasn't there to make netbooks fast and satisfying enough to become a permanent addition to what consumers would want to buy. And it wasn't even that the technology required to make netbooks as powerful as they needed to be without disappointing customers would have been too expensive. It's just that making such products available would have cannibalized more profitable larger notebooks. And consumers who demanded larger, more powerful netbooks at the same low price also weren't thinking it through.

There's a reason why compact technology demands a premium price. An unsubsidized 3-ounce smartphone costs as much as a 50-inch HD TV. A loaded Mini Cooper costs as much as a much larger SUV or truck. And ultra-mobile notebooks have always cost more than run-of-the-mill standard ones. It's the MacBook Air syndrome that dictates that sleek elegance and light weight costs extra. Netbooks broke that rule by promising the full Windows experience in an ultra-compact device at an ultra-low price.

You can't do that in the Wintel world. Something had to give. And that was acceptable performance. I would not go as far as declaring Intel's entire Atom project as a frustrating, needless failure as there are many Atom-based products that work just fine. But the whole approach of making processors not as good and fast as they could be but throttled and limited enough so as not to interfere with sales of much more expensive processors is fundamentally flawed. It's like promising people an inexpensive car, but then they find out it can't drive uphill.

So netbooks were flawed from the start in infuriating ways. The 1024 x 600 display format endlessly cut off the bottom of just about everything because just about everything is designed for at least a 1024 x 768 display. And that was the least of netbooks' annoying traits. Performance was the biggest problem. The Atom N270 processor in almost all early netbooks had painfully insufficient graphics performance, and was completely unable to play the HD video that people could generate on every cheap camera and phone. The endless wait for a netbook to complete any task beyond the very basics quickly turned people off. Yes, the small size and weight, the low cost, and the good battery life sold tens of millions of netbooks, but their inadequacy soon relegated them to the dustbin. In my case, I quickly realized that a netbook did not replace a larger notebook with standard performance; it just meant I had to take with me both the netbook AND the real computer.

So people demanded more. The original netbooks had 7-inch screens, but that quickly grew to 8.9 inches for all those Acer Aspire Ones and Asus Eee PCs. And then that wasn't large enough and so the netbook vendors switched to 10.1 inch screens. And then to whatever new Atom processors Intel introduced. Then tablets came and it was just so much easier, quicker and more pleasant to use a tablet to browse the web that the netbooks' shortcomings became even more evident.

With netbooks' fortunes waning but the iPad's tablet success turning out to be frustratingly difficult to copy, netbook vendors gave it one last shot. 11.6 inch screens with full 1366 x 768 720p resolution. AMD processors instead of Atom (short-lived and unsatisfactory). And finally ditching the Atom in favor of Intel Celeron and Pentium chips, which had little to do with the Celeron and Pentium M chips of yore but simply were wing-clipped version of Intel's Core processors. By doing that, netbooks ceased to be netbooks. They had become smallish notebooks with decent performance, but without the endearing compactness, small weight and rock bottom prices that once had given netbooks such allure.

And battery life suffered as well.Try as anyone might, it's just not possible to run a 11.6 inch screen and a 17-watt Celeron or Pentium for nearly as long on a battery charge as an 8.9-inch screen with a 2-watt Atom. So that quality of netbooks was gone, too.

Where does that leave all those folks who wanted a cheap and simple little notebook for when space, cost and weight mattered? Nowhere, really. Tablets are wonderful and I wouldn't want to be without mine, but they are not full-function computers. Not as long as real productivity software isn't available for them, and not as long as tablet makers act as if something as simple and necessary as being able to do or look at two things at once were the second coming. Fewer dropped calls, anyone?

So for now, if you peruse Best Buy or CostCo or Fry's ads, you either get a tablet or a notebook with a 14-inch screen or larger, or you spring for an expensive Macbook Air or an Ultrabook.

That leaves a big void, and a bad taste in the mouth. For the fact is that there could be totally competent netbooks in the impulse buy price range if it weren't for the reality that Intel makes all those pricey Core processors that all by themselves can cost several times as much as a basic netbook. Which means the myth that you need a real Intel Core processor to run Windows and not just some wimpy ARM chip must be upheld. Personally, I do not believe that for a second, but the financial fortunes of two major technology companies (Microsoft and Intel) are built upon this mantra, and that won't change unless something gives.

So what did I do when my little old 8.9-inch Acer Aspire One finally gave out? First despair because I couldn't find a contemporary replacement, then grudgingly accept the reality of the netbook's demise and buy a new Aspire One, one with an 11.6-inch 720p screen and a Celeron processor. I got a refurbished one from Acer because it was cheaper and comes with Windows 7 instead of Windows 8. So there.

But what if a low, low price is not the issue and you want something really rugged in the (former) netbook size and weight category? Then you get an Algiz XRW from the Handheld Group. It's small and light enough, runs forever on a charge thanks to using a little engine that for the most part can (the Atom N2600), and has a 720p screen good enough for real, contemporary work. And it's for all practical purposes indestructible.

Posted by conradb212 at February 4, 2013 07:30 PM