Netbooks dead? I think not

Netbooks dead? I think not

Summary: Netbooks aren't dying at the hands of tablets. People have just figured out what they're for and are only buying netbooks if they meet their needs.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Mobility
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An awful lot of tech pundits have decried the death of the netbook, with the iPad selling a million units in its first month of life. Tablets, they say, will inevitably replace the cheap ultraportables that began as a vision for 1:1 computing in education with the One Laptop Per Child Program and eventually became Intel-dominated netbooks. Although tablets are certainly expanding the personal, business, and educational computing landscapes, I beg to differ. There's room enough in this here town for both of them. Or something like that.

I'm typing this post on an HP Mini 5102. It certainly lives up to its name (that's my Droid next to it by way of comparison). However, this is a far cry from the original Asus Eee PC that defined the consumer segment of the market. HP sent it to me to evaluate the high end of their Mini line after I was less than kind to their low-end educational Mini 100e.

At around $690, the Mini on which I'm typing right now is pricey. Too pricey. Sure, it includes a handle. And a touch screen. And Windows 7 Pro, a Broadcom HD video accelerator, a brushed metal case, and a wicked nice keyboard that invites touch typing, but it's still pushing $700. On the other hand, its video capabilities are pretty slick and the PineTrail chipset gives it 5 hours of battery life with the light 4-cell battery.

My point, however, is not to evaluate the features or price of this little laptop. If you need something that fits in a small bag, purse, or eVest, have money to burn, and want to be able to edit photos or watch HD video with minimal fuss, then it's your call if you want to drop the cash on a "mere netbook." That, of course, is the point. The netbook market has matured to a point where, despite very similar underlying hardware, you have a great deal of choice in products that are far more usable than the original tiny Eee PC.

Next: So why did people buy those little bitty netbooks? »

People bought that awful little computer in droves because it was cheap. I shouldn't say awful. It was a perfectly fine machine for the first generation of a new consumer product. Given the choice between my Droid and an original Eee, I'd pick the Droid. Even for a guy with small hands, I think thumb-typing on the Droid would be faster than typing on the tiny-keyed Eee. However, the Droid didn't exist then.

Now, people still look at netbooks on the basis of cost. Disposable computers have a place (don't tell my wife I said that - if you can't compost it or recycle it, she doesn't want to hear about it). People are just as inclined, however, to look at them based on function and need. Small, light computers with awesome battery life also have a place. So do rugged, highly portable machines. Or inexpensive tablets. Or real tablets like the iPad, for that matter.

Netbooks have matured and differentiated to such a point that they meet a variety of computing needs in many markets. No, they aren't being bought in the extraordinary numbers they once were. However, this hardly marks the death of the market. Typing remains the dominant form of creating content. This isn't changing for the foreseeable future and will ensure that netbooks, however they may evolve, aren't going anywhere.

What has happened, though, is that both the consumer and enterprise markets have recognized that not every user can have their needs met with a netbook. Many would be better served with an inexpensive laptop, a desktop, a thin client, a smartphone, or a tablet. That recognition, more than the sole introduction of the tablet to the marketplace, slowed sales growth in the netbook segment.

If you need a netbook, buy a netbook. $400 will buy you a companion PC that lets you write, surf, read, Skype, IM, manage photos, and access network resources in ways that even the best of smartphones (and, arguably, the iPad and other tablets) still can't. If you want to talk about the death of the netbook, see me in a few years when the tablet market has exploded, someone has figured out a better way to input text than a keyboard (and I'm not talking voice recognition because airplane rides would become absolutely insufferable and every office would sound like a call center), and the "screen" has become so ubiquitous that all we really need to carry around is a personal access device, devoid of input or output capabilities since those will be handled by kiosks, terminals, and other converged devices.

For now, a netbook will always be in my bag, my eVest, or my cargo pants. I have work to do.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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118 comments
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  • I think not too.

    And with a huge upsurge of ARM products ramping up production, this will really get interesting.

    Don't believe me?
    http://www.engadget.com/2010/06/21/toshibas-ac100-8-hour-smartbook-runs-android-2-1-on-a-1ghz-tegr/

    OK, Toshiba is calling it a SmartBook. Me thinks b/c of contractual agreements with MS.

    Personally, you can call it whatever you want. They are going to sell like *hotcakes*.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • ARM and ATOM

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      Intel finally has an ARM competitor. Their is a port of Froyo andriod to x86 ongoing. And the Moorestown Atom has incredible performance relative to the ARM. Still trails in power but good enough. Linux, MeeGo, Android will all run on this. Windows won't because theirs no disk controller. MS mobile platforms should be portable to it though.
      DevGuy_z
      • Who needs a disk controller when you have FLASH &....

        @DevGuy_z
        Some of the other new writable non volatile memories coming up? The on thing (and you pointed it out) is the keyboard. Even my Asus Eee PC1000HA has a 92% keyboard and I prefer a keyboard of size, But then I guess I'm old school as I still build Hi Perf Home Builds just to stay busy (running out of room and need to add another switch) and on all of them I have mechanical keyboards (you know the ones that have an individual switch for each key instead of a membrane) and all of them do the same clack as my old IBM full sized keyboard.

        NetBooks are going to be around for a while yet as people get disabled thumbs, and get hyper-sensitive nerve endings on their fingers from hitting glass (a surface that doesn't 'give'". Last but not least I have never had less than 7.5-8 hours on my netbook. I use it primarily as a portable but also take it on photo shoots with me as I can insert the memory card into the Netbook and clear it and start over clean on the camera. At some point I'm even going to give it an SSD.
        Fred
        dunn@...
    • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Zealot

      It will get interesting indeed.

      Intel is banking a lot on compatibility with OSes and software. I don't think people are completely sold on the idea of running a phone OS on a netbook form factor.

      And it's entirely possible for them to enter the ARM market themselves if they really think they need to - they still have a licence.
      CobraA1
      • I'm still trying to figure out

        @CobraA1

        Why anyone wants to run a mobile OS on anything other than a smartphone. Anything larger is perfectly capable of running a bigger OS.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      Thanks for the link. Looking at the video, it appears interesting at first. But if you compare it to iPad, it feels slow, has inferior (resolution, LCD panel quality, no-touch) screen and an ugly keyboard. It's only about $50-$100 less with 32GB SSD. The winning side might be that a non-Apple OS can be installed and applications do not have to be approved. But how many people will care about this over quality?
      Earthling2
    • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      Wow! I hope this hurricane does not turn back to Florida, but I mostly agree with most of what you wrote. You nailed this one.
      eargasm
    • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      Wow! I hope this hurricane does not turn back to Florida, but I agree with most of which you wrote. You nailed this one.
      eargasm
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        Yes, they will be dead...just like everything (and everyone), the technology will have to reinvent itself. Expect serious declines in sales as smartphones and iPad competition becomes ubiquitous
        BSimms
    • Source of the term SmartBook

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      I believe SmartBook originated with ARM Holdings itself, or a group closely related to ARM. It is a way to easily distinguish the ARM offering from the Intel offering. ARM based computers are SmartBooks and Intel based computers are called netbooks.
      Info-Dave
  • I like an actual keyboard, full functionality, and a clean screen

    I think there are lots of others like me who will always want a keyboard. My little old Asus does not have the most comfortable keyboard, but I type faster on it than I did on the iPad a friend was showing off.

    And I would spend more money on a device that cannot do as much as my old Asus. I would not even consider a tablet or a netbook type of device that uses a smartphone operating system. I want it all!

    And I don't like touch screens. Maybe I just have greasy fingers or something, but I don't like fingerprints all over my screen.
    Queixa
    • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

      @Queixa it's called a bluetooth keyboard and a matte screen cover. I have both for my Ipad and I don't have an issue with fingerprints.
      cyberslammer
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        @cyberslammer and that pairing increased the already overpriced iPad by how much exactly?

        Had much joy natively connecting that iPad to a projector/monitor, or reading images from your SD card? Without the cost of even more addons that is. How about that pixel-perfect precision in those art packages too?

        I bought my netbook as a storage device whilst out using my Nikon D90. Has built in SD card reader, can view (and edit) the images on a full sized monitor if I need to, can access the internet and read eBooks.

        It has 160GB of storage and cost less than the cheapest iPad by around ?130. Plus I can get files to and from it, without having to resort to some bloated file manager disguised as a music store. Plus it doesn't have to have files in exactly the right format before it can read/play them.

        Oh, and it's takes up less room and I don't have a large expanse of glass to try and protect.

        iPads are nice toys, but a Netbook has far more functionality for a fraction of the price.
        LeeC
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        @cyberslammer Except that taking along an extra keyboard kind of ruins the portability factor.
        RichardWrite
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        @LeeC
        You sure like cherries. Or at least picking them.
        How much for a bluetooth keyboard? $15 on eBay, $30 from various other vendors. How much is the cost of your wacom tablet? ('cause you certainly are not getting pixel-perfect precision with a track pad.)
        You have an SD card slot. Big deal. How much is the cost of your touch screen add on? Installed?
        Your arguments about file formats are simply misinformed.
        As are your arguments about taking less room. There are three dimensions to consider, four if you include mass.
        And sorry, but your netbook screen is about the same size, and it certainly does need to be protected.
        Your netbook most certainly does NOT have more functionality. It only has DIFFERENT functionality. And for the same price I could have had a full-sized notebook. A machine that, sorry, blows your tiny, functionally deficient, cramped netbook out of the water.
        SpiritusInMachina
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        @cyberslammer So....
        You overpaid for the pad and now need to buy other items, aside from apps., to make it usable.....
        Sounds like a deal to me.
        coachgeorge
  • Netbooks are dead!

    People dont want to be carrying around these devises anymore, that is why smartphones are so popular, you can do almost everything on them, the ipad is tiny and does exactly what 90% of people what it to do, email, quick word editing, viewing photos, pdfs, presentations.<br><br>Whatever you want to call an ebook, it is just a small laptop, cumbersome, slow, ugly and hard to carry round.<br><br>The ebook is dead and what people want as it shows in the market sales numbers is an ipad type device.

    The ipad maybe expensive but it is only the start and the prices will go down.
    patrickquirke
    • There isn't one market.

      @patrickquirke In many cases I don't want to carry around an iPad either. If I am going to carry something other than my smart phone, I want a keyboard. Otherwise my smart-phone is all I need. The new smartphones with the larger screens are all I need. That said many sales reps will use an iPad because they can show pictures on a larger screen.<br><br>The "Market" is varied and yes sales are really good right now for the iPad. End the end I think many will stay with a smartphone or laptop. The netbook will be great with students once they get the performance up with a budget price. That keyboard is important.<br><br>Same thing is true with smartphones. For some, a touch screen is sufficient, but for others a keyboard is important. The latter is me.
      DevGuy_z
      • Why is my message spam? Nothing spam about it.

        @DevGuy_z
        DevGuy_z
      • RE: Netbooks dead? I think not

        @DevGuy_z Apple fanboys probably flagging anything that makes a Netbook seem like a good option over their beloved iPad... that's probably why it has been flagged as Spam.
        LeeC