The netbook may be dead, but there's no escaping its legacy

The netbook may be dead, but there's no escaping its legacy

Summary: The netbook has fallen out of favour - but don't underestimate the huge impact this tiny form factor has had.

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The netbook was the first real reinvention of the PC since the laptop, but in the last couple of years the form factor has been selling less and less well and fewer manufacturers have been willing to offer the devices.

netbook-200
RIP the netbook? Image: CNET

In a piece over at The Guardian, Charles Arthur has called time on the mini-laptops, and who can blame him? It certainly seems that the netbook's day is almost over.

I remember getting one of the first netbooks when they came out half a dozen years ago or so and being tremendously excited by the possibilities of such a cheap and utterly portable computing device.

Cheaper, lighter and faster than the laptops that preceded them — I was pretty certain netbooks would take over the world. And yet, within a few years, they've all but disappeared from tech industry roadmaps.

Thinking about why the netbook fizzled out, I'm reminded of that old Henry Ford quote: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses'."

And that's just what the netbook is — a faster horse.

Or rather, a smaller, lighter and somewhat underpowered horse that you could fit in a coat pocket. It's what we thought we wanted, not what we actually needed.

That's because after that first flush of excitement, it quickly became apparent that, for me at least, netbooks still had most of the disadvantages of the laptops they were supposed to replace.

Yes, they're faster to boot up — but not fast enough for me to flip open for instant use. The undersized keyboard rapidly made typing an irritation, and the lack of power and memory became infuriating as I expected a netbook to behave like a laptop — even at a third of the price.

What we really want

It turns out that we didn't want a smaller laptop, we wanted a completely different device.

One that was constantly connected to the internet, always on, cheap and could fit easily into a pocket — otherwise known as a smartphone.

Indeed, from the day I got a smartphone, the netbook sat in a desk drawer, which is where (I assume) it still is today.

And then along came tablets — especially the cheaper Android devices — to mop up all the tech buyers who still wanted something bigger than a smartphone.

The age of the netbook ended as suddenly as it had started. The fate of netbooks has to be set against the backdrop of a PC industry desperately trying to reinvent itself as we lose faith in the PC as the standard (or even dominant) device we use.

The netbook was one of the first symptoms, or maybe even causes, of that fragmentation, which still has PC makers reeling (Ed Bott has a good take on this). Now manufacturers are hard at work on new form factors — tablets, phablets, weird hybrids — price points, and laptop successors.

And while the netbook era has almost passed, cheap, light, and surprisingly powerful hardware is more widely available than ever. And there are plenty of smaller, lighter notebooks around for those who like the form factor.

Looking to the future, something like the Chromebook perhaps shows the next evolution of the PC into a lightweight, constantly connected device — the sort of thing I wanted the netbook to be.

Consequently, the legacy and the impact of the netbook lives on in the devices we use today, and will use in the future — whether any company chooses to market their products under that label again, or not.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Smartphones

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34 comments
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  • MS didn't get the memo

    I am the same. I had a netbook at one time, and it was a nice little travel computer for times when I just needed web and email access. Tablets and smartphones now fill that niche.

    The new line of hybrid tablets seem to me to be closer to a netbook than a tablet or a laptop. A tablet with a chiclet keyboard and small screen is just a netbook by another name. It is a nice gadget, but not a form factor for being productive.
    I was in the airport last week and a guy was sitting at the gate with a hybrid pad of some kind. He was holding it in front of his face with one hand and touching the screen with the other. Not unusual for a tablet, But the keyboard was hanging down below it. It looked comical and uncomfortable. He looked to be in his late 60's, so he may have just gotten it as a gift and had quite figured it it out yet. It was still comically sad to watch.
    krossbow
    • Errrr....

      Your subject line says "MS didn't get the memo" but never mentioned them in yor comment.
      If anything, you can thank Microsoft for the tablets, iPads and others that came a few year later. Think of it, when netbooks came out in 2008, there was no iPad, there was no Android tablets. But Apple [and then Samsung and others] heard the complaints of the restrictions that MS placed on netbooks and did something about it.
      Gisabun
      • Say what?

        Tablet evolved from smartphones, not from the inadequacies of netbooks.
        Bozzer
  • Netbooks were just a way to make

    really cheap laptops to try and increase sales in a razor thin market. There was nothing "reinventive" about them.
    baggins_z
  • They were

    Thy were still born from the git go. I can't believe anyone actually bought one.
    NoAxToGrind
    • And yet people did buy them.

      I know of one guy who went on a photographic holiday in Brazil with his net-book, and he had no complaints. (Although he obviously took all his pictures with a proper digital camera ;-).)
      Zogg
      • Actually...

        ...I still use my daughter's alternate college HP-3000 for surfing and email and...rarely, watching a movie. It's portability is still very good. But I'm sure my Kindle Fire will replace it yet.
        MyopicOne
        • Actually.....

          Believe me no it won't
          Robin McHood
    • Yes, Actually ...

      we still have over 50 in use on the field today - we work in remote parts of rural India - we installed fedora, skype, our in-house apps running off a local server, modems, all kind of good stuff - even today, our guys love the netbooks. No doubt tablets and smart phones are a next level, but what a hassle to deal with another o/S and interface (yeah, yeah, android is linux we know, that's for the O/S geeks, what a hassle getting simple apps and peripherals on those mobile devices).

      So all in all, have to say, for a 5-7 year period in the history of computing (3-4 over to date), netbooks were / are AWESOME!
      eCubeH
    • Why?

      I still have my netbook. Works nicely. Windows 7 Pro on a SSD. Boots up in 15-20 seconds. I've timed it from the moment I press the power button until I can [partially] use the netbook after the desktop appears. Use Office 2010 Pro plus and Acrobat X Pro on it.
      I was at a computer seminar and it was doing the job better than a Core 2 Duo next to me.
      Gisabun
      • Oh Really...

        "doing the job better than a Core 2 Duo next to me"

        All that tells me is the guy next to you was rubbish at what he was doing, and imagine how better still you'd be with a Core 2 Duo rocking away...
        Bozzer
  • I could have really used this when I was travelling for work

    I got stuck with a UMPC instead.
    happyharry_z
  • I loved my Eee PC 1000H with 40GB SSD

    It still runs fine although the latest Ubuntu is a bit much for it now. It is the only portable computer I have ever owned and it definitely cannot be replaced by a smart phone. Typing on it is worlds easier and most web pages fit in their natural state without zooming. One day I might replace it with an MBA, but only so I can make iPhone apps.

    I think tablets are killing off netbooks but most people who have tablets also have laptops. For those rare few who prefer desktops, the netbook is still the best option for the role of that rarely needed mobile companion.

    Also, I couldn't imagine paying bills from a tablet. Not sure how well that would go.
    T1Oracle
    • paying bills from your tablet

      I pay all of my bills from my iPad; some from an app, the others from Safari or Chrome browsers. It's a bit less convenient than a laptop, but still works fine. I think it would be more of a problem from a smaller device, at least for my old eyes.

      Traveling Dave
      dachba
    • See my comments above...

      I have a 1000 HE.
      Gisabun
  • I have 3

    I have 3 net books. Two are Asus, and one is an acer. All three arre loaded with a linux distro. Personally, nothing other than a laptop beats them as far as portability, function and features.
    Smart phones and tablets don't have near the storage capacity of a netbook, laptop, or a desktop for that matter. There's no way to expand the storage space in a smart phone or tablet, when it comes to my netbooks, or desktop, I can easily plug in a usb hard drive.
    Sure they say your data is stored up in the cloud. Well, I don't want some one else in charge of my data. I want my data on my machines, and to be able to access it when I want. You never know when one of those cloud computing businesses my decide to close up, and take your data with them, or even worse, you don't know what they're doing with your data right now.
    bmobile40
  • I'm probably just old fashioned...

    ...but recently I had almost the opposite feeling about netbooks. Not so much the market analysis, but just the usability. I went on a week-long trip to visit family and only brought a tablet, and never really felt I was missing anything with it.

    But I wanted to print my boarding passes the day I was leaving, and the only printer available was old and didn't have a driver available for my tablet, so I used a netbook that was at the house. I was instantly made aware of how much better I like typing on a keyboard than the touch-screen. I sized up the netbook and found it wasn't really much larger than the tablet (mostly just thicker), and wondered if the tablet was really a better tool.

    Sure, you can get keyboards for tablets, but at that point they're not much different than a netbook in size and shape. And the tablets probably cost more for the same screen size. For me, I'm wondering if a hybrid might be the way to go - a thin, light device with a touch screen, but a real keyboard when I want one.
    brble
    • Definitely

      I bought a Compaq Mini during Black Friday in 2011. I've upgraded it to a 640GB Hard Drive and 2GB of RAM. It runs Windows 7 Professional. Also, the processor is 64bit capable, which has it's advantages.

      It runs rather well and only had to replace the screen once (accidentally cracked it during class). I doubt I'm ever going to get rid of it for quite awhile and it is quite useful downloading photos from my camera or changing a few settings on a Cisco router through PuTTY.
      Simba7
  • Netbooks still have their uses

    My first netbook was an Asus 1000HE and was purchased specifically to display movies for long airplane flights. But: just for giggles and laughs, I installed my favorite browser (Opera) and everything that I needed for remote access into my office and home computers (LogMeIn).

    I was *shocked* at how usable that little machine was. Even now, more than 5 years later, it lives in the same carry bag as my Win 7 Pro netbook (Alienware m11x) and has saved the day many a time when I absolutely have to run some software that runs only on Windows XP and lower.

    I'm about to purchase 3- brand-new Acer netbooks for my little CNC machines. Future Shop has them on for a little over $200 - how can I resist.

    Nope - Apple or Android need not apply - the software is Windows only.

    dwayne
    dwayner
  • Netbooks were way underpowered.

    Netbooks were way underpowered, even for their supposed primary use (accessing the Internet). I had one, I know.

    It served its purpose - to do college homework - but it was painful, and I'd rather go for a full laptop.
    CobraA1