Windows 8: It's goodbye netbooks, hello tablets

Windows 8: It's goodbye netbooks, hello tablets

Summary: Actually, it's not just because of Windows 8. It's just that it turns out we don't need netbooks anymore.

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Since the rollout of the release code for Windows 8 on MSDN and Technet last week, we've been updating all our test machines with various versions of the latest Windows.

It's gone on desktop PCs with multiple monitors, on various laptops, on hybrid touch and pen tablet PCs, and on a selection of slate form-factor PCs.

One set of devices it's not been anywhere near is the netbooks that have been sitting around the office for the past couple of years. After all, they were at the heart of much of our Windows 7 testing, and Microsoft had done a lot of work in making it run well on low-power and small form-factor devices.

So why not on a netbook?

Partly the issue is one of screen size. Netbooks tend to have 1,024 x 600 screens, which aren't able to run apps built using WinRT. While there are screen-scaling hacks that can get around the restriction, it's still a less than perfect user experience.

The result is that you're locked out of the future of Windows, limited to traditional desktop applications in a limited amount of screen real estate. It's not just Windows 8's new UI, desktop applications are demanding more and more screen space, and the average netbook is being left behind.

If you're not running at least 1,366 x 768, you're being left behind — and that's not including the new generation of subpixel retina screens.

The other part of the story is processor power and battery life. Netbooks built around Intel's early single-core Atom chipsets just don't have the power to run many of today's applications effectively. We've found running more than two applications degraded performance significantly.

Multi-core Atom has changed things, but with today's generation of VLC Core processors it's unclear just what Atom is for — unless it's as the heart of next generation Intel system-on-chip boxes, powering phones, tablets and embedded electronics.

All that's important, but it's not the real reason why.

Darwin would have liked netbooks. As would have Stephen Jay Gould. They're a prime example of how evolution works in the world of tech, of how ideas cross-breed to deliver new things that are continual improvements.

In that evolutionary battle for market share, netbooks have become redundant, set aside in favour of tablets, smartphones and ultrabooks. Where once we might have woken up, reached out for a netbook to check email, we've now got tablets and phones that collect our email and link to social networks. We just don't need those netbooks and their whirring fans and teeny-tiny screens.

A larger screen, just as much storage, and just as much bandwidth are all we need. And if we need something light to work on, there's the ultrabook, with a full keyboard, the possibility of touch, and the power of a desktop processor.

It turns out that the netbook, full of discrete components, with a cheap, slow-spinning disk or a small amount of flash memory, was just a predecessor to the devices that followed — slimmer, faster systems that built on the netbook's foundation. We wouldn't have Apple's MacBook Air if it wasn't for the netbook, nor the whole army of ultrabooks due to launch in the next few months.

There's another factor too, the rise of the cloud.

The first netbooks were intended to work as adjuncts to web services. But those services were limited, awkward to use, and didn't have the more processor- and bandwidth-intensive services we're demanding today — services that mean our portable devices and desktop hardware have access to the same files and tools, whether they're hosted by Apple, Google, or Microsoft.

It's an integrated world, and the limited hardware in both first- and second-generation netbooks just couldn't keep up with the growth in the cloud, and with changes in the way we use it.

When we pick up a machine in the coffee shop, or from the bedside table, we want more and we each want something different. Mail, web, applications, content — whatever we want, however we want to consume. For small screen there're phones, for handheld, seven-inch tablets and e-readers, for day-to-day carry-along computing, 10-inch tablets, and then the whole panoply of netbooks, laptops and PCs. It's an explosion of form factors and of the content that goes with them.

And that's one of the reasons for Surface RT and the rest of the Windows RT regiment of devices. For consumers who want to check mail, see what's going on in the world, and maybe quickly edit a document in their SkyDrive, all in silence and all at HD.

Bye-bye netbooks. You had your time in the sun.

Now let's see what comes next.

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Laptops, Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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23 comments
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  • Tablets are consumer But netbooks are producers

    These are two different things which one should not confuse! Windows failed in tablet once bcz it couldn't see these differences, now whether MS could really make a hybrid and as it says make a device that is best of both worlds we should see in the near future!
    Personally i don't think that happens i have tablet and my experience says no matter what OS you put it on (Linux, Windows, Android, iOS) It should not matter it is more than 90 percent a consumer device!
    L3thargic
    • then what about

      hybrid devices? small like a netbook, but with tablet and netbook functionality put together; best of both worlds. I think these will eventually take over laptops too, but they'll start in netbook territory.
      theoilman
      • Keyblet: the next big thing is really just a combination of devices

        I absolutely agree. It will be a hybrid of the netbook/laptop and tablet that meets what consumers want. It's not far away in fact, lots of them soon to hit the shop shelves.

        Personally, I can't wait to get a portable device that can finally cater to both my leisure and work activities on the go. Netbooks never quite lived up to their promise. Windows 8 on the upcoming Keyblets is what I've been waiting for!
        Cheesery
  • Say again?

    And I thought it was the iPad that did in netbooks.

    Anyway, aren't the smaller form-factor ultrabooks just more expensive netbooks?

    P.S. The 11.6-inch MacBook Air seems more of a netbook than a laptop.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Really?

      You find a 11.6 inch macbook air "mainly useful for accessing the internet"?

      If that's all you're using it for, get a netbook... you'll save yourself a lot of money.
      Michael Alan Goff
      • False Economy

        If he's already using an 11.6" MacBook Air, surely his getting a netbook would mean him incurring expense for which there is neither need nor justification, and not actually saving him money?
        Antaine O'Labhradha
        • The real question I was trying to put forth is

          Why did he spend 1k on a computer that is being used for the same things as a 400$ one? The most recent MBA is more than enough to do most tasks that a student would do, not merely what a netbook allows.
          Michael Alan Goff
  • Windows 8: It's goodbye netbooks, hello tablets

    Much like tablets I never saw the appeal of netbooks. Some of those netbooks were going for as much as the regular notebooks. They won't be missed by me.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • Tablets

      I use a 7" Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 Android 4.0 for my mobile computing needs. I think it's bloody great and I am able to do everything that I want to on it, including "office" type work.
      Laptops (and netbooks) will and should become obsolete (eventually) as form factors become more user-centric.
      Antaine O'Labhradha
      • Disagree

        Laptops will never become obsolete because people in the workforce or in school need them. I have tried those folio keyboards for the iPad and I used to own a netbook. They are not as good as typing on a full laptop-sized keyboard because they are too small and they don't have the same tactile feedback. I think that tablets may replace laptops for the average consumer who doesn't do much else than checking stuff online and watching movies. But for people who need to type a lot of essays like myself, I need the laptop.

        Additionally, gaming laptops are still a necessity that tablets are far from replacing. Even the high-end Windows tablets fall far short of a high end laptop with Nvidia or Radeon graphics with an i7 CPU. And tablet-based games are not as good because there's not enough room on the touchscreen to add the same amount of controls like you would have with a keyboard and mouse or a game controller.
        piratesmvp04
  • I just want a $200-300 Netbook

    Something compact, light, cheap, cool running, that can run at least half the day on battery power, that will take the OS of my choice, and that I can just turn on to get things done. I don't why the specs on the new Netbooks have barely, if at all, incremented over those of models from a couple of years at the some price points -- there is good no reason for that.
    JustCallMeBC
  • A netbook does what I need it to do, but a tablet doesn't

    @JustCallMeBC.
    I couldn't agree with you more.
    I have 3 netbooks. (The Acer is currently srewn across the dining room table as I try to figure out how to fix the fatigued cable that connects the mobo to the SSD.)

    And what I need is not all that complicated. I need a browser and I NEED an ethernet port. WiFi simply won't do. I can't configure the routers with WiFi. I need a small, highly portable computer, that I can plug into the routers so I can configure the routers. I don't need a big laptop or an ultrabook to do the job. They're just more bulk, heat, and expense than I need. I just need something with a browser, and a real etherenet port, and no spinning disk inside. And cheap is good. Sub $200.
    mheartwood
    • You want a computer

      with an SSD... for under 200$?

      Who do you think is going to sell you that?
      Michael Alan Goff
  • A lot of fairly recent netbooks support 1,366 x 768

    My Acer netbook I bought last Thanksgiving supports 1,366 x 768 resolution, as does several recent models. I picked it up for $200.00 It runs Windows 8 great, including Metro apps. The only thing missing is a touchscreen.

    My three year old Atom-based EEE, not so much. I don't think Windows 8 is anti-netbook; it's just that the early ones with the 10.1 inch screens need not apply.
    pkatz
    • It's tricky

      I've been periodically checking Microcenter (there's one near me) for Netbook deals, especially for something with a 1366x768 screen, and with the hopes of processor substantially faster than what's in my refurbed Gateway, an Atom N450. Now the Passmark score for the N450 is a very modest 319. I paid $200 for the Gateway a couple of years ago and I really like the size of it. Just now I took a look and there's a $279 Acer Aspire One with an Atom N2600, which has a Passmark score of 604, which is nice, but the screen is still at 1024x600. Bummers.

      What do they have for a Netbook with a higher rez screen? Another look and there's a different Aspire model that they sell for $269.99, and that comes with a 1366x768 screen and a AMD C-60 CPU. The C-60 has a Passmark score of 557, which is OK-ish, I suppose. But this is a bigger Netbook, with a screen size of 11.6." As I said, I would prefer to keep my existing size screen, just at a higher rez. Do these even exist? Well, apparently all the current model 1366x768 models come with 11.6" screens. However, there use to be a Sony Netbook, the VPC-W121AX/P, that came had a 1366x768l, 10'1" screen, along with an Atom N280 CPU. The N280 has a Passmark score of 315, slightly slower than my N450. Apparently this is a model from 2009. I found an ASUS model with similar specs, but that was from 2010.

      So you had Netbooks with 1366x768, 10.1" screens 3 years ago, but apparently not now, for whatever bizarre reason. I just want the smaller hi-rez screen, but with the faster processor, but....
      JustCallMeBC
  • Tablets limited storage and power

    A tablet is still not meant for a power user. If your traveling and in a WIFI or Celluar dead area they are limited on power and storage.`... They are not replacement viable only to gear heads and gadget freaks....
    wpreece
  • My Toshiba nebook....

    ...aside from Metro apps which don't work on 1024x600 screen, runs wondows 8 just fine as a test bed for Office 15. Well sort of fine. Had to download Media Center. No drivers for my bluetooth chip or my gobi 2000 modem (which show up as "Other Devices" in Device Manager). IE 10 doesn't support jive-hosted web forums without tweaking Compatability View and Dcument Mode to IE9.

    Win 7 drivers do resolve the above hardware issues but native support would be a lot cleaner. And why did M$ remove the resolution downscaling registry keys from the Developer Preview? Intel should address this issue with virtual pan-and-scan modes for at least 1024x768 if not 1366x768 as well.

    Win 8 serves as a great landing platform for my Wubi Ubuntu install, which DOES run all my hardware and without screen resolution issues or browser issues. I use it 90% of the time. So, after the Win 8 RP time bomb blows it up it's linux all the way on this little guy.
    podstolom
  • Irrational Netbook Hate

    I feel bad even posting on an article that is merely click-bait, but here we go.

    "Partly the issue is one of screen size. Netbooks tend to have 1,024 x 600 screens, which aren't able to run apps built using WinRT."

    I agree that this is a legitimate issue. But not all netbooks have 1,024x600 screens, and, as you mentioned, this is something people can be around. Further, the article speaks of us not needing "netbooks" anymore. One could easily just leave Windows 7 (or another OS) on their netbook and be perfectly fine. There is no forced upgrade path to Windows 8. The premise of the article seems to rest on the assumption that a gun is to all netbook users' heads.

    "Netbooks built around Intel's early single-core Atom chipsets just don't have the power to run many of today's applications effectively."

    Like what? Name some applications. I have a single-core Atom Aspire with 2 GB of RAM that runs every Office application extremely well. Even - God forbid - multiple applications at one time. The only applications I can think of that might not work on netbooks are image/video editing software, which netbooks were never designed to run anyway. Most users can do just about any kind of productivity work on their netbook they need to, and that has not changed.

    "Where once we might have woken up, reached out for a netbook to check email, we've now got tablets and phones that collect our email and link to social networks."

    This is true...but it has been true for awhile now. And it would matter if the purpose of netbooks was pure social network consumption, but it's not. Most users need very little out of their laptops (taking notes, working on office documents, browsing the web, actually composing emails that don't consist of "where r u?", etc.), and netbooks provide this functionality. Phones and tablets do not. Tablets are getting closer, as you might actually be able to produce content in larger amounts than 140 characters with external keyboards, and I really hope tablets get to the point that netbooks are superfluous. Right now, tablets can't match the content creation abilities of netbooks. Even the Windows 8 tablets coming will not be able to without an external keyboard. I look forward to owning a tablet, but it's going to be quite awhile before a tablet can replace the functionality of a tablet, especially at a reasonably competitive price.

    "And if we need something light to work on, there's the ultrabook, with a full keyboard, the possibility of touch, and the power of a desktop processor."

    Again, the average user needs something more than a tablet and something less than a $700+ ultrabook. A $200-300 netbook will meet the needs of just about any student and most office employees. Why spend another $500 on an ultrabook?

    "The first netbooks were intended to work as adjuncts to web services. But those services were limited, awkward to use, and didn't have the more processor- and bandwidth-intensive services we're demanding today — services that mean our portable devices and desktop hardware have access to the same files and tools, whether they're hosted by Apple, Google, or Microsoft.

    It's an integrated world, and the limited hardware in both first- and second-generation netbooks just couldn't keep up with the growth in the cloud, and with changes in the way we use it."

    It's difficult to determine what the author even means here. In what ways are we using "the cloud" that we weren't a couple of years ago, and how do those ways make netbooks obsolete? I keep Google Drive, Skydrive, Dropbox, and even Windows Live Mesh running on my netbooks. I get a lot of use out of an Internet connection, but I can still use my netbook and edit files when I'm not connected (something I can't do with my phone nor some tablets). I just don't see how "the cloud" has made netbooks obsolete.
    J_How
  • So No 7" Tablets, Then?

    Typical Microsoft, always fighting last year’s battle. Just when it thinks it has an OS suitable for 10" tablets, people suddenly start buying 7-inchers, which will not run any form of Windows 8/RT!
    ldo17
    • Most of the newer 7 inch

      tablets support a resolution high enough for WinRT apps. I see no reason why someone won't come out with a 7 inch tablet. Personally they're too small for me, but many seem to like them.
      Sam Wagner