Ion pleases the eye and kills off the netbook

The netbook has been a rapidly evolving beast. The idea was initially unveiled about four years ago by the OLPC initiative, who wanted to bring out a cheap educational tool for the developing world.

The netbook has been a rapidly evolving beast. The idea was initially unveiled about four years ago by the OLPC initiative, who wanted to bring out a cheap educational tool for the developing world.

A couple of years later, not much concrete had happened, and Asus also decided to do much the same thing with what became its first Eee PC. When it showed off the first netbook as we know it at the Intel Developer Forum, Asus seemed surprised to discover tech hacks drooling over the things, craving them for themselves rather than for the kids.

Fast forward to late 2009, and we find ourselves entering a new phase in the development of the netbook. In between then and now, we saw the original screen size of seven inches giving way to 10 inches, and now 12. We saw a flurry of opportunistic (I don't mean that as a criticism) excitement in the Linux community, which has now given way to Windows powering the vast majority of netbooks.

Now we see the introduction of Nvidia's Ion platform, which combines that company's graphics knowhow with Intel's Atom processors — we also see AMD's Congo platform, which provides the same graphics boost.

I spent the last weekend playing with Samsung's 12-inch-screened N510, the manufacturer's first Ion-toting 'netbook'. It's not the first netbook/ultrathin with decent screen size and resolution that I've experienced — that would be Acer's decent 1810T — but it is the first one I've used that combines such eye-friendliness with the oomph needed to play back stutter-free online video.

And that's a big plus. Intel and others have been very keen to categorise netbooks as media consumption devices, rather than fully-fledged laptops that are usable for the creation of content, but frankly netbooks have not been up to that intended task. Now they are. The N510 is a very attractive machine (although I'm personally not too keen on the chrome accents), but the fact that it's great for YouTube and iPlayer also makes it incredibly useful.

A couple more netbooks currently provide the same functionality, namely the Acer Ferrari One and HP Mini 311. Another pretty exciting-looking netbook, Asus' Eee 1201N, will soon combine Ion with Intel's next-generation, dual-core Atom 330 chipset.

Which leads us to a slight issue. These new devices finally fulfil the media-consumption promise of the netbook, but... well, they're not really netbooks. In order to fulfil that promise, they've had to incorporate the horsepower that you'd expect from a standard subnotebook, and this has made the battery life drop (we're currently testing the N510, but I'm certain it'll fall short of your standard Atom N280-toting netbook in the longevity department).

They're also about 50 percent heavier than the original netbooks, which weighed in under one kilogram. And they're about 50-100 percent more expensive than the original £200 price point. They're awesome, but they're not netbooks.

So, is the 'netbook' dead? Right now, it kind of is. But next year might take us back to basics. We have two major things to look forward to. ARM-based 'smartbooks' will (hopefully) appear, cutting back on the PC-like functionality of the netbook but retaining the video playback smarts that such devices need — there's your media-consumption device right there, er, Intel.

And, of course, Chrome OS, which will run on both x86 and ARM architectures. Google said last week that it had pretty tight specs for the machines that will run Chrome OS, and those specs look like they'll make for cheap and light. Such devices will retain screen sizes around the 12-inch mark, but otherwise we're talking the original netbook concept.

Will people want a netbook anymore by Christmas next year, or will they want the new breed of subnotebook that the netbook helped catalyse? Time will tell. But, for now, the netbook as we knew it is no more.