Windows 8: It's goodbye netbooks, hello tablets

Actually, it's not just because of Windows 8. It's just that it turns out we don't need netbooks anymore.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

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.

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