Why Netbooks Aren't There Yet

By Jamie Lendino | Posted December 01, 2008
Netbooks have captured the public’s imagination. It’s the kind of machine many have long clamored for: inexpensive, lightweight, and just powerful enough for the basic, day-to-day, Internet-based tasks that consumers and corporate mavens normally tote a regular laptop for.

At the same time, today’s netbooks aren’t perfect. Many suffer cramped keyboards and track pads; neither is fun to use during marathon typing sessions. Some netbooks are more comfortable than others, but nearly all sport keys that are less than full size. There’s also the lack of screen real estate—anyone coming from a 22-inch widescreen LCD will struggle to fit whatever they’re doing on a netbook’s tiny 8.9-inch or 10-inch, limited resolution panel.

Since netbooks are such small, inexpensive devices, they also include processors, memory, and (most significantly) hard disks several generations behind the ones in regular notebooks. Intel is combating this to some extent with its new Atom processor, which is designed with netbooks in mind. With solid-state disk prices firmly affixed to the stratosphere, these concerns won’t be allayed any time soon.

But fixing the above issues isn’t really the answer. Instead, they’re part and parcel of what makes a netbook. Increase the screen and keyboard size, and add in a more powerful processor, and you no longer have a netbook—you have a laptop. And with full-blown, 15.4-inch notebooks starting in the $500 range this holiday season, there’s no need for netbooks to go in that direction.

Even so, the potential is there for netbooks to become mainstream devices. Here’s what really needs to happen:

• The boot sequence needs to disappear. This has long been a dream of notebook vendors, but it’s particularly important here. Today, netbooks take as long or even longer than regular, more powerful notebooks to boot up. Incorporating a real instant-on feature wouldn’t mean a return to the incompatible Newton and Psion days either: a clean install of Linux or Windows XP boots quite quickly without crapware clogging up the proceedings. It can be faster still with solid-state memory (see below).

• Batteries need to last longer. Another holy grail, but one that’s especially relevant to netbooks given their typical use cases: e-mail, a quick Web browsing section, and light document editing. Think about it—if a cell phone can last for days at a time and sport a 500 MHz processor, a netbook should be able to do the same thing with an Atom processor and a much larger battery. Low-power modes, efficient green processors, solid-state storage, and LED displays are all means to this end.

• Persistent WWAN connectivity. By definition, netbooks work while connected to the Internet. If you can’t find a hot spot, and you’re not paying for a $60/month cellular broadband card, your netbook becomes…a doorstop. It’s clear we won’t have persistent Wi-Fi even in major cities for some time to come, much less rural areas.

• Touchscreen LCD. I vacillated on including this one in the list. The last thing we need is another screwball mobile operating system or failed attempt at a “middle device” that’s difficult to synchronize with real PCs. A touchscreen netbook would still have to be a Windows XP or Linux machine with a QWERTY keyboard through and through. But a touchscreen would make navigation easier; particularly as more folks acquaint themselves with the touch and two-finger-zoom idiom Apple made popular with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

• Lower prices. Finally, netbooks need to stay in the $300 to $350 range. As various ultra-mobile PCs demonstrated, few consumers would pay $800 or $1,100 for a device that’s almost impossible to type on, no matter how powerful it is. It’s much easier to just bring along a regular laptop, even if it weighs more. But now that regular laptops are pushing down against the $500 price barrier, netbooks can’t also cost $500, no matter how svelte they are. It’s true that some buyers are prepared to pay a premium for a lightweight design, as the svelte MacBook Air and slick Toshiba Portégé line illustrates. But the mainstream netbook buyer certainly isn’t.

Do any of today’s netbooks come close to the above ideal? None of them have instant-on or touch screen LCDs, so strike those for now. Most new models, including the HP Mini 1000, the Acer Aspire One, and the Asus Eee PC 1000H, have the right price point, at least in a base configuration.

The HP Mini 1000 offers an internal WWAN option, while the Lenovo S10 includes an ExpressCard slot. Few models exhibit long battery life; most last in the three-hour range, which is the same as a regular notebook. One exception is the 6-cell battery in the Asus Eee PC 1000H, which is good for a stellar seven hours, and some Asus Eee PCs can exceed four hours as well.

Since I referenced Apple several times already, it’s natural to conclude that it should release a netbook of its own. But netbooks run counter to the Apple model, which is heavily dependent on locally installed software, a walled garden media ecosystems, and high-end, high-margin products that exude design finesse more than bargain prices. That doesn’t mean Apple won’t ever release one, but don’t expect one next month.

(Besides, the company'd rather sell you an existing iPod Touch or an iPhone.)

I give it 12 months before we see netbooks that begin to address the above issues in earnest. The easiest to tackle are the first two—working out an instant-on disk image and squeezing extra battery life out of today’s netbooks are within the realm of what technology is currently capable of.

Persistent WWAN connectivity is tougher due to how precious and expensive cellular broadband is. It would take some savvy on the order of Jobs and the AT&T/iPhone deal to break through the $60/month price barrier. WiMAX is one option here, since I presume Sprint and Clearwire are looking for an early 4G foothold in cities other than Baltimore.

The touchscreen LCD is the only idea I mentioned that I’m not entirely sold on. That’s not because I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. I just don’t know if it can be done inexpensively enough, and perform well enough, given today’s technology.

A really good trackpad and button combination would be a welcome consolation prize; it’s a sore spot on many of today’s netbooks. Linux machines run well out of the box at the base price points—$319 to $349—but XP models tend to require a memory and/or CPU bump before they run well.

In short: keep netbooks in the $300 to $400 range, address the above issues, and watch them begin to cut into regular notebook sales in earnest.

Adapted from ITManagement.earthweb.com.

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