The Netbook is dead. Long live the notebook!

Many companies showed systems they called Netbooks at CES, but most of them were really just small full-function laptops. Here's why the show marked the death of the Netbook concept.

Much coverage of this year's Consumer Electronics Show is full of references to new Netbooks introduced at the show. But in fact, there were hardly any Netbooks at all, and those that did appear went almost unmentioned.

The truth is, the Netbook is dead, and good riddance. The concept of the Netbook was based on a tragic misunderstanding: the belief that tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people worldwide wanted a portable computer that was small, power-efficient, and (here's the misunderstanding) not good for much beyond accessing the Internet.

Asus's Eee PC T91 convertible tablet
Asus's Eee PC T91 convertible tablet ASUSTeK Computer Inc.

That's where the "Net" in "Netbook" came from: the Web, e-mail, chat, maybe some VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol communications).

That's what the earliest Netbooks delivered, too--machines like the Eee PC 701 from Asus (which I described here ) that came with slow single-core processors, small amounts of RAM, small liquid crystal displays, and tiny, slow flash drives. They were good enough for light Web browsing and e-mail--and not much more. They wouldn't run Windows XP with acceptable performance, never mind Windows Vista.

Well, nobody wanted those machines. Companies that tried to sell them saw unprecedented return rates. Asus, for its part, couldn't upgrade the Eee PC fast enough; current Eee PCs have faster processors, more memory, larger screens, and larger flash drives or real rotating hard disks.

At CES, Asus expanded its line of Eee PC systems to include the S101, S101H, 701, 701SD, 701SDX, 900, 900A, 900HA, 900HD, 900SD, 901, 901XP, 904HA, 904HD, 1000, 1000H, 1000HA, 1000HD, 1000HE, 1000HG, 1002HA, 1003HG, and 1004DN laptops; the T91 and T101H tablets; and multiple Eee Top desktops. (Seriously! Most of these model numbers are on Asus's Eee PC site; the others are from CES. And I may have missed some.)

Certainly, all of these Eee PC systems were clearly distinct from Asus' mainstream offerings: Celeron or (mostly) Atom processors, 10-inch or smaller displays (on the laptops), and smaller amounts of RAM and mass storage.

But the fact is, they're all capable of much more than simple Web browsing. Asus specifically promotes the use of Windows XP Home with all of these machines, and it looks like they'd all run Vista as well, though perhaps without all the visual bells and whistles.

You wouldn't buy these machines to run Photoshop, edit high-definition videos, or play 3D games, but for most simpler purposes, they'd be fine.

In fact, as a cross-platform kind of guy myself, I'm thinking about getting one of those T91 tablets, when they go on the market later this year. I used to use a Motion tablet for meeting notes (with Microsoft Office OneNote, a great package) and PowerPoint presentations at Montalvo Systems, and I'd really like to do that again.

Four small-screen laptops from 1983 to 2007
Small-screen laptops over the years. Foreground: a TRS-80 Model 100 (1983); rear, from left: an Apple PowerBook Duo 270c (1993), a Dauphin DTR-1 pen computer (1993), and an Asus Eee PC 701 (2007). From the author's collection. Peter N. Glaskowsky

So what's left of the Netbook concept? Small displays? C'mon, we've had small displays since the dawn of mobile computing. There hasn't been a day since 1983 when you couldn't get a laptop with a small display.

So these new machines aren't merely Netbooks that are " evolving " or " overachieving ". They're notebooks. And Moore's Law will ensure that these systems will eventually suffice for any fixed workload. (3D games get more demanding each year, so small notebooks will always be inadequate for bleeding-edge gaming.)

Actually, there were some true Netbooks at CES. What distinguished them from these other machines, which were merely called Netbooks?

Well, today, if you want to make a subnote with a few hundred MHz of processor power and really basic 2D/3D graphics, an x86 processor and chipset is the expensive way to get it. It's better to start with an ARM processor. Some of those are single chips with almost everything you need except RAM, and they'll save you up to $50 off the x86 alternatives.

Such Netbooks have been announced by several companies, including Pegatron, and LimePC. There's nothing wrong with these machines. I'm sure they'll do everything they're advertised to do.

But this still brings us back to that tragic misunderstanding: few people will buy an ARM-based Netbook priced at $199 to $299 when there are good x86-based notebooks starting at less than $400. Certainly not when the x86 machines can run Windows or a mainstream Linux distribution, provide far more CPU and GPU performance, and come in the same small sizes.

So that's that. The Netbook is dead. Long live the notebook.

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About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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