Netbooks were a flawed concept but so are tablets

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The announcement that Asus and Acer have stopped manufacture of netbooks (Sayonara Netbooks, Guardian 31 December 2012) brings to an end a promising but flawed experiment in low cost, high portability computing.

They were an interesting, but insufficiently flexible tool, that has been overtaken by tablet computers in the consumer’s quest for highly portable computing.

Netbooks burst onto the scene in 2007 with the introduction by Asus of the Eee PC. In their original guise, netbooks had a 7 inch screen, and a small capacity SSD drive. They omitted an optical drive, and initially ran a limited, and somewhat flawed, version of the Linux operating system.

As the popularity of netbooks grew, manufacturers increased specifications, introducing more powerful processors, adding hard drives, and increasing screen size to 10 inches and sometimes more.

When they began to eat into the low end of the notebook market, Microsoft introduced a slimmed down version of Windows XP and later Windows 7. Together with Intel, Microsoft was then able to set upper limits on performance and specification for netbooks. This effectively meant that netbooks as a form factor were on a path to nowhere.

From 2010 onwards, netbooks were also in direct competition with tablet computers as mobile devices, and there is speculation that iPad and, more recently, Android tablets are directly responsible for their demise.

As the owner of both an Eee PC 1015PX (a netbook with a 10 inch screen, dual core Atom N570 CPU) and a Google Nexus 7 tablet – devices that compare roughly in cost, but differ greatly in functionality – I think it is highly probable that tablets at least drove the final nail into the coffin of netbooks. For the same money, a tablet offers an entry into an entirely different world as a consumer of web information.

When you compare the class of tablet computers (exluding the 10 inch iPad, which is about twice the price) to netbooks, two factors emerge:

Netbooks were always a compromise, but for certain requirements they still emerge as the winner.
It’s a case of portability and low cost vs performance and usability. Until the advent of the iPad, netbooks were the clear winners if you needed a go anywhere device that was light and cheap. For less than £200, you got an almost fully functioning PC running software that let you do substantive work. And you got up to 8 hours battery life, at a weight of just over a kilo.

Netbooks have a full suite of ports, allowing ethernet connection for times when there is no wifi (which happened to me recently in hotels in Spain and in the US). I can also print easily from my netbook, something I haven’t figured out how to do with a tablet.

Consuming content vs creating content
Tablet computers are wonderful devices, especially when you are consuming content. Reading an ebook, surfing the web, streaming videos, all are especially easy on a tablet.

But after four months of using the Nexus 7, it’s still not that clear to me how it can be used as a work tool. Making short notes, sending emails, and managing task lists are all possible and relatively easy. But sitting down with a word processor or spreadsheet app to do anything other than view or make tiny corrections seems like a faintly ridiculous proposal. Doing work tasks at the £200 price point is possible only on netbooks.

And you can’t dual boot a tablet with Windows 7 and Ubuntu, which means that with a tablet you are still excluding from the powerful applications available in these software environments.

The argument though, is moot. From 01 January there are no more netbooks. Certainly, tablets had a hand in their death. But those are flawed devices too, and I can’t help wondering what low cost device is going to take their place, when we decide that we’ve consumed enough content and need to get on with being creative.