Netbooks: Laptops for the Web

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2652, 2008-12-26, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 11-14) and their website.

One of the major trends in the computer world at this time, is the transition of data and processing from the desktop to the Web. Years ago, the typical Windows PC user might access their e-mail using Microsoft Outlook running locally on their computer; Outlook would download the messages from the e-mail servers of their chosen Internet service provider (ISP). Nowadays, that individual is probably instead using her favorite Web browser to log into her Gmail or Yahoo Mail account. Even online office productivity tools are challenging desktop standards such as Microsoft Office. Witness the growing popularity of Google Docs, Thinkfree Boundless, and Zoho Writer, to name just a few.

Another significant trend is the transition from desktop computers to laptops/notebooks. This is partly fueled by the development of ever-smaller computer components, and also by the demand for greater computational mobility, with students bringing laptops into classrooms and libraries, and corporate professionals bringing work home (voluntarily or otherwise), and also trying to accomplish work while commuting locally and while traveling by air.

These two trends converged in the development of netbooks, which are laptops optimized for mobility and Web-based computing. A crucial impetus for the development of netbooks is the lengthy list of complaints aimed at laptops. The more that hardware manufacturers packed laptops with features, in order to make them rival desktops, the more that those laptops began to approach desktops in lack of mobility. The weight alone quickly became a sore spot for laptop purchasers (and not just the sore spots on users' shoulders, lugging heavy laptops through airport terminals). Some of these machines weigh over six pounds, and that does not include the mess of extra pieces — most of which are practically required — such as a protective padded case for travel, and an AC adapter for recharging the quickly-depleting batteries. In addition, monitor sizes of 15 inches or so make laptops difficult to pack into many cases already crammed with books and papers. Even worse for people on a budget, laptops have traditionally been much more expensive than desktops with equivalent capabilities, and the smaller the laptop, the larger the price tag.

Internet Notebooks

In answer to these many problems with full-size laptops, hardware vendors have introduced netbooks, which can be thought of as "laptops lite" — light on features, and light in weight and price. They have lower-end microprocessors, less system memory (RAM), smaller hard drives, no built-in optical drives, and few if any of the extra features found in the countless laptops that have been positioned as replacements for desktop computers. Many of them incorporate DRAM-based solid-state drives (SSD) instead of the heavier three-inch hard drives with their heavier weight and spinning platters. The less-expensive netbooks, such as the Eee PC 701, incorporate smaller screens with a native resolution of 800 x 480 pixels.

Representative examples of netbooks include the Acer Aspire One, the ASUS Eee, the Dell Mini, and the MSI Wind. That last one illustrates the remarkable popularity of this new class of computers, despite their being introduced only a year ago: The MSI Wind netbook is, by all reports, exceeding the company's initial sales estimates. MSI originally had projected sales of 600,000 units at the most, for 2008. But the firm will exceed those sales figures by at least 100,000.

The MSI Wind also exemplifies the typical configuration for netbooks. It utilizes an Intel Atom N270 microprocessor, running at 1.6GHz. It has one gigabyte of system memory, and a 160-gigabyte hard drive. The display is a 10-inch WSVGA LCD, and the graphics are powered by an Intel GMA 950. The operating system is Windows XP Home. However, not all netbooks come preinstalled with Windows; Linux is also a popular OS on these new machines, and has the added advantages that it is less processor-intensive, boots up faster (a critical feature for users on the go), and lowers the overall cost of the computer, because there is no licensing fee. Some industry analysts estimate that roughly half of the netbooks now in use are running Linux.

Because the target market for netbooks comprises those people who do most of their work on the Web, connectivity is a critical part of the package. All of the netbooks possess built-in Wi-Fi. Also, an increasing number of them also offer Bluetooth support, which allows them to be connected wirelessly to a 3G mobile phone, for Web access when away from a Wi-Fi hotspot. Some of the most recent models even provide built-in 3G capabilities, which allows them to be used with mobile broadband ISPs, without any hardware upgrades required of the purchaser.

In terms of the application software that is packaged with the majority of netbooks, they typically do not include Microsoft Office, because it tends to consume a disproportionate amount of a netbook's limited resources. (Office's appetite for computing cycles, system memory, and hard drive space, has only become worse with each revision of the product.) Rather, netbooks are oftentimes outfitted with free or low-cost alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org, Microsoft Works, StarOffice, and WordPerfect Office.

Your Next Notebook?

Countless people are now lauding netbooks, declaring them to be what laptops should have been all along. They are smaller and lighter than traditional laptops, and can be more easily packed into suitcases, bookbags, and even large pockets of coats. They are also much less expensive; some can be had for less than $400, and it is most likely that competition will push these prices even lower in the years ahead. Even some diehard Mac fans admit that they now use their netbooks more than their MacBooks, at about a third the cost.

The predecessors to netbooks, known as sub-notebooks, generally cost over $2000 and weighed in at over four pounds — and the more compact the unit, the more expensive it became. But netbooks have completely reversed that situation: The smaller they are, the lower their price. This is primarily because the smaller the unit, the smaller the screen, which is the most expensive component of a netbook.

Given the consumer demand for highly portable and affordable computing, it is little wonder that netbooks are proving extremely popular, with reports of strong sales by Asus, Dell, and other leading manufacturers. They are touted as ideal for individuals who seek a computer that gives them relatively quick access to the Web, is easy to use, and does not break the bank, with more computational power than palmtops and smartphones. In fact, even Intel was unprepared for the overwhelming consumer interest in netbooks, and it took the company months to ramp up production of their Atom chip to meet the demand.

One market segment that is seeing some of the greatest demand of all, is children. Because they are generally far less expensive than full-powered laptops, netbooks are better choice for school-age children, who are prone to losing the machines as a result of damage, theft, or misplacement. Furthermore, netbooks outfitted with SSD drives, instead of hard disk drives, lack the moving parts of the latter and thus are less prone to damage from unintentional impact.

Nyetbooks?

Yet despite the sustained strong sales, netbooks have also received their share of criticism, from consumers and industry pundits alike. First of all, these units typically possess a limited amount of system memory, which reduces overall performance of applications, since the operating system has to perform more swapping in and out of memory. This is especially noticeable when trying to run more than a few applications at once. System performance also suffers from the use of less expensive microprocessors, which are chosen to help keep the overall product price lower than that of traditional laptops.

Heavy users of netbooks also complain that the screen sizes are inadequate, particularly for long-term use. Many people argue that a small screen may be fine for texting on a cell phone or playing a game on a smartphone, but not for hours of sustained Web browsing. On the other hand, with the pervasive use of smartphones, people may eventually become accustomed to using smaller screens. Also, there's nothing that prevents a netbook user from attaching it to a larger display, such as the flat-panel monitor used for their desktop computer — as well as a full-sized keyboard and mouse, which would be more comfortable than the small keyboard and touchpad on a netbook. Defenders of netbooks also point out that they are more likely to be utilized by mobile users, for short spans of time.

Speaking of the input devices built into netbooks, their "Chicklet-style" keyboards have proven annoying and quite unpopular with some users — especially those who had hoped to use their new machines on a regular basis, several hours a day. The displays also draw fire, because when a netbook is used to view a Web page wider than 800 pixels, the entire width of the page is not viewable at any one time. Consequently, users are forced to scroll the page back and forth horizontally. As one can imagine, this can become very annoying very quickly. Fortunately, the low-resolution displays are being phased out, and replaced with higher resolutions of 1024 x 768 pixels. But these improvements to the displays will not solve the problem of graphics cards and processors that do not have the muscle to handle most of the 3D games; even older titles can run so slowly as to be unplayable. This is one area where full-powered laptops truly distinguish themselves, because they have dedicated graphics chips that allow them to easily handle the most demanding games and other graphical applications.

Similar to their more powerful and more expensive rivals, netbooks have a mixed record when it comes to the longevity of their batteries. Some users report that their netbooks stay powered up longer than the laptops that they replaced, while others complain that there has been no improvement, or even degeneration, despite the claims of vendors. For instance, some netbooks with three cell batteries can conk out after only two hours of continuous use.

In the interests of saving space, weight, and cost, netbooks typically lack CD/DVD drives. This makes sense for people who rarely if ever use optical disks. But it can be quite challenging when you need to install software available only on a CD or DVD, such as when (re)installing the operating system.

In general, for people who wish to perform fairly substantial computing tasks, or to run more than a handful of applications at the same time, the limited performance capabilities of netbooks exclude them as a viable option. They may be ideal for someone who simply wants to surf the Internet and check their Web-based e-mail account. But even Web surfing alone may be too much for some of the netbooks now available, if the Web pages are rich in Flash elements, because they can be quite demanding on the client computer, and slow it down significantly — especially if other applications are being run at the same time, such as a security suite and a firewall. Some industry experts argue that a netbook can only serve as your sole computer if you will not be demanding much of it.

One criticism that has been raised against netbooks, is that they are simply a warmed over version of their predecessors, namely, the sub-notebooks manufactured by Sony, Toshiba, and other companies, ages ago. Back in the late 1990s, these "palmtop" form-factor laptops proved quite popular in Asia — particularly Japan — but not in North America or Europe, and not just because so many of them were running the Windows CE Professional operating system. Many people point to their high cost and low computational power. On the other hand, this was before the proliferation of Web access and the transfer of data and processing to the Web.

If netbooks cannot replace desktops, laptops, or smartphones, then what purpose do they serve? Are they simply a companion device, stuck in a no-man's land between laptops and smartphones? For instance, an iPhone supports Web access, e-mail, music, and games — all with greater portability. Subnotebooks have traditionally failed because they are generally only adequate if one is doing little more than surfing the Web or making notes in a text editor or word processor; anything more than that requires a "real" computer.

Perhaps that is the key to their success: People who have limited needs may choose a netbook instead of a laptop, and people who have no intention of getting rid of their powerful desktop computers may choose a netbook as a portable supplement that provides a much larger display and easier-to-use input devices.

Only time will tell if netbooks will eventually go the way of palmtops, or become a permanent fixture in the computer landscape. If current brisk sales are any indication, they are here to stay.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.