04 January 2013

Who killed the netbook?

Almost exactly 5 years ago on this blog, I asked whether Asus's Eee PC netbook was a Toshiba Libretto for the 2000s. And it turns out that it was for the late 2000s, but not for much longer in the  - 2010s - the Guardian reports that most manufacturers have now stopped making netbooks

I've always liked the netbook format - as long as it's running an operating system that's suitable for the relatively feeble Intel Atom processor inside the hardware. The original Asus Eee ran Linux, mainly because the processor wasn't fast enough to run Microsoft's Vista OS. This led to a period of approximately 3 months where Linux was taking over the bottom end of the PC market and Microsoft was basically shitting bricks that this was the thin end of the wedge. 

But Microsoft are canny buggers and they hit back with that perennial favourite, Windows XP - brought back from the dead specifically for OEM release on netbooks. This led to a decline in Linux netbook sales and also raised the average retail price of the format (because of the need to pay licensing royalties to Microsoft for each copy of Windows sold pre-installed). Neither of these were a killer blow to the format, however. For me, that was Windows 7 "Starter" version, which replaced XP on netbooks  from late 2009 onwards. 

I'm writing this blogpost on a netbook (Toshiba NB500). It's dual-boot, running Linux Mint 11 LXDE and Windows 7. In general I use Linux 95% of the time and Windows 7 maybe 5%. Windows 7 is just a dog running on the Atom processor - it's as simple as that. Something like opening Google Chrome can take 30 seconds in Windows compared with maybe half a second in Linux (that's with a lightweight Linux window manager like LXDE, mind you - I've not tried the netbook with e.g. KDE, nor do I much intend to). 

So I think it was the sheer crapness of Windows 7 running on an Atom that killed the netbook. The tablet revolution of the iPad and Android which started in 2010 has also played a role, but I think it was a dying format even before that. I like Android tablets for web-browsing, but for writing blogposts I always choose the netbook over a tablet because of the real keyboard. (I know you can get a bluetooth keyboard to go with a tablet but I haven't found a keyboard I like yet). 

Weirdly, Microsoft's recent Surface tablet is more like a tablet/netbook cross as it has a keyboard built into the case. But I think that one is DOA... It runs an ARM processor rather than the Atom (which I think everyone has decided was the shittest processor in decades), but because of this it has to run a special version of Windows called "Windows RT" which isn't compatible with all the existing Windows applications. So it's Windows, but it isn't Windows. Now I'm confused about this and I follow computers pretty closely, so what chance have the general public got? 

So, RIP netbooks. But they won't be dead in this house, not for a long time yet. With lightweight versions of Linux still being released and maintained, there's no real reason for me to want to change to anything else. So f*** Microsoft and f*** touchscreens... I'm happy with this computer just the way it is. 


Steve Pugh said...

I think it was the hardware not the OS that's killing netbooks. They're getting squeezed from both sides.

From below, as you say, by tablets and phones for people who just want to browse the web whilst sitting in front of the telly or in a coffee shop.

But also from above by the ultrabooks by people who want a decent portable computer that isn't a pain to lug around.

The netbook was a middle ground that only existed until those two technologies established themselves.

The Windows Surface seems to be aimed at the same middle ground so I agree that it seems doomed to fail. But who knows? At first most people thought that the iPad was a gimmick that wouldn't catch on.

Hal Berstram said...

Steve - I think there's something in that but Ultrabooks are currently a v small proportion of the market (although I imagine they will grow) and also Ultrabooks tend to be on the expensive side whereas netbooks were/are relatively cheap.

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