Netbook mort?

01Jan13

Over the past few days I’ve seen a few articles about netbooks. One was declaring that 2012 was the year the Netbook Died, another saying the netbook isn’t dead — it’s just resting (with perhaps an even more interesting Hacker News comments thread). So what’s really going on?

A couple of years ago I wrote that I wouldn’t buy another netbook.  This is still pretty much true. The netbooks that are available today aren’t really any better than they were a couple of years ago (which is fine given that they were good enough), but their main crime is that they’re also not any cheaper. Stuff is supposed to get better/faster/cheaper (or at least two of those things) over time, but netbooks just haven’t kept up.

The death of my wife’s netbook (which now lives on as a media player) meant that there was space for a new machine in the household. I wanted a netbook successor, an evolved netbook, a netbook++.

The machine that I wanted to buy (but that doesn’t exist)

I was very impressed with my son’s Lenovo X121e. When it arrived it was the fastest machine in the house (by Windows Experience Index), and the subsequent addition of an SSD just made it more awesome. For much the same money (around £350) I’d expect a machine with similar physical dimensions and screen, an Ivy Bridge Core i3 (with HD4000 graphics) and a small (128GB) SSD or a larger capacity hybrid arrangement. Unfortunately such a machine doesn’t exist. The Intel based X131e is only fractionally faster than the older X121e and substantially more expensive.

The action has moved on to bigger screens

When I got the X121e I thought it was a good substitute for a MacBook Air at a much lower cost. Since then Intel’s Ultrabook marketing brand has tried to position small/light/fast machines against the MBA. It seems like netbook++ machines (like the X131e) that aren’t Ultrabooks have been positioned so that they don’t cannibalise the Ultrabook segment (by being too good/cheap). What we get instead is lots of decent spec machines that are just a bit too big. There seems to have been a recent explosion of activity in the 14″+ (mostly 15,6″) form factor with enough CPU (Core i3/i5), enough RAM (4GB) and reasonable graphics (HD4000). Most of these machines don’t come with SSD, but that’s pretty easy and cheap to fix.

So… my first culprit for the netbook not evolving into the machine I want is Intel – trying a little too hard to preserve margins via the Ultrabook branding.

Microsoft’s part

The original netbook (Asus’s Eee 700 Series) cut a lot of corners to hit its price point. Its screen and keyboard were too small, and it had hardly any storage (and had to run Linux as there wasn’t room for Windows). All that quickly changed, and it wasn’t long before netbooks came along with good enough screens, keyboards and storage. In some cases Linux was still an option (and one that would save around £30), but the mass market wanted Windows, and the manufacturers delivered. This gave Microsoft a couple of problems:

  1. Margin compression – MS had to sell Windows much cheaper to get it onto netbooks and still keep the overall price where it needed to be.
  2. The end of the hardware driven upgrade cycle – every version of Windows until 7 had demanded better hardware, but Windows 7 changed that. Vista wouldn’t run on a netbook, and so for a while netbooks provided a channel for XP (whilst more grown up machines would run Vista). But netbooks were perfectly capable of running Windows 7, and arguably the overall user experience was better than with XP.

I ran Windows 7 Ultimate on my own netbook, but nobody was going to spend the same on their OS as they did on the hardware. Enter Windows 7 Starter edition – a crippled version of Windows just for netbooks. The trouble was that it wasn’t just Windows that was crippled, MS would only license it for a crippled hardware spec (e.g. RAM limited to 2GB).

So the second culprit for the netbook not growing up is Microsoft.

What about Windows 8?

I’ve not tried Windows 8 on a netbook, but I think it would run OK if it wasn’t for the resolution requirements that might make 1024×600 screens an issue. Windows 8 would certainly run fine on a netbook++ like the X121e or similar with its 1366×768 screen.

The margin compression issue seems to have dealt with itself – in that margins for Windows have dropped across the board (which is why its finding its way onto those larger £299 machines).

I did briefly try out an Atom based machine with a touch screen[1], which could be viewed as a spiritual successor to the netbook. This class of machine seems to work well with Windows 8 (as Metro really needs touch), but I can’t help feeling that the price isn’t right yet – the premium being demanded for touch is simply too much for the added utility.

The Chromebook

Some argue that the Chromebook is the successor to the netbook, and from a technical point of view there’s a lot in common between my Samsung Series 3 Chromebook and the original Asus Eee:

  • Linux based
  • Small SSD rather than a larger regular hard disk

Of course time has brought a few improvements:

  • Better keyboard
  • Larger screen

And some limitations live on:

  • No Windows apps
  • and an overall limited choice of what can be run

When all’s said and done I’m finding my Chromebook good enough. It’s perfect for blogging, and I spent a day doing stuff with one of my Raspberry Pi’s using the Chromebook alongside for SSH access and reading reference material/guides.

So why would I still want an evolved netbook?

If I could have bought that mythical £350 machine described above (rather than a £229 Chromebook) then it would be so that I could:

  • Run VMs, using VirtualBox or Hyper-V on Windows 8 (netbooks lacked the memory and hardware virtualisation features, like VT-x, needed for this)
  • Run a development environment for embedded device tinkering (netbooks might be fine for productivity workloads, but 2GB RAM is a bit tight for a decent development environment)

I’d have probably have ended up sacrificing a few hours of battery life for that functionality (as well as the extra money) but that would be a fair trade off.

Conclusion

Whilst I wouldn’t have bought another netbook I was ready  and willing to buy what the netbook should have evolved into. Sadly the market isn’t delivering that type of machine at the right price[2], which is why I bought my ARM Chromebook. It looks like Intel and Microsoft’s attempts to steer the market in their direction aren’t being entirely successful – they’ve succeeded in killing the netbook (and stopping the emergence of a successor netbook++ category), but weren’t successful in getting my money.

Notes

[1] These machines don’t seem to have hit the shops yet, and the closest I can find is the Asus S200E Vivobook
[2] There are machines at almost the right price such as the AMD based Lenovo X131e and HP DM1, but the CPU performance on those AMD APUs looked just a bit too poor to tempt me.



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