Netbooks or Notebooks? It’s Not Only About Size.

Hardly a day goes by without another new Netbook announcement, at lower and lower prices.  The first baby eee PC by ASUS was toy-like ( I returned it after a day), but the current crop are quite usable mobile computing devices. 

These new Netbooks are flying off the shelf, so much so that sometimes you wonder if manufacturers rush to re-label their notebooks to netbooks, just to ride the wave.  Whereas the first model had a puny 7” screen, the current standard is a minimum of 8.9, but 10” is becoming widely available, and when Dell recently announced their Inspiron Mini 12, ZDNet’s Larry Dignan rightfully noted that the netbook-notebook-laptop lines have just become blurry.

Dell’s divider line may very well be at the 12” screen size, considering anything beyond that a notebook.  ASUS CEO Jerry Shen clearly draws the line at 10” – a definition that fits his own eee PC line.  I think all these size-based definitions are meaningless. Size truly matters, but for another reason: when you pick a travel n*tbook,  you clearly need something small and lightweight, yet with a decent keyboard and screen.  But that’s not what differentiates Netbooks from any other computer.

The real divider is how you use it.  A Netbook is a light mobile computing device that allows you to process information, access the Internet, and that does not store a bundle of bloated programs or data

When computers first became personal, most of us only got one at the workplace, then years later the family PC appeared– one expensive computer shared by the entire family.  Now we often have individual PC’s for just about anyone at home, including the kids, and are moving to a new pattern, where individuals will have a number of purpose-oriented computing devices, be it a desktop, workhorse laptop, netbook or smartphone.  The fundamental change is that we’re not really working on the computer itself, but on the Net: the computer (keyboard, screen) is just our way to access the net. As Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood says in The Web Browser is the New Laptop :

After spending some time with a netbook, I realized that calling them "small laptops" is a mistake. Netbooks are an entirely different breed of animal. They are cheap, portable web browsers.

We’re getting to the point where for most productivity task the computer’s performance or even the operating system won’t matter anymore: all we need is a decent screen and keyboard to get online. 

But computer manufacturers while jumping on this hot new trend, seem to be confused.  Minor flavors aside they typically offer two major configurations:

  • The uber-geek netbook:
    • Linux
    • Solid-state drive (SSD)
  • For the rest of the world:
    • Windows XP
    • Traditional hard drive

That’s not a very smart combination, if you ask me.  Statistics show the return rate of Linux vs. Windows based netbooks is 4 to 1. Buyers of the cute little netbooks are happy first, then they become frustrated that they can’t instantly do things they are used to – and a learning curve with a $400  $200 device is unacceptable.  Let’s face it, Linux is not friendly enough for most non-geeks – including yours truly.  But why can I not have a netbook with XP and SSD?

Typical netbook SSD’s are still in the 8-16GB range, while harddisks are up to 160GB.  That’s a trap that vendor themselves fall into: my sexy little netbook (an Acer Aspire One) came loaded with crapware, including trial versions of MS Office, MS Works, Intervideo WinDVD (on a DVD-less computer!) and who knows what else.  Once the pattern is established, and you have large storage, you will start installing your own programs and data, too, the temptation is just too hard to resist.  You no longer have a netbook, it just became a noteboook.

The New York Times ran an article this week: In Age of Impatience, Cutting Computer Start Time, discussing the problem of slow boot times.  Anyone who ever had a Windows computer knows this tends to get worse over time.  My own Vista desktop had a sub-minute startup time a year ago when new, not it takes 3-4 minute to boot it.  The two older XP-based laptops take 6-7 minutes to reboot.  This well-known Windows disease can only be cured by refreshing your system from time to time. It’s an ugly process, requires wiping out your harddisk’s content, re-installing Windows, then your programs and data.  PC manufacturers don’t exactly help by providing “restore disks” instead of proper OS CD’s: why would you start with a pre- SP1 copy of WinXP and reinstall a bunch of years-old obsolete crapware   when the objective was to cleanup your system in the first place?

If you want to avoid the pain, keep your netbook free of applications and data: use it as a NETbook, and it will stay nimble and fast (sort of).

Talk about fast, there’s a neat solution to reduce boot-up time: Splashtop, a quick-load platform by startup company DeviceVM can put you online within seconds, without loading the main operating system. Chances are you’d be using it 80% of the time, relegating full Windows to an as-needed basis.  DeviceVM charges manufacturers about $1 per system, so why is it that it’s often found in high-end notebooks, but not in the netbooks by the same manufacturer?   Splashtop should be a must on any netbook.

 Finally, a word on connectivity and prices:  Wifi gets you online almost, but not all the time, so obviously a 3G connection is a useful addition to your netbook.  But you will pay for 3G data usage, so why don’t carriers subsidize your netbook purchase, like they do with cell phones?   The day will come, as the WSJ reports, HP may be one of the first to introduce such a model:  H-P Mulls Service Bundles for Netbooks. When that happens, your notebook will not be too different from a smartphone, just with a larger keyboard and display.


(Cross-posted from CloudAve.)


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  1. Zoli- couple of things. In Europe carriers ARE subsidizing netbooks and 3G – in fact you can get a lightweight acer aspire for just about free in Germany with a 2 year 3G plan. (I think it is Orange doing that)

    Also – despite your argument I use my acer aspire XP/160G hd, etc pretty much as a notebook. At home I plug it into an external LCD, keyboard. mouse etc. But since most of my computer use is relatively lightweight (lots of writing and editing – lots of web research) I don’t need more.

    Finally, hoow do you like your acer?

  2. Thanks Zoli for this insightful post. I completely agree about keeping netbooks free of applications and data. It defeats the purpose of cloud computing otherwise.

    I’m just wondering how much of an impact Netbooks will have on operating systems? Are we looking at a future without one, where everything will eventually be done in the clouds?

    In my fantasy world, I would prefer that all mobile computing be done on just one device – the phone. Small screens wouldn’t be an issue because it’ll all be done via holographic screens. Because seriously, the phone can do everything that a netbook can with the added bonus of making calls of course.

  3. Netbook, Notebook, Laptop, Portable, Transportable, Desktop etc.. These are all labels that poorly describe universal computing access requirements that we have. We need an access/computing device that allows access to the information we need, when we need it and with sufficient capabilities to allow us to process information into the form we need it to be in. This includes information flow – communication be it text, audio or visual.

    The ‘Netbooks’ that are now becoming available have taken the most important step – we have processor enough, the features that are most important now are connectivity, portability and battery life. They are a first step, but that step is not towards the iPhone style device – as the Netbooks have proven that they also have to be BIG enough to use.

    I also believe the Cloud is something that is important but not as the sole storage/processing mechanism for the user. The ‘Netbook’ does need applications and storage, it is just that it also needs a multi-party, automatic and reliable synchronisation mechanism that ensures that information is securely and intelligently at the closest point to the consumer, on the device, whichever device the user wishes to use right there.

  4. @Kevin, agree, in fact wrote about it here.  But that’s a future vision, here we’re discussing what’s available today.

    Ian, I have 3 computers with Live Mesh and Syncplicity installed, they are slowing them all down and none work perfectly. Then there’s Mozy, Antivirus and a bunch more… I don’t need all that crap on the Netbook.

    Also, since the Netbook is my travel computer, I’d rather not have data on it for security reasons.

  5. A netbook is not a stand alone comp. I use a mac at work and i carry a netbook whenever i travel on a one day trip. Its more comfortable and handy and is only an ADDITIONAL system.

  6. @Owen,

    I enjoyed the weight and size of the Acer for my last conference trip, but I am discovering the screen is a bit too small. It’s not so much size, i.e. 8.9″ or 10″, but the vertical resolution: all netbooks stop at 600, which is not that bad just for browsing, but when you don’t find the action buttons on input forms, that’s a pain.

    What really bothers me is the wi-fi performance: drops the connection a lot, and even when it’s working, way slower than other, older systems side by side. I’m not seeing complains about it, so perhaps I have a defective unit.

  7. Facts straight. Only one vendor says their Linux netbooks are coming back at a greater rate than their windows models. The other (and bigger I might add) vendors say the return rates are about even. These Linux netbooks are designed to be super simple for even the most inexperienced users to be able to use – they are not just for ubergeeks at all. And there are a lot of advantages to having a solid state drive when you are traveling and chucking around your laptop.

  8. hi Zoli. I agree with you about keeping the notebook (or netbook) free of applications and data. I have a PC and a notebook at home. Most of the data and files are in my PC. I only use the “netbook” for simply browsing the net or to email my sisters.

  9. I saw a netbook that was loaded with Vista. after entering the username and password at startup, it took 10 seconds for it to load. and 30 seconds more before it can open up Windows Explorer.

    I’d rather have linux in it than any Windows Os. Why would i pay $100 more for a-soon-to-be-phased-out windows XP?

    I’m not a Microsoft hater, i have a laptop with Vista on it. Performance wise, it’s almost the same with XP. I ran Winrar benchmark. They both scored roughly the same. about +-20 difference.


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