Why Netbooks Aren't There Yet

Screen size, keyboard comfort, and CPU power are common netbook drawbacks, but they're not the real problem — here’s what needs to happen for netbooks to really take off.
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Netbooks have captured the public’s imagination. It’s the kind of machine many have long clamored for: inexpensive, lightweight, and just powerful enough for the basic, day-to-day, Internet-based tasks that consumers and corporate mavens normally tote a regular laptop for.

At the same time, today’s netbooks aren’t perfect. Many suffer cramped keyboards and track pads; neither is fun to use during marathon typing sessions. Some netbooks are more comfortable than others, but nearly all sport keys that are less than full size. There’s also the lack of screen real estate—anyone coming from a 22-inch widescreen LCD will struggle to fit whatever they’re doing on a netbook’s tiny 8.9-inch or 10-inch, limited resolution panel.

Since netbooks are such small, inexpensive devices, they also include CPUs, memory, and (most significantly) hard disks several generations behind the ones in regular notebooks. Intel is combating this to some extent with its new Atom processor, which is designed with netbooks in mind. With solid-state disk prices firmly affixed to the stratosphere, these concerns won’t be allayed any time soon.

But fixing the above issues isn’t really the answer. Instead, they’re part and parcel of what makes a netbook. Increase the screen and keyboard size, and add in a more powerful CPU, and you no longer have a netbook—you have a laptop. And with full-blown, 15.4-inch notebooks starting in the $500 range this holiday season, there’s no need for netbooks to go in that direction.

Even so, the potential is there for netbooks to become mainstream devices. Here’s what really needs to happen:

• The boot sequence needs to disappear. This has long been a dream of notebook vendors, but it’s particularly important here. Today, netbooks take as long or even longer than regular, more powerful notebooks to boot up. Incorporating a real instant-on feature wouldn’t mean a return to the incompatible Newton and Psion days either: a clean install of Linux or Windows XP boots quite quickly without crapware clogging up the proceedings. It can be faster still with solid-state memory (see below).

• Batteries need to last longer. Another holy grail, but one that’s especially relevant to netbooks given their typical use cases: e-mail, a quick Web browsing section, and light document editing. Think about it—if a cell phone can last for days at a time and sport a 500 MHz processor, a netbook should be able to do the same thing with an Atom processor and a much larger battery. Low-power modes, efficient green CPUs, solid-state storage, and LED displays are all means to this end.

• Persistent WWAN connectivity. By definition, netbooks work while connected to the Internet. If you can’t find a hot spot, and you’re not paying for a $60/month cellular broadband card, your netbook becomes… a doorstop. It’s clear we won’t have persistent Wi-Fi even in major cities for some time to come, much less rural areas.

• Touchscreen LCD. I vacillated on including this one in the list. The last thing we need is another screwball mobile OS or failed attempt at a “middle device” that’s difficult to synchronize with real PCs. A touchscreen netbook would still have to be a Windows XP or Linux machine with a QWERTY keyboard through and through. But a touchscreen would make navigation easier; particularly as more folks acquaint themselves with the touch and two-finger-zoom idiom Apple made popular with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

• Lower prices. Finally, netbooks need to stay in the $300 to $350 range. As various UMPCs demonstrated, few consumers would pay $800 or $1100 for a device that’s almost impossible to type on, no matter how powerful it is. It’s much easier to just bring along a regular laptop, even if it weighs more. But now that regular laptops are pushing down against the $500 price barrier, netbooks can’t also cost $500, no matter how svelte they are. It’s true that some buyers are prepared to pay a premium for a lightweight design, as the svelte MacBook Air and slick Toshiba Portégé line illustrates. But the mainstream netbook buyer certainly isn’t.

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Tags: Linux, Windows, iPhone, Intel, netbooks

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