I recently went on a bit of a rant at Engadget. A rather smart man named Michael Gartenberg, one of the VPs of a company called Interpret, LLC, wrote an article about the definitions and changes the class of small, portable computers most recently called the Netbook has undergone recently.
In short, a Netbook is most often viewed as any computer with a screen-measurement of under 14 inches with a common retail price of under $400. This used to mean computers with very light-weight capabilities typically used by hipsters in coffee shops writing their first novel (or, to be fair, maybe their tenth – it’s hard to kn0w) and business people who needed a small, portable filing cabinet they could write documentation or presentations on during red-eye flights to and from meetings and conferences. This all changed about two years ago when Asus introduced the Eee, one of the first big-recognition Netbooks out there, and every major manufacturer jumped on the wagon.
We’ve now got dozens of models from dozens of makers with hundreds of spec variants – it becomes very hard to tell what the difference between the individual units is, and why we should be craving one over the other. Worse, it’s nearly impossible to tell when we’re going to use these things if we haven’t got an idea already, or whether we can even afford to be carting them around with us everywhere we go. Space is, after all, at a premium whether you’ve got a back pocket or a backpack.
Thus, my comment on Engadget:
It really is about what you’re willing to carry. I used to have a PDA and a cell phone – my PDA played music, my phone had a couple simple games. Then I got a smartphone which didn’t play music and got rid of the PDA because, even with no music player, PDA and Smartphone combo was rediculous. Then I got an iPod. And got rid of the smartphone, because my new iPod Touch had a calendar – smart move, right? Wrong, four months later, I’m carrying a BlackBerry and an iPod Touch.
Who carries a laptop and a netbook? Well, as other posters have said, I admit I have a gaming laptop and a productivity laptop – not a netbook, however, but the point stands. They NEVER leave the house at the same time.
The point is not what we call them, the point is people expect certain experiences out of certain products. I sell electronics – daily, I see people coming in wanting to replace laptops with netbooks as their primary computer, and returning them the next day because netbooks (Or subnotebooks, either one) lack an optical drive and a few other basic inclusions that notebooks carry. With no desktop in the house, the laptop-per-person ratio has risen drastically.
Eventually, netbooks will approach low-end laptops in form and fuction. We may drop the name then. The trick is whether or not the market for “netbooks” will survive the fad phase and make it into the more permanent “utility” phase, as more people come to understand the distinction and difference between all of these manufactured terms we keep hurling their way.
Until then it’s two markets divided by a common terminology.
The massive flood of netbooks into the market, as well as the laptop replacing the desktop in many households, seems like a natural change of pace, if you look at it on the surface. After all, everything gets smaller, so the desktop becomes a laptop, and what the laptop used to do, the netbook now does better, smaller, in more places.
Or so people think! Trust me, if you expect to be using one of these tiny machines for any length of time, I’d suggest at least asking a clerk in some store to let you type on one, nonstop, for five minutes just to see if you can bear it. The keyboards are tiny, the screens are bitsy, and the trackpads they include are very touchy and inaccurate by and large. Sure, it’s cheap, but don’t treat the buying of a netbook like a liesure purchase, even if you’re planning on running nothing but old Windows XP games on the road.
Netbooks are very useful tools. That’s an important word; tool. They’re not really beefy enough to be toys, but thanks to their real keyboards and larger screens, full-blown operating systems and larger amounts of memory (nothing said of internet connectivity) students and office workers have the opportunity to be much more organized, more compact, and more productive on the road, and in the classroom.
Imagine, instead of carrying hundreds of pounds of textbooks, having your entire courseload on PDF file in a thin, snappy little computer? Or, for you corporates out there, when was the last time you realized you had an inspiration for something to improve a PowerPoint from cool to awesome five minutes before the presentation and had no access to a computer?
In this way, Netbooks are incredible. Access to everything you want (assuming you synced it or carry a USB drive) and the programs you need to do stuff with those things! Awesome!
Still, as with everything, dropping four hundred dollars – for some people, that’s a full two-weeks’ pay – on something like this requires a bit more thought than “Ooh, shiny!” and some attention to store return policies. If it doesn’t work for you, you don’t need it. End of story. But there are easier ways to figure that out than taking it home for a month and maybe missing your return date. Who wants an exquisite paperweight?
Hopefully, as the market adjusts itself away from the Shiny New Toy idea behind the Netbook and people start considering with more care their personal need for such a device, the differences between a small laptop and a large netbook will widen, instead of shrinking as they are now. Technology has a habit of making things smaller; this isn’t always a good thing.
UPDATE – July 4th, 2009: Mitch Joel of Twist Image just went on a rant about Netbooks too, and was a bit more concise about why he likes them. Paging Mitch, I agree!