6 reasons Michael Arrington’s critique of netbooks is wrong

TechCrunch netbook rantMichael Arrington, the driving force behind the popular tech blog TechCrunch has a thought provoking article today, entitled “Three Reasons Why Netbooks Just Aren’t Good Enough.” In a nutshell, he says they’re underpowered and that the keyboards and screens are too small.

Fair enough, but you’ll notice he doesn’t say exactly what they’re not good enough for in the title. If you want a computer with a large screen, big keyboard, and powerful processor, then a netbook is absolutely not the right machine for you. But good luck finding a 2.6 pound computer that will let you access the internet, run MS Office or OpenOffice.org and perform other basic tasks for under $400 that meets all of Arrington’s demands.

Arrington also gets at least 6 things wrong about netbooks in his article, which tells me that his ideas aren’t exactly backed up by serious research:

  1. Arrington says a typical netbook has a 7 inch screen. While some netbooks certainly have a 7 inch display, most netbooks released since April have had 8.9 inch or larger screens with 1024 x 600 pixel display resolutions. While April might not seem like a long time ago, let me put it this way. Most netbooks have been released since April.
  2. He claims that a typical netbook has an Intel Celeron, Intel Atom, or VIA Nano CPU, all of which are low power x86 compatible processors, but which are slower than the chips you’ll find in most modern desktop or laptop systems. He’s right about the capabilities of these chips, but I have yet to see a single system that actually uses a VIA Nano processor. I think he meant to say VIA C7-M processor.
  3. Most netbooks run Windows XP or Vista, according to Arrington, with a few running some variant of Linux. I’m aware of only two netbooks that run Windows Vista, the HP 2133 Mini-Note, and the Dell Inspiron Mini 12. I’m still reluctant to call the Mini 12 a netbook, so let’s make that just a single unit. Most netbooks actually run Windows XP or Linux out of the box, with a tiny number running Vista. But since they’re full fledged, if slightly underpowered computers, you can really install just about any OS you like on a netbook, including OS X.
  4. At best, Arrington says netbooks have 1GB of RAM. This is generally true, but it misses the point. First, you won’t really notice much of a performance boost on most netbooks running Windows XP or many Linux distributions if you upgraded to 2GB. But second, almost every netbook on the market has upgradeable RAM. If you’re not happy with the 512MB or 1GB of RAM that comes with your system, just buy some more.
  5. Arrington claims that the 1024 x 600 pixel screen resolution on most netbooks is not good enough for viewing web pages. As an example, he points out that you can only read the first 8 lines of an article on his web site when using a netbook, while you can see the first 22 lines using the iPhone web browser. But you know what? The iPhone doesn’t have a higher resolution display than a netbook, it just has a different web browser. This is a software issue, not a hardware issue. Want to see more text on your screen when using Firefox? Hit F11 or change the font size.
  6. Finally, Arrington complains that he can’t touch type on a screen that’s 80-90% the size of a regular screen. But what’s his solution? A portable device with no keyboard at all. Baby? Have you seen the bathwater?

Look, I understand that netbooks aren’t for everyone. Some people are going to find them too small or too slow to be useable. So no, I don’t think they’re poised to conquer the world and replace traditional notebooks. I suspect that most people who pick up a netbook will use it as a secondary computer, one that’s easier to travel with than their larger laptop. But you know what? It seems to appear that there’s a market for that. And some people will certainly find that it meets all their needs.

  • Nate

    Arrington is simply trying to make a case for a product he's developing, which he conveniently doesn't mention in his article.

    He says that he's used a lot of netbooks, but everything he talks about in this article sounds like his opinions are based on netbooks that were released in '07 and early'08, with a bunch of fluff thrown in that only proves that he has little to no experience with these devices. Based on this article, I'd guess he's used the original Eee Pc, the Cloudbook, and maybe the HP Mini-Note, and hasn't touched a netbook since.

    His opinions are based on first generation devices and his own pet project. I don't put a lot of stock in them.

  • http://www.tabletblog.de/ Silik

    Exactly!!!

  • DG

    The reason he can only read the top 8 lines of his web page is because it fills half the screen with extraneous crap – I count an oversize banner advert, three navigation bars and two excessively large titles.

  • JS

    He's been too close to the Valley for too long. I find folks there have a total lack of understanding of how the real world works. His notion that people want a big slate would certainly prove that.

    In the meantime I'll continue to use my 10″, 2 Gig, fullsize keyboard Wind as my primary machine.

  • Paul Rains

    Given this site's ad dollars depend on netbooks being succesful, I would think there is some hefty bias here. If Intel pulls the plug on netbooks, then this site goes bye-bye.

  • creeemy

    * Wrong about the keyboard
    Ever heard of getting used to a keyboard? The longer you type on a small-keyboard netbook the easier it is. And the newer netbooks have keyboards basically indistinguishable from laptops.

    But oh, “effective typing is impossible.” Netbooks are selling big time and manufacturers are moving in to make products “impossible” to use. Riiight.

    * Wrong about the screen
    I want a small computer and it is by definition going to have a small screen. Too small? Then let's see UI innovation to work with that screen. We are already seeing it with Netbook Remix.

    * Wrong about the trackpad
    Of course you can scroll with the trackpad without looking at it. What a concept.

    * Wrong about the OS
    “Normal computing” with “even the lower end” Linux is a “heavy chore” for netbooks? What distro/netbook combination was he using? Even the oldest netbooks have more power than PCs that have been running Linux happily for years.

    Look, this PR about netbooks being “fine for an hour” and high return rates is intended to steer potential customers towards higher margin laptops and help them forget about netbooks' advantages in size, weight, durable solid-state storage and price.

    Arrington's net tablet should be a welcome item that may displace netbooks as we know them. Someday!

  • Mikez

    My impression –
    a person who, for whatever reason, has not done their basic research.

    In pre-Internet days, stated as:
    “All projects should start with a trip to the library.”

    One of the links to his project is on this site; my own Sub-Title:
    The Wheel, Re-Invented:
    http://www.liliputing.com/2008/08/the-200-techc

    My own first question:
    “Let us see your business plan behind that thing.”

    My comments here are based on the fact that a bit of web browsing will turn
    up manufacturers that will gladly crank those out for under $200 each in
    wholesale quantities – just send them money.
    Probably cheaper if you will “make do” with a “private label” version of an
    existing machine.

  • Charlie

    I think Arrington is spot on. I own two of these pups and I used to use them a lot, but now barely use them. I find myself using the iPod touch to do the light work and then a desktop to do the heavy duty stuff. Netbook is such a tweener I can't even stand it. Now with Intel, Apple, and AMD dissing it, it is a dead duck. Better get yer netbooks soon as they may become collector's items. Not a huge user issue unless you are looking for spare parts a few years down the road, but then again, its a throw away.

  • Mikez

    If you ad-block 17 of his 21 ads – -
    Then 1024×600 lets you view the page down to the first sub-titled section.
    But isn't it easier to change the web-site than build a machine to view it with?

  • http://cdnn.lightshedder.com/ Stephen Ingraham

    Okay so I admit I first read this post on my iPod Touch, but that was only because I could not get to my netbook. Clearly the man does not travel much or far (which seems ridiculous on the face of it) or has unlimited funds (to afford the conventional mini-laptops that cost 5 times what a netbook costs) or gets his laptops free from otherwise disinterested PC makers. Otherwise he would get it. The netbook is the first affordable, portable, powerful enough, alternative for “the rest of us” and 8.9 and 10 in. models are making a lot of road warriors and street pounders very happy. I suspect a lot of us are using our netbooks IN PREFERENCE to our conventional laptops because we simply like the elegance of the idea. It is a machine that fits our self image as connected computers (meaning those who operate the machines, not the machines themselves…must be another word but I can't think of it). Of course they are not as powerful as a conventional laptop, but unless you are editing video, or constructing 3D models, or computing the square root of infinity, they are certainly powerful for most of us. And a 8.9 inch or larger screen, if of high enough quality, is perfectly workable. I edit photos on mine all the time…and find that with Chrome I most web pages display just fine thank you. My laptop only does “business” these days. My life is on my netbook.

  • Rick

    My Asus 1000H works just fine for email and minor web surfing when I am traveling. When it breaks or the battery goes south I'll buy a new one.

    I looked at the new Sony TT and the older TZ and the Lenovo X200/300 series. No way do I need a note-net-book that costs two bills. For the price of one ultra-portable I can buy 4 netbooks.

  • Mikey

    Considering how many of these supposedly useless netbooks have been sold, one can only conclude that Michael whateverhisname is is shilling for someone with a different product.

  • Mikey

    Ditto, ditto, ditto.

  • Charlie

    This a bit unfair IMO. He just has a different opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Who knows there is probably space for all 3 devices…. ReallySmartPhone, Netbook, and thin laptop. Thats a possibility, yes?

  • Charlie

    I won the 1000H too. Pisses me off I cant watch hi-def web video. Stuff like Hulu, web movie trailers, etc. Do I just have a defective unit or cant you do it either?

  • Fabler

    Well, that's what happens most of the time when somebody tries to make his point of view the only one right.

    I hope he's as happy with his big & powerful laptop as I am with my small & underpowered netbook that I'm using INSTEAD for a year now. And I'm not even comparing the prices.

  • MattS

    When your Michael Arrington people have a right to get mad when he writes an article that is untrue. Its not about his opinion because hes such a big name in the industry that people will just take his word and run with it as the absolute truth on the matter.

    So when he says Netbooks are not good for much of anything when in fact they are just as capable as notebooks then it needs to be disputed. To counteract any damage he did to the reputation of netbooks as capable, powerful devices.

  • Nate

    It's completely fair.

    He's biased. He's developing a product to compete directly with netbooks. The failure of netbooks is in his best interest.

  • infomagick

    That is probably one of the reasons I don't read TechCrunch. This article is so far off base for so many reasons besides the ones already pointed out here. At best it is an excellent example of really poor research.

  • BoloMKXXVIII

    Not sure which is the joke, the article or the author.

  • mid

    Does he already know what the third generation Netbooks will offer? And what about the new Nettops and Netbox to come?

  • Paul Rains

    Excuse my ignorance…. he is developing a product? He's only a journalist, yes?

  • Mikez

    Probably the key question, right there.

    I use mine as a “super PDA” away from the house -
    At home, plugged into a huge monitor, as an engineering CAD station.

    A “useless product” my a..

  • Alan

    Alas, netbooks have all the chance of taking off like a lead zeppelin.

  • http://www.electricvagabond.com EV

    Nice analysis Brad – its hard not to get frustrated at the media who don't grasp the importance and appeal of netbooks. Its very easy for someone to come in who thinks they know what they are talking about and take a stab at netbook analysis. And of course if they want some good PR attention they will go against the grain and play down the role of netbooks in the market.

    Then again there are people who never thought cellular phones would ever take off and those who thought that having a Personal Computer in almost every home in America was quite absurd.

    What surprised me recently was Intel's comments which seemed to demean the importance of netbooks. Perhaps they are seeing some cannibalization of their non-Atom chips and so they are forced to change their tune or face financial hardships. I found this quite sad actually especially after Intel looked so good in their approach when compared to AMD for example.

    As you aptly point out in this post the writer doesn't really understand netbooks and obviously they are not right for him (or his stagnant mindset).

    People need to understand that consumers want portability and they don't want 3 computers to do different tasks – a power desktop, a portable laptop or UMPC and a power laptop. Its just like how people don't want a separate GPS, Camera, iPod and Phone – its much more convenient end economical to have a single device that does it all.

    Sure there are some sacrifices to be made when switching to a netbook, but there are workarounds. I ditched my powerful desktop for an Eee PC 701 at the start of this year. It was a huge change but I just loved having everything in a small, quiet package that could be transported in a flash. I love my Wind and a workaround for the sacrifices I made is that I use an external 22″ monitor, speakers, BT keyboard and mouse when at home and just use the stock Wind stuff when on the move. It really is the best of both worlds.

  • Andy Norris

    He's a quasi-journalist who's been covering startups for so long that he thinks covering tech startups is the same as starting a tech business. He had an idea a while back for some kind of low-end tablet thing, and seems to think he can get it to market despite no background in actually developing products.

  • Mikez

    @EV – I have to stick in my 2cents worth here, again – -

    Back in the day – -
    Portable computers where not anything that people today would
    consider a “portable computer” -
    Even so, they had relatively few resources and “docking stations”
    where a common item for when they where used at a desktop.

    There is a chance that these small netbooks will bring back the
    “docking stations” – – I happen to use one myself, with an
    ExpressCard connection to my Mini-Note when home.
    Fully transportable, fully functional, small general purpose computer
    when away from home.

    My opinion of these machines might be a bit extreme -

    I think their introduction will have as much general effect on computer
    usage that the IBM-PC did with its introduction.
    It has hardly been 14 months – too soon for anyone to say, only guess.

  • Andy Norris

    It really doesn't matter what pundits say. Lots of people can trash them, but as long as massive numbers of netbook units keep moving, reality will end up slapping them in the face. My guess is that they will prove to be one of the hottest items this Christmas, because they're both frugal and cute.

    Phones can't run your desktop software, have tiny thumb keyboards (if they have them at all), can't host USB devices and such, and have far tinier screens. 13-15″ conventional notebooks are considerably heavier and bulkier, and the inexpensive ones are lucky to get 2 hours of battery life. Ultralight notebooks are small, lightweight, and powerful, and many models get good battery life, but there's hardly anything available for under $1500, and some models run north of $2500. Compared with all of thes, netbooks can provide a great balance between power and portability (depending on what your needs are), and are inexpensive enough to use as an adjunct to a primary desktop or desktop-replacement system.

    Given that netbooks meet a real need and that people seem to love them, I can't see where what Arrington thinks has any relevance whatsoever.

  • aehouseman

    Well, that is his opinion, and some guys like to wear dresses.

    Let them go in the corner and talk to each other. I am not really interested in either.

  • Tiggertrouble

    Agreed. What a f**kwit. No idea about what's really going on. Complains about the specs on netbooks, then proposes a device with lower specs and more limited functionality.
    Says he wants to see features that are already available in the EEE PC. Except for (muti)touchscreen which should be coming in early 2009, and tablet form. But with a tablet you can't throw it in and out of a backpack, you'd need a cover, possibly flip top since you've got a cover why not put a keyboard on it, then you'd have greater functionality and you'd be able to type while viewing a full webpage.
    Or even better make the 2nd section another multi touch touchscreen, so it could be a keyboard to type on or it could be another monitor screen doubling the display.

  • JoeThe

    I just added TC to my list of banned sites….:)

  • Chris

    Bottom line: If 90%+ of your computer's usage is running only Firefox (or another web browser), then a Netbook would greatly benefit you. You do not need a dual-core processor, 3 GB+ of RAM, DVD drive, etc.

    The problem with comparing netbooks with the iPhone/iPod Touch is that they lack keyboards and the screens are so small on the latter. After many hours of using them, they become annoying to use, especially having to zoom in on websites all the time since their screens are so small.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but notebooks and netbooks are apples and oranges, two different markets altogether. There will always be a need for portable LARGER devices which can run Photoshop and video editing software in which the user won't care about the larger size (or may have no choice since they need the extra processing power of the larger laptop). And then there are now people who don't care about all the extra bulk of a laptop and features they'll never use (DVD drive) if 90%+ of their computer usage is merely surfing the web.

  • http://www.zatznotfunny.com Mari

    Brad- Brilliant. Thanks for posting a response to TC. You are clearly the expert here.

  • Anonymous Coward

    The Atom chip is more than powerful enough to watch 720p video. I watch 720p x264 videos all the time.

    You probably need to download the stand alone versions of those videos and not try to use Flash or Silverlight to watch them in-browser. Both Flash and Silverlight are crap video players and slower than molasses.

    Adobe, and Microsoft cannot write software to save their lives. Instead, they keep Intel busy making faster processors to run their shit software.

    Google “CCCP” and “CoreAVC” to be able to play high def videos on your Atom.

  • NeoteriX

    Why is it that most will not notice or benefit from 2GB in an XP netbook?

    I just installed 2GB in my NC10 and was curious to hear why.

  • roeroica

    Yeah, the keyboard takes just about a day or so to get used to. He probably used it for a few hours and dismissed it.

  • http://www.eeepcnews.de Sascha

    Who is Michael Arrington?
    Maybe i am missing something out but i never ever heard from this guy with anything related to small form factors and mobile computing.
    After reading his article, i know why. I love the VIA Nano cpu part… and the fact that he is claiming to have a Nano Netbook… What an empty suit!

    Wanna burn some VC money? We should convince Michael to establish a startup together with Pat Moorhead from AMD.

    I would call the company Lidali!

    Living
    In
    Denial
    And
    Loving
    It

    Just another PR and bullshitting article.. very weird

  • http://www.electricvagabond.com EV

    Sascha: Yes Pat Moorhead is probably the most overpaid person in Tech – he is actually costing AMD so much money with his idiotic opinions and out-of-touch attitude towards netbooks.

  • Marco

    True as that may be, I personally think this possible bias offsets Arrington's bias, such that both posts balance out and bias doesn't matter too much.

    I'm thinking of getting a nettop, so I bookmarked both for my reference :)

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  • Kai

    You're right and this guy, besides not doing his research, doesn't know what he's talking about. MOst people want a Ferrari and all they're doing is going to work and back home and occasional trip to the store. An economy class car will suit their needs just fine. Same with computers, we all want a 200 core cpu, but mostly we're surfing the net and word processing.

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  • Oliver

    I am bit disappointed by that biased techcrunch article as few things are crap when comparing the use of a BB or iPhone with a netbook.

    When surfing the net or checking your mail or viewing video or listening to music on an iPhone, what do you do if someone calls and your battery is suddenly empty ?

    Why would I even want to listen to video's or MP3 sucking lot of juice from the battery on a device I need to be accessible on for incoming calls ?

    With a six cell battery I can work 6hours+ on my AA0 110L with SSD and SDHC card having WLAN on and Opera in full screen mode with Fit to window option and at least 6 tabs open incl thunderbird email client accessing 3 IMAP and 2 POP3 inboxes. Try that with and iPhone or BB Storm.

    As a long time Psion user I waited nearly a decade for a device that had a similar form factor with a good usable keyboard. Maybe I am old fashioned but why would I want to use mouse gestures or two finger pad operations on a touchscreen when I can do it with TAB and ALT <keystroke> in half the time without moving my fingers from the keyboard ? On a laptop with a keyboard that is used for typing you assume people to use the Page down only…why ? I personally rarely use the touchpad.

  • todd

    >Arrington is simply trying to make a case for a product he's developing, which he >conveniently doesn't mention in his article.

    2 posts in july and one post on Aug.31st and they havent mentioned the 200$ TechCrunch tablet.
    I'm not going to call it vaporware but its right there…

    Dont get me wrong. I hope he gets it out and its 200$, it will be perfect for bed and the john.

    But you are right, he makes no mention of the tablet which would be a direct competitor to netbooks and many of his observations dont match with what I have seen or tried. (we have an Acer and a Dell mini and played with 7-8 other models so far)

    I love the 9 inch model and the 10 is the perfect maximum size for me but when I first tried the cramped 7inch EEE, I didnt like it. Felt too plasticky.

    A lot of his reasons sound like generic BS we've heard before. With 1GB ram, I havent had problems using Audacity to edit our podcasts nor using Gimp to finetune a few pictures. At the same time that I have text in Open Office open… how much more do I want to do on a netbook? Is it as zippy as my desktop with 4GB ram and dual core? No but I dont expect it to be.

    As for the typing part, I have large meaty fingers but long enough taht I can palm a basketball and while I prefer my brothers 10 inche netbook, I got used to my Dell quickly just like I got used to that curved Microsoft keyboad my wife bought a few years ago. I still hit e3 instead of 3 when I type on it but everything else I got used to pretty quickly. Do I type 50wpd on the netbook? No but I would say Im about 80-90% speed on it which is acceptable.

    Anyways, Arrington's piece seems to be sorely lacking any kind of research on what it out there at the present.

  • ceslami

    There are also many inherent upsides to buying a netbook versus a normal sized laptop. Portability being the main positive, but also that the gap in performance is shrinking every day, as manufacturers cater towards the smaller netbooks. Read more about the upsides of buying a netbook here.

  • http://tonyscott.org.uk/ Tony Scott

    I agree 100% with your post – currently typing this on an Acer Aspire One in a Wetherspoons in Manchester running on Linux (my netbook – not me!)

  • http://tonyscott.org.uk/ Tony Scott

    I agree 100% with your post – currently typing this on an Acer Aspire One in a Wetherspoons in Manchester running on Linux (my netbook – not me!)