Is 2012 the end of the road for netbooks as we know them?

The first netbook hit the streets almost 5 years ago. When the Asus Eee PC 701 launched, it was the only notebook available fore $400 or less with a 7 inch display and an x86 processor. Over the next two or three years, the screens got larger, battery life got better, and prices got lower.

You can now pick up a decent netbook with a dual core Atom processor and a 10 inch screen for between $200 and $300.

But netbooks as we know them may not be long for this world.

Netbooks

Lenovo, Dell, and Toshiba have all stopped releasing netbooks in the US. Now industry gossip rag Digitimes reports that two of the biggest players in the netbook space, Acer and Asus, may be following suit.

Update: Acer’s CEO says the company isn’t done with netbooks yet

Normally I don’t place much stock in rumors from Digitimes. The Taiwanese publication gets its information from upstream component suppliers. Those company’s often don’t actually know much about the plans of the big-name PC makers that hire them to do work.

But in this case, it wouldn’t be surprising to see netbooks as we know them slowly phased out.

While you can still find some older netbook models in the US, Acer, Asus and HP were the only major companies to launch new models this year — and we haven’t seen anything new from any of those companies since CES in January.

Meanwhile, Windows 8 is set to launch on October 26th, 2012. At that point, most laptops and other computers sold in stores will likely come with Microsoft’s next-generation operating system installed. And it doesn’t play all that well with existing netbook designs.

Most netbooks feature 10 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel displays, but Windows 8 requires a 1024 x 768 pixel or higher resolution screen to display Metro style apps. You’ll need an even higher resolution, 1366 x 768 pixel screen to take advantage of some Windows 8 features.

While there are some hacks that may let you run Windows 8 on a netbook with a low resolution screen, I doubt computer makers will really want to push that solution.

So with PC makers dropping netbooks from their inventory and Microsoft pushing an operating system that doesn’t support current hardware, 2012 really could be the end of the line for the netbook… sort of.

It all really depends on what you define as a netbook. For the past few years, a netbook has generally been defined as a 10 inch Windows laptop with an Atom processor and a reasonably low price tag.

But the first netbooks didn’t even have Atom chips. Remember the Eee PC 701? That had an Intel Celeron processor. And it didn’t run Windows either. It shipped with Xandros Linux.

Really, I like to think of netbooks as affordable ultraportable computers. Up until 2007, if you wanted a 10 inch or smaller PC, you had to pay $1500 or more for it. The Eee PC changed all of that.

While Atom-powered Windows notebooks might be on the way out (at least in developed nations… Intel and other companies seem to think they still have a future as low cost PCs in developing nations), affordable ultraportables are still around.

I’m not going to claim that the iPad or most Android tablets are netbooks. But we’ve seen a number of models with optional keyboards that sort of turn the tablets into portable notebooks running Android… or even Ubuntu or other Linux distributions.

We’ve also seen a number of new devices designed to run Windows 8 which look an awful lot like a cross between a netbook and a tablet. For instance, the HP Envy x2 and Samsung Series 5 Hybrid look a lot like Windows 8-style netbooks, with touchscreen tablet components to take advantage of Microsoft’s new touch-friendly Windows 8 user interface.

Samsung Series 5 Hybrid

Yes, the $649 price tag for the Samsung hybrid looks a little pricey compared with most netbooks on the market today. But in 2008 I paid $550 for an Asus Eee PC 1000H with a 10 inch screen, 80GB hard drive, and Atom N270 processor — because that’s what early adopters do. They pay the price to get a device that’ll probably be a lot cheaper in a year or two.

So don’t be surprised if the traditional netbook disappears from the market over the next year or two. But netbooks opened the door for a wide range of affordable ultraportable computers, and I think we’ll continue to see those for years to come.

We’ll also see somewhat less affordable ultraportables like ultrabooks and higher-priced convertible tablets, because some people are going to be willing to pay more for extra power — and because PC makers really want you to buy devices with higher profit margins.

But some companies are taking a different approach altogether. GoNote and Rikomagic, for instance, are taking tablet components including ARM processor and Linux and Android operating systems, and throwing them into cheap netbook-like shells.

  • Anon

    So, just run Lubuntu… AND to turn a 1024×600 screen into a 1280×768 screen – you just need to run this:
    xrandr –output LVDS1 –mode 1024×600 –scale 1.25×1.25
    however, due to the video coders for Linux leaving a bug in latest, where the mouse is constrained to a smaller space than the screen you now have, then you also need to patch and do this:
    https://bbs.archlinux.org/viewtopic.php?id=118999
    (Really, the Linux folks should fix this as could have cheaper screens on devices without any loss of graphics – as everyone I ask to see if they can detect a loss of graphics on a scaled screen, can’t tell the difference between a 1280×768 hardware screen, and one made with the software trick.

    AND then, if you have that Pixel Qi direct sunlight screen (1024×600), with maybe a touch screen added too… you can really have FUN with your netbook. Oh – don’t forget to add a very fast SSD to it, and it will be almost instant on, direct sunlight usable, touch screen, and 1280×768 resolution.

    MAYBE, Brad will do a video to show us how it’s done?

  • http://twitter.com/EricSeale Eric in Milpitas

    I’d love to see Atom fail.
    ;-)

  • California Bob

    Best Buy was selling the Acer 11.6″ with Celeron 877 (Sandy Bridge) and Win7 Home Premium a few weeks back for $250. Why buy a netbook? If you can’t afford that, you can pick a $75 dongle PC and connect it to your HDTV, or pay $100 and get an Allwinner tablet.

    • gman

      Sorry, not trying to insult here but think about this. That POS will give you what, one or two hours battery life? Netbooks are about long lasting batteries and being light/portable. You think that $250 don’t weight double to triple a netbook? It’s $250 for a reason. It will have to sit on a reinforced desk and be plugged in 24/7. Aside from that, you make a great point! ;-)

      • http://www.liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

        Eh, battery life has never really been part of the equation. The Eee PC 701 got 3.5 hours of battery life, tops.

        Because netbooks tend to have low power processors, it turns out that if you put a good 6 cell battery in most netbooks, you can get decent battery life of 5-10 hours, depending on the model. But plenty of companies still sell models with 3 cell batteries which run for maybe 3-4 hours.

        Meanwhile, Celeron, Pentium, and even Core i-series chips have been getting lower TDPs so that they offer significantly better performance than Atom processors (and earlier netbook chips) but don’t drain the battery much more quickly.

        I’ve been trying to get Acer to send me that particular model for a while for review purposes, but over the past few years I’ve generally been pleasantly surprised to see battery life on non-netbooks getting better and better, even on relatively inexpensive notebook models.

        Right now if you want a Windows/Linux computer that gets 6+ hours of run time and costs less than $350, you’re right, a traditional netbook is the way to go. But that might not be the case much longer.

      • gman

        When you’re talking half the battery life that’s significant. You haven’t mentioned the weight differences either. Who is buying a netbook with a 3 cell battery? Ignorant consumers I would suggest. If you think you need a 3 cell battery and that suits your needs then yes, you’re shopping for the wrong product. Last time I checked, netbooks were about portability and not requiring a power source every 3 hours was part of the “selling point”.

      • California Bob

        I hope Acer ends up sending you a unit to review. Regarding the battery runtime, there is also the option of carrying an external battery in your laptop case. I saw one that charges USB 5v, Auto 12v, and laptop voltages (using plug adapters) at http://www.amazon.com/Energizer-XP18000-Universal-External-Netbooks/dp/B002K8M9HC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346887972&sr=8-1&keywords=universal+laptop+battery if you don’t mind spending $140 ;-) This may a better way to go than buying the specific replacement battery that can only be used with a particular laptop.

      • California Bob

        You’re right about Acer scrimping on the battery. I don’t know if they did that to save weight or avoid cannabilizing ultrabook sales or whatever, but 8 hours would be better than the 4 hours claimed. A reviewer on Amazon says the weight is 2.15 lbs with battery but without charger; 3.05 lbs with charger. I think you may be missing the overall point. Check out the reviews at Best Buy for the AO756-2623 (they’re asking $279.99 for it now) or at Amazon for the equivalent model AO756-2808 if you want to see more details and benchmark results. Remember, you’re getting a 1366 by 768 screen, a real copy of Windows 7, 2GB of DDR3 upgradeable to 8GB, and HDMI ports so you can dock it to your HDTV for 1080p. I hope they come out with a model sporting an 8 hour battery, but I test drove one of these at Best Buy and it was fast, light, and quiet. I was actually surprised that all aspects of the thing pretty nice, considering it was made by Acer. I guess Acer, ASUS, etc. have to offer these to compete against tablets.

    • CyberGusa

      A Allwinner tablet is less powerful than even a single core ATOM. So there are still compromises involved with going lower.

      While the new, updated to Sandy Bridge, Pentium and Celeron offerings are in-between offerings from Intel to provide something between a ATOM and a Core i-Series system.

      Now, while that may seem like a clear step up, they are still going to charge you more for the same thing you could get with a netbook, which is why they give smaller batteries to help compensate and get the price lower but that imposes a bigger change in run time.

      So it’s still a trade off…

      It’s just that as far as netbooks are concerned that innovation and advancement is still stagnant, but that’s slowly going to be changing over the next year.

      Intel finally got serious on entering the mobile market last year but things don’t change overnight. Even the upcoming Clover Trail is still a product they had planned before they got serious about entering the mobile market.

      We won’t see the real next gen products until the second half of next year when they introduce the 22nm Silvermont.

      Only then will the limits imposed on previous releases be thrown out.

      In Order Processing will be finally replaced with Out Of Order Processing, RAM limit will increase to 8GB Max, up to quad cores, system design will all switch to SoC’s just like ARM, the GMA will be a scaled down version of the HD 4000, and good deal of other changes.

      While Intel also plans to advance the ATOM at faster than Moore’s Law from that point on. So we’ll be seeing a noticeable update for the ATOM every single year.

      So 2013 will be the advent of this change with the 22nm Silvermont. Then 2014 will bring out the 14nm Airmont, then they’ll go 10 > 7 > and eventually 5nm before the end of the decade.

      Whether what we call netbooks will still be what we consider them now remains to be seen but regardless we’ll continue to see products that fit their usage continue to come out and improve over the years.

    • steve

      i have said notebook and i am blown away by it’s size/performance/cost ratio. it runs some newer-ish games reasonably well (l4d2 on lowest settings, portal2, etc). As I’m not a hardcore gamer, it would be very, very hard to justify spending 2-3 times as much on an ultrabook. battery life does suck, but its a reasonable trade for the performance difference. and even though it’s 1.6 inches bigger than a netbook, it still fits in the sleeve that came with my asus 1000h netbook so the footprint isn’t all that much different.

      • California Bob

        Steve, have you used the HDMI port to view 1080p on an HDTV? I’m curious how well the Acer does at playing high def video.

      • steve

        yep. i used a 1080p mkv with a file size of about 11 gigs streaming over wireless and worked fine. this little thing is a beast for money.

      • steve

        another thing i can say about this laptop is that a couple weeks prior to getting this one, i got the dual core amd 1.0 ghz version with radeon graphics. they don’t compare. i paid 10 bucks more for the celeron and its about 3 times as fast. needless to say, i returned the AMD.

        also, if you do end up getting it, i’d also factor in the cost of bumping up the ram to 8gb. it made mine very snappy.

        my biggest complaint with it is that the ram dedicated to video (128mb) is not adjustable. I think it would perform even better for gaming if it was possible to dedicate more ram to the video processor.

        a lesser complaint is that it the lid will not fit back on properly if you swap the hard drive (i threw in a 500gb 7200rpm drive). by not fit back on, i mean the clips will break if you try to force it. basically, if you can deal with the 5400rpm drive and jack up the ram, it’s totally worth it.

  • gman

    If at the end of the day I can’t buy a 10 or 11 inch netbook and MUST buy an Ultrabook or transformer style tablet/dock then it’s called collusion. Intel did their part already by making Atom updates the most pathetic possible.

    • CyberGusa

      True, but that’ll be changing before the end of next year. So we’ll see how that turns out… A lot can change in a year.

    • Jonathan Cordova

      Uh, I doubt it’s illegal if a group of products get discontinued after selling poorly. You can read nefarious intent into Intel’s crippling of the Atom, but I never went that far. All that matters is that the Intel Atom has always been a disaster, and in order to get even a functional YouTube experience on an 11-inch laptop, we’ve had to spend $600+ for something with an AMD chip or an Intel ULV.

      It’s also worth clarifying exactly what kind of product we’re talking about. If by Netbook you mean 10-inch, Windows 32bit or 64bit, no touch screen, and $299, then maybe those will go away….but isn’t the Asus TF300 an Android Netbook? It’s $399 now. What if it goes on sale for $299?

  • Bruce_Mc

    I’d say that Microsoft and Intel are no longer afraid of OLPC. I don’t think Google will support cheap ARM/Android netbooks, because Google is more interested in ChromeOS on laptops. Still, it’s possible that Android netbooks could succeed because of low price, decent ecosystem, and the many people who have Android phones who are familiar with the OS. Pandawill has one Android netbook for $150 that looks interesting.

    • CyberGusa

      I wouldn’t say MS and Intel were ever afraid of OLPC, but rather interested in opening new markets as the main point of OLPC was to get computers into regions that could not otherwise support and/or afford them otherwise.

      While the issue for Android remains that it’s not a desktop OS and doesn’t work well in that usage.

      The attempts at Android Laptops have up to now all failed. So just being affordable is not enough.

      The advent of Windows on ARM though may turn that around, provided it succeeds of course.

      While the changing markets has finally gotten Intel to get serious on the mobile front and while it was late and slow entry, they’re starting to accelerate and we’ll see how that goes over the next few years.

      If ARM wants to continue to push into the PC market it won’t be without a fight from Intel and even AMD, who are also working on better low end offerings that they’ll be rolling out over the next few years as well.

  • Caterpillar

    Semantics. Call them netbooks, ultras, whatever. What is definite is there will be a place for 10″ or 11″+ screen notebooks weighing less. Mostly these terms are copyrighted words like Ultras or whatever, and/or strictly defined specs by Intel or MS.

    At first, size and weight mattered. But later, more cpu power was required from netbooks. If we really look at it, it was crazy back then, especially before netbooks, when a 12″ screen notebook would cost almost 2x or more than a 14″ notebook. Netbooks changed that. But of course the trade off in cpu power was dramatic. But it drove home the point that there was a need for a small screen notebook, and as long as basic stuff can be done (surfing, WP, spreadsheets, pwrpoint), the lack of traditional cpu power can be forgiven. At least in the first 2 years of netbooks.

    What will happen is that tablets or phablets of the 5″ to 7″ variety will supplant the smaller screen netbooks, while a notebook of 11-12″ will take it’s place. But as I said, it does not matter what it’s called. What is important is that these computers will be in the 3lb range, 11-12″ in screen size, 2x faster than an Atom processor or as close to a 2nd gen i3 will go, but have a battery life of 4.5-6 hours typical. What they will name this device is up to whoever wants to name them. Though the new twist could be that tablet inspired design can come into the picture and where a keyboard can be attached what with windows-8 providing that missing link.

    • wsabillon

      I agree, but I think you’re also missing one of the most important features of a netbook: low price

      • Jonathan Cordova

        I used to believe that, but my experience with my netbook has been so frustrating that it’s just not worth it. There have always been $499 and even $399 15-inch laptops, usually with decent processors. For almost as much money, my cramped, 10-inch single-core Atom netbook has just never earned its stripes.

      • CyberGusa

        Well, netbooks aren’t for everyone. It depends on what you actually need to use it for and whether you can get the most out of it or not.

        For some a netbook will always offer them more than the presently available ARM devices. They can run any OS they want, the run MS Office or Open Office or pretty much anything that doesn’t require a higher end system to run. Some can even game a little with old classics or other easy to run games.

        There are also people who get creative, use their netbooks for DJ work, or experiments, controlling robots, testing out networks, and other things.

        A little upgrading can help too, but that’s not for everyone either.

        However, you should start seeing a whole lot of new options starting near the end of this year and on towards the middle of next year is when.

        The only thing is there’s going to be a range of devices coming out. So it may be a little more confusing making sure you get the one that will actually fulfill your needs but it’s better to have choices and that’s what we’ll have by this time next year.

  • floriano

    mmmm the true problem is there is little money margin for the producer…

    • gman

      That’s why I use the term “collusion”.

  • Jonathan Cordova

    Netbooks aren’t getting phased out; they’re getting grown up!

    Netbooks never accomplished their mission. What was the promise of a netbook? A cute baby laptop to bring everywhere and watch YouTube on. What did we get? A cute brick that chokes trying to play YouTube. Try to load up a video while using Excel and the laptop locks up for three minutes.

    We can blame Intel for crippling the Atom, but AMD’s alternatives are almost as bad.

    In order to get that true mobile laptop experience, we’ve always had to pay $600 or $900 for an Intel ULV ultraportable or a full-powered 13-incher. They were the Ultrabooks before Ultrabooks, and they’re still around, like the Thinkpad X230.

    So if netbooks go away, it’s just because manufacturers are realizing that Netbooks were never good enough, and that in order to get the product we thought we were buying, we had to buy an expensive computer.

    • Anon

      I see you never upgraded your netbook with a Sandisk SSD, where any video slowness, just went away… quick as a bunny (try it and see).

      • Jonathan Cordova

        Thanks! Will try.

  • http://www.fanlesstech.com/ FanlessTech

    The key is “as we know them”.

    10″ ARM-based notebooks are probably next.

  • Jean Bond

    the Mayans were right, 2012 will be the end!

  • Tech support ticket 0509QOS06

    I’ve bought, recommended and supported Atom-based netbooks and low-end Intel Core laptops for my associates in South-East Asia; only gear that is supported by open-source drivers (read: Linux).

    That gear will be functional and secure for its working lifetime, thanks to open-source, but it appears we’re again coming to a crossroads.

    Looking a year or two ahead, we’re not interested in premium tablets but the same practical netbook format with 10-12 inch screens with slightly increased resolutions, reasonable battery life (replaceable batteries) and, here’s the rub, minimum Atom-level performance with ARM architecture but with open drivers (good 2D acceleration).

    Cortex-A9 or perhaps A15 would do the job, but the question is will any of the bigger ARM fish be able and willing to open their “graphics sauce”? There may be a nasty patent jungle to navigate, but the manufacturer who gets there first will find a willing audience indeed.

    Then again, in two years Intel should have released their integrated Core/(open) HD graphics-based low-end Atom updates and at a little higher price (guessing $350 upwards) they will have quite competitive fully open-source supported hardware in the market again. The ball is in the ARM camp’s court.

  • timmymac

    I bought a netbook a few years back, and it worked fine for what I needed. However, I just bought it’s replacement: The Asus Infinity!
    1. 10 inch, 1920×1200 touchscreen
    2. Converts from tablet to notebook formfactor within seconds
    3. >9 (or >14) hours battery life as a tablet (or notebook)
    4. No fan, so it’s dead quiet. Very cool running.
    5. Runs almost any app from the Google Play Store

    You might be wondering how I can consider this to be a netbook… after all, it uses an ARM processor and runs Android. Using a program called “Jump”, I can RDP into my home PC and run all my usual windows applications as if I were at home. I can access any of the files stored on my home PC. If I am somewhere without WiFi, I can tether the Infinity using my Galaxy S3. It’s like having a netbook with an I7 processor.
    Overall, for me, this is my ultimate portable computing device. Realistically, I seldom bother to RDP to the home PC, since the Android apps do pretty much everything I need to do. If there existed an Ultrabook with a high resolution 10 inch screen, then I might have been interested. In the meantime, I am perfectly happy with my ARM/Android device and the ability to RDP to an Intel/Windows device.

    • Jonathan Cordova

      Ultrabook with a high-res 10-inch screen? I think that’s the whole point of Windows 8 “hybrids,” and supports my point that Netbooks are just “growing up” into cheap Ultrbooks. It’s also worth saying that your Android Netbook has a list price of $650.

      You may have just convinced me to buy an Infiniti TF700.

  • snovguy

    if you believe in the “net” part of netbook and what it implies about always connected, then chrome books are the actual successor to the netbook

    That being said I think they are still WAY too expensive and limited in function.

  • Martin K

    I don’t blame Dell and the rest for jumping ship although I think its a bit early. Lower cost tablets are definitely filling the affordable yet versatile niche and eventually I’m sure they’ll completely replace netbooks. Personally I don’t feel tablets of any size or cost can suitably replace a netbook but that inevitability is only put off by the storage and software limitations (processing power is pretty much on par now). I love my netbook and I’ll lug it around before even looking at my bulky but more powerful laptop. Ultrabooks however will soon become the new laptop standard and manufacturing costs will bring them into a more affordable range.

  • GemmaSeymour

    Of course netbooks have been a relative failure. Windows is an overbloated beast of an OS, and running it on something as low-powered as a netbook was never a good idea.

    Personally, I happen to love my hp Mini 110-1012NR, with its 1 GB RAM and 16GB SSD, that I bought at Toys-R-Us, of all places, for 299 USD. The first thing I did was find a second 16GB SSD on eBay, and pull the original so that I preserved the Windows installation if for some reason in the future I wanted to torture myself, and promptly install various versions of Linux on SD Cards, until I decided to stick with Linux Mint, and installed that to the internal SSD.

    In fact, I bought it right after the original iPad was introduced, once I saw that the iPad would not fulfill my need for an ultra-portable writing tool. This was before the existence of the 11″ MacBook Air, as well, which I plan to purchase as my next main laptop. At the rate Apple is going, I’ll probably rip out OS X and run Linux on that, too. There just isn’t much left for which I require Mac OS X or Windows, but I do need a proper keyboard for comfortable long-term typing. Sadly, this qualifies as a niche market.

    For the vast majority of people who want computing on the go, a tablet device such as an iPad is more than sufficient, since they create little, and their text entry needs are generally limited to Facebook input boxes. The only thing it really doesn’t do well is content creation, and that’s a function of the keyboard-less, mouse-less paradigm. Anyone with heavy-duty mobile work needs is going to opt for a full-on laptop. There’s relatively few people for whom a netbook makes the most sense, but writers fall into that category. Sucks for me that I’m one of them, but that’s life.

  • Bob

    I LOVE my Gateway (Acer) netbook. I am a freelance IT consultant.
    I love:
    - low cost- was $265 plus 2GB RAM and after awhile a larger hard drive.- cheap- I toss it in my bag and don’t have to be so worried about damaging it- has full range of ports- light- 3lbs is my max now- keyboard- quiet
    Win7 Starter has been totally fine for me- no crashes or issues. I imagine if I added an SSD it might really shine. As it is I run PS, Outlook 2010 w EXCH, Chrome, Skype, etc all with no problems at all and memory usage is really well managed in the OS too. Yes it can be a little slow but I really think the hard drive is the biggest bottleneck not the Atom. Yes i’d like to be able to watch HD Flash video (argh die Flash DIE) but I can watch at 480 and not an issue.
    My biggest gripes:1024×600 res screenslow hard drive

    I’m not interested in a tablet or an expensive ultralight/ultrawhatever with the backlit keyboard I dream of and CUDA gpu etc. because when it gets damaged I will be out $1000 not $300 or $400

    I think eventually though they will go away and will prob end up w tablet/dock hybrid w ports and such.

  • Ncuk

    Honestly it depends what you need the notebook for. Like many of the other guys i agree that netbooks are not for everyone. Seriously guys you should stop mentioning kindle or nexus or ipads in here. We get a netbook for the OS, which means we want windows with it, ubuntu, freeBSD or the other stuff we might need for work or school. Personally i want a netbook for light programming and portability something you cant do with a 300$ laptop that either way sucks, its battery life sucks, the weight sucks, the quality sucks. Ive had cheap laptops, their touchpads break, their keyboards stop working, they have screen problems, wireless range is mediocre, and worst of all ive had cheap laptop batteries die after 1 year which is really sad for the portability part. On the other hand a medium range 300$ netbook is way better than a mediocre range 300$ laptop, i dont care if its celeron outperforms the Atom in the end it all comes to portability and quality and at low price range netbooks win hands down