Yesterday a reporter from Wired contacted me for comment on an article he was working on about the rise of the netbook. My quotes didn’t appear in the article when it first went live yesterday, but he later edited me in.

The article provides a good overview of the current state of the netbook universe. These cheap, tiny laptops are incredibly popular, have practically taken over Amazon’s list of the best selling computers. Right now the things that make these laptops so popular are their small size and low price. But in the future, we could see new technologies making them even more exciting, thanks to better battery life and even instant on/off features.

It occurred to me that my response to reporter Brian Chen’s questions about the future of netbooks might make an interesting blog post. So I’ve decided to go ahead and post my email to Chen. You can find it after the break. Let me know what you think the future holds for netbooks in the comments.

The summer of 2008 has been the summer of the Intel Atom and the 1024 x 600 pixel display. Last year when the Asus Eee PC 701 hit the market as the first consumer-oriented netbook, it made headlines by taking old components and throwing them together in a new case thus bringing down the price of ultraportable computers. But there were three main complaints that many early adopters had:
  1. The keyboard was too small
  2. The screen was too small and the display resolution too low for many modern applications/web pages etc.
  3. The underclocked Intel Celeron processor was certainly better on battery life than a Cur 2 Duo chip would be, but it was a bit slow and not as energy efficient as it could be.
This year we’ve seen a rush of companies including Asus, Acer, Dell, and MSI release netbooks with 9 or 10 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel displays, larger keyboards, and the new Intel Atom CPU. The Atom is a low power CPU that offers decent performance at a low price. It also supports hyperthreading which allows some programs to run a bit faster. It’s not quite as powerful as a dual core processor, but it’s got a bit more oomph than the Celeron and provides FAR better performance than the VIA C7-M CPU used in the current generation of HP Mini-Note and Everex Cloudbook laptops.
Some people would say that the next big step is to take the Atom chip and throw it into larger laptops with 11, 12, or 13 inch displays. While that may very well happen, I don’t think it would be fair to call those computers netbooks, or at least not liliputers. Sure, everyone would like better battery life, and it’s becoming clear that you don’t need a blazing fast processor to surf the web, watch some movies, or write some office documents. So I’d be happy to see the Atom or a similar chip wind up in larger computers.
But the appeal of a netbook isn’t just a low power processor or a low price. One of the things that makes netbooks so exciting is their portability. Most netbooks weigh less than 3 pounds, with some barely weighing more than 2 pounds. A few years ago, you would have had to pay $2000 or more to get a 10 inch laptop that weighs 2.6 pounds. Now you can pick one up for around $400. I define netbooks or liliputers as low cost, ultraportable devices. And to be ultraportable, you need a 10 inch or smaller display.
So what does the future hold for netbooks? Well, for one thing, Intel has the market practically to itself, thanks to the dominance of the Atom CPU. But that’s about to change. Within the next few months VIA is going to introduce its Nano processor. It’s likely that HP will be one of the first companies to adopt this chip, which will consume a little more power than the Intel Atom, but will also provide more processing power.
As I mentioned, you don’t need a ton of processing power to perform basic tasks on a computer. But if you had the choice between a tiny laptop with a low price and decent battery life that could handle HD video and CPU intensive applications like Photoshop or video games and one that couldn’t, which would you choose?
AMD could also enter the marketplace with a low power, high performance chip, but the company has been playing a bit hard to get on that front. It’s not really clear if we’ll see a mainstream AMD powered netbook anytime soon.
Right now, a lot of netbooks look pretty much the same. They have the aforementioned 9 or 10 inch 1024 x 600 pixel display, 1.6GHz Atom CPU, 512MB or 1GB of RAM, and 4GB to 40GB of solid state memory or 80GB to 160GB hard drives. There are minor variations on keyboards, 802.11n support, and other things. But I would like to see more companies take a few risks and try something really different.
Gigabyte recently launched the M912 series in Europe. Unlike most netbooks available in the US, the M912 features a swiveling touchscreen display which you can fold back over the keyboard to use in tablet mode. This feature drives up the cost of the Gigabyte M912 a bit. While most netbooks cost between $300 and $600, the M912 starts at around $700. But that’s still an excellent price for a tablet PC, much less one with an 8.9 inch display.
The M912X series even has a higher resolution 8.9 inch display. While almost every netbook on the market today has a 1024 x 600 or 800 x 480 pixel display, the M912X supports 1280 x 768 pixels. The only other netbook I’m aware of with such a high resolution display is the HP 2133 Mini-Note. Having owned one for a few months, I can honestly say I think the screen might have been a bit TOO sharp. That’s a lot of pixels for such a small space and you might want to avoid such a sharp screen unless you enjoy squinting. But I do love seeing companies willing to break the mold and try something different from their competitors.
What else would I like to see in future netbooks? As the costs for parts come down, I suspect we’ll eventually see models with faster solid state disks. While conventional wisdom will tell you that solid state disks have no moving parts and are thus more durable and faster than hard drives with spinning platters, the truth is that not all solid state disks are created equal. In fact, people who purchased the Linux version of the Acer Aspire One quickly discovered that the SSD wasn’t fast enough to run Windows XP very well. Hopefully this will change in the future.
I’d also like to see more companies offer touchscreens as an option. While the ideal configuration for a touchscreen devices is to have a swiveling screen so you can use the PC in tablet mode like the Gigabyte M912, there are many users who would simply prefer poking at their screen with their fingers to using the tiny touchpads that come with many netbooks.
We’re also seeing a growing number of operating systems customized for netbooks, including Mandriva Mini, Linpux Linux Lite, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix. One of the promises of many of these OSes is improved boot speed. I would love it if we could move a few steps closer to the promise of an instant on, instant off computer. Before netbooks came along, there were a number of “handheld PCs,” running stripped down operating systems like EPOC and Windows Mobile. These devices by Psion, HP, NEC, and other manufacturers were able to turn on and off in a split second, which made them ideal for jotting notes, making appointments, and performing other tasks. While modern operating systems including Windows, OS X, and Linux offer sleep mode which does allow you to resume suspended operations fairly quickly, it would be nice if you could perform a cold boot in a matter of seconds. Right now, most netbooks take 30-60 seconds to boot a standard operating system like Windows XP or Ubuntu.

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10 replies on “Liliputing in Wired: The future of netbooks”

  1. I agree with everything listed above about the incremental increases that all electronic consumer goods go through. However, the technology that make netbooks ubiquitous devices is being released in 2009. It’s screen technology from one of the innovators at the OLPC project whose founded a for profit company called Pixel Qi. Her screens were made for the developing world and are thus inexpensive (so they won’t affect the price of the netbooks too much), but feature real innovative qualities. They are; dual mode screens (normal screen but also also e-reader mode); touchscreen; sunlight readable screens. Most important to the future of netbooks is the e-reader mode, it draws only a fraction of the energy, its image is as crisp as high-end e-readers like the kindle or sony ones at a fraction of the cost. Now imagine something similar to the Gigabyte M912 tablet that can be twisted into an e-reader with touchscreen functions so you can take notes as you read, that can be read for 10+ hours. That’s incredibly tempting to have an inexpensive ultra portable laptop that acts functions as a touchscreen e-reader at a slightly higher price than a standalone e-reader. I think students, children, poor people, and business people all finding this device incredibly useful and also encourage e-reader versions of daily newspapers.
    Pixel Qi has a number of partners lined up to use their screens, but won’t divulge names. Today Asus announced that in 2009 touchscreens will be brought to the eee line, coincidence?

  2. Good work! Spreading the word about netbooks can only help.

    Back when HP adopted 1280 x 768 resolution, I’ll bet they never thought liliputers would standardize almost unanimously at 1024 x 600. I wish someone would bring out a netbook with a 10-inch screen at the higher resolution before this res is abandoned. I like it because there’s a little less vertical scrolling and room for two or three rows of shortcuts that can be accessed without moving your web page around.

    (Kohjinsha makes 9-inch tablets with 1280 x 768, but they cost up to $1300 and have Silverthorne processors–probably too expensive to be classed as netbooks.)

  3. Regarding small touchpads…there’s a cheaper way to adress this issue, and that is of course Trackpoint…sadly Lenovo failed also in this regard when introducing their netbook… :/

    PS. Yes, yes, it’s inevitable that somebody will come and write “well, I like touchpads better that trackpoints” – that’s great for you, since ALL available netbooks have touchpads. All we ask for is ONE decent model with trackpoint…

  4. Superb Work Brad,

    In the future I see:

    Retake the original idea of some kind of selfcharging or serfpowered device.
    $50 to $100 Netbooks giveaway by cell phone companies with 3-4? G plans
    Social live networking, outdoor video bloggers,
    Better Cell Phone-Netbook sync support by linux flavours
    Linux taking over Windows
    SSD taking over HD
    Weather ressistant netbooks, GPS, instant on.

  5. Thanks for sharing your article. I think you really summed up the netbook market nicely, with some good ideas as to the future of this booming new segment.

    However, I’d like to point out that devices like PDA’s and Smartphones don’t “cold boot” in a matter of seconds. Performing a soft reset on a PDA (essentially a reboot) is a painful process usually requiring several minutes.

    PDA’s use something similar to sleep mode in order to save power and still achieve that “instant on” functionality, and in most cases smartphones only disable the display. As netbook processors become more efficient and battery life increases, I think we’ll start to see this functionality spread to netbooks.

    In the meantime, I run Windows Vista on my Acer Aspire One A150, and use Hibernate mode most of the time. I can boot to a usable desktop with my most commonly used applications running (Outlook, Chrome, Skype) in a few seconds, and without consuming any power while the device isn’t being used.

    I typically reboot the device once or twice per week, which is consistent with how often it’s recommended that you power cycle or “soft reset” a PDA or smartphone.

    This works for me! [=^D

    1. Oh I don’t know about that. My Palm TX “cold boots” in a seccond or two. I would love to have a netbook that was as instant on and off like the Palm.

    2. This is true. I probably could have phrased it better. But while older PDAs
      saved their data to RAM, which required a constant flow of electricity, much
      like Sleep mode. Newer ones save it to flash memory which means the devices
      can last for days or even weeks in “standby” mode and still power up in an
      instant. That’s not true for any laptop I’m aware of at the moment.

      Still, if you use your computer every day and plug it into a charger every
      night, you can use sleep mode to approximate instant on/off most of the
      time.

  6. as a flight attendant who lives on the road this is one revolution i am in on. i purchased the acer aspire one a few weeks back and am srill wow-ed! yes i tend to hit the “q” key when i meant to tab but i am still a fan…going thru secuity is a breeze now that i put a neoprene sleeve on my new toy . so far so great….bill

  7. Good stuff mate.
    I like all the netbook sites since Im the family’s ‘computer guy’ and with my wife’s upcoming Mini 9 will make it 8 netbooks amongst sister in laws, nephews, aunts, kids so I have to keep up and the Liliputing Netbook Database is really in a class by itself.
    The most useful tool on any netbook site.

    My brother in law wants to know if MSI Wind netbook has a Linux version (I dont do Windows support anymore because its mainly spending hours dealing with virus,trojan and so on), go to the database and yes, its they have a 8.9 and 10inch version.

    All the best.

    1. In some jurisdictions the MSI Wind comes with OpenSuSe 10 preinstalled. I’m yet to see one here in Britain. In the UK it markets as the Advent 4211. Same machine, different brand name.

      So your whole family is going to adopt Linux? Excellent. I assume they and you are the type of people who love learning and are not afraid to learn.

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