Netbooks – a blurred semantic line?

Filed under Commentary, Hardware

intel_atomWhat exactly is a netbook?  Who uses them?  How do they use them?  Are they going to erode the laptop market?  Are they simply a fleeting marketing exercise? The list of questions goes on and the buzz continues to grow, but here is the thing – netbooks are here to stay.  Pandora’s Box has been opened and consumers like the thought of being able to buy a computer for ~ $280.00 USD.

All major PC manufacturers have some netbook offering and given the OEM makers in China, many of these are starting to look very similar.  Not that this is a bad thing, but cosmetics aside, you will essentially be getting a Windows XP unit with a 10-12in screen that is running a 1.6Ghz CPU, 1GB of RAM, integrated Intel video, built-in WiFi, and some variety of solid state or hard drive as local storage.   Given these specs, are netbooks a desktop or laptop replacement?

The answer is “No” and do not let anyone try to convince you otherwise.  Netbooks are too underpowered to replace current desktops and laptops.  That does not mean, however, that users cannot run basic productivity applications on a netbook.  Cloud-driven applications, i.e. Google Apps and webmail, are perfect for netbooks. Locally installed productivity applications also work well.  I carry a netbook (see below) and run Office 2007 Word, Excel, QuickBooks, Adobe Acrobat, and a host of other applications just fine.  Granted, mine does have 2GB of memory (in fact, anyone buying a netbook should upgrade to 2GB of RAM before they do anything else) and the OS is tuned and tweaked beyond a stock install, but I can still be just as productive as I would be at the office on my Intel Xeon workstation.  I have to draw the line with games and applications such as video editing/encoding as a netbook is simply a miserable experience here.  But in all honesty, who would use those applications on a 10in screen anyway?

Now, a netbook could become a primary computer for individuals without access to a laptop or desktop.  These users would most likely have limited computing needs that would consist of taking notes, email, web surfing, online shopping, etc.  The crux in positioning a netbook as one’s primary computer is that the limitations of the netbook must be fully realized. There are simply some tasks that are much better suited to laptops and desktops.

So, who are netbooks ideally suited for?

  • Students who want something highly portable to take to class and work on.
  • Field workers, i.e. technicians, scientists, and researchers due to their portability, connectivity, and productivity.
  • Mobile professionals who need connections to the home office but do not need/want a full-size laptop and its associated accessories.
  • Anyone who uses a computer for basic tasks like organizing photos, email, web surfing, etc.

The evolution of what is a netbook and how it is best used will march on.  We will continue to see discussions on netbooks as Microsoft, Intel, and the other major players continually try to shape/limit the scope and definition of ‘netbook’ to maintain specific market positions.  Moreover, as they become more common to end users, we will see more specialized uses of netbooks.  Ultra-portable firewall anyone?

I work in the IT field as a technician and consultant and I carry a netbook on every call I make.
In fact it is all I carry sans my tools.  My netbook of choice is the OCZ Neutrino as I like its design, accessibility, and upgradability.  Since it is a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ proposition, I have outfitted it with a 60GB OCZ Vertex SSD (yes, I know it is overkill but I had a spare that needed a home), 2GB of Mushkin DDR2 RAM, and an Intel 5300AGN wiFi card.  Here it is:


My Neutrino replaced a Dell Latitude E6400 that I had been using in the field.  Not that the Dell was a bad laptop, I just finally realized that it was overkill for what I used it for.  Should it be damaged or stolen, it is a more expensive unit to replace than the Neutrino.  I like the Neutrino as it is plenty fast for the applications I use, it is small enough to fit in cramped work areas, and it is easy to bring along.  Additionally, its pedestrian look does not make it stand out as something that a thief might want to snag.