To hell with netbooks; bring on the slates!


— 12:13 AM on October 22, 2010

After wrapping up TR's latest review of a 10" netbook—arguably the nicest such system so far—I've come away with the impression that, well, it's time to move on. Netbooks in general have done great things for consumers, but their reason for being has all but vanished as the industry has adapted. In the immortal words of Tenacious D, they're too old to rock; it's time for them to pass the torch. The first half of next year, when all the big players are expected to unveil their iPad competitors, can't come soon enough.

Explaining the growing obsolescence of netbooks calls for a short history lesson. I think we can credit the One Laptop Per Child project for igniting the spark that led to the netbook revolution. Soon after the OLPC folks came up with the concept of a $100, kid-friendly, carry-anywhere laptop—then decided not to commercialize it—Taiwanese hardware makers like Quanta and Asus just happened to start working on low-cost, small-form-factor laptops aimed at developed countries. Barely two months after we caught wind of Asus' plans, the company unleashed the first Eee PC at Computex 2007 in Taipei.

The Eee PC 701, as it was called, was pretty limited even by current netbook standards. It had a 7" 800x480 display, was powered by a 630MHz Celeron processor, and only had a few gigs of storage capacity. Still, we loved the first Windows-powered model we reviewed back in January 2008—so much so that we gave it our Editor's Choice award.

Then came the Atom processor, which I believe Intel originally aimed at a very different class of product: the Mobile Internet Device, a sort of oversized smart phone that never really caught on. By the time the Atom officially launched, Intel was already talking about slapping the chip in those newfangled netbooks. It didn't take long for netbook makers to do just that. In the summer of 2008, the first Atom-based Eee PCs arrived on North American shores, and the higher-end models didn't look too different from today's 10" netbooks.

Getting a 10" netbook for around $500 was the bee's knees two years ago. The only similarly priced alternatives would've had 14" or 15" displays, Celeron CPUs, and two-hour run times, while real ultraportables were high-end business systems that often retailed in the neighborhood of $2,000. Netbooks offered much of the same functionality as those ultraportables for a fraction of the price. At long last, the rest of us could take the Internet (and our work) with us wherever we wanted.

Joe Sixpack and his ilk started to take notice. In May 2009, DisplaySearch reported that netbooks had accounted for nearly a fifth of worldwide laptop shipments in the previous quarter. Right around the same time, the first Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage processors—and the concept of the "consumer ultraportable"—were born. Perhaps Intel just didn't want the Atom cannibalizing its pricier mobile CPUs any further, but the fact remained; the laptop market had undergone its second radical change in just over two years.

By late October 2009, it was all over. Acer announced a $399 Windows 7 ultraportable, the Aspire AS1410, leading anyone sane to think twice about settling for a netbook. Things stabilized over the next few months, and today, the conflict between netbooks and consumer ultraportables is more of a cold war. The ultraportable camp has solidified its sphere of influence a small distance away from the line boldly crossed by the AS1410, while netbooks have largely retreated below $300, refusing to capitulate.

As with communist dictatorships of old, though, conformism and stagnation are slowly choking the netbook camp from within. Ultraportables are only getting slicker and more powerful, while netbook users must still make do with 1024x600 screen resolutions, cramped keyboards, limited amounts of memory, and underpowered Atom processors. The elite party members may get 12" netbooks with higher-resolution displays and bigger keyboards, but those still pale in comparison to even entry-level CULV systems.

Going into next year, I think slates will administer the coup de grace to the netbook camp. Here's why.

The one thing netbooks brought us was the ability to surf the web on a small, cheap, highly portable device with a decent-sized screen. And it so happens that surfing the web is the one thing slates do much, much better than netbooks. I expect anyone who's ever sat down with an iPad and checked their favorite sites will agree. Dragging your hands across that 10" glass touch-screen is a joy. Panning, zooming, bouncing between different pages and tabs is all effortlessly simple. Sometimes, you can use a dedicated app to enjoy a tailor-made content consumption experience instead of the plain old HTML website. It all works so seamlessly.

By contrast, browsing the web on a netbook is a chore. 10" netbook displays might have roughly the same diagonal size as the iPad's, but there are fewer vertical pixels, and what little vertical real-estate you have is occupied by the Windows taskbar, browser toolbars, the window title bar, and so forth. In the end, you're left with something like this:

As if that weren't bad enough, the input is convoluted, to say the least. Netbooks force you to do an inordinate amount of scrolling, yet that scrolling is usually confined to a tiny touchpad with often flaky multi-touch support. (Sometimes, I'll get frustrated enough with poor touchpads to use the arrow keys to scroll.) Typing is about as bad. The iPad might not have a real keyboard, but what it has is no worse than those awful little netbook keyboards with their mediocre, rubbery-feeling chiclet keys.

Ah, but the iPad doesn't do Flash, does it? That's true. Now try playing a full-screen, high-definition YouTube video on a netbook, then try it on an iPad using the YouTube app. The iPad actually delivers a better, smoother experience, believe it or not. And not all slates are going to lack Flash support: RIM has already said its PlayBook slate will play Flash video, and Android 3.0 slates will probably do the same. To those readers who would point out that the iPad costs far more than netbooks, I'll provide a similar retort—the iPad is only the first of many upcoming slates. You can bet a price war will break out in that space as soon as more competitors enter it.

If one thing can save netbooks, it's the emergence of convertible designs with equally affordable price tags. Being able to switch to portrait mode would alleviate the screen real-estate issue, and a touch-screen display would alleviate the crappy input issue. Problem is, I don't know if such convertible netbooks will be able to compete with thin, power-sipping slates that have specialized software designed from the ground up for touch. Maybe if netbook makers started making convertible systems with ARM CPUs and Android—but then, would they really be anything more than slates with keyboards?

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