For the cost of one night’s stay in a New York hotel you can now buy a laptop that weighs 3.2 pounds, runs for more than seven hours with an extended battery, and is equally usable with Windows XP and the open-source Linux operating system. Pundits deride these “netbooks,” saying they are good for little more than Web browsing and light editing. But I think these little machines are going to turn the personal-computer industry upside down.
The Asus Eee PC is widely seen as the first netbook to reach the U.S. market. Introduced in the fall of 2007, the Eee had a four-gigabyte solid-state disk (a “flash” drive) instead of a hard drive, and it ran Linux instead of Windows. Because it had a seven-inch screen and correspondingly tiny keyboard, industry experts predicted that Asus would be lucky to sell 300,000 units its first quarter in the market. It sold 350,000. Last year, roughly 10 million netbooks shipped, according to market research firm IDC.
Netbooks’ success is due to more than their low price. Today’s sleek, grown-up Eee PC 1000, available in multiple colors, has a 10-inch screen (1,024 by 600 pixels), a bigger keyboard, a full gigabyte of RAM, and a webcam, speaker, and mike. Asus sells different versions with solid-state drives up to 40 gigabytes or conventional hard drives with either 80 or 160 gigabytes. And now you can buy them with Linux or Windows XP–an operating system that runs just fine on this restricted little machine, thank you.
Netbooks are now available from Lenovo, Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and a number of smaller companies. Apple may even be working on one: last year the New York Times’ John Markoff blogged that a search provider told him it had “spotted Web visits” of an Apple computer with a screen size somewhere between that of an iPhone and a MacBook.
Howard Locker, director of new technology at Lenovo, says that the right way to think about netbooks is as cheap laptops with processors and video cards four years out of date.
“From a processing and graphics viewpoint, they are from 2005,” says Locker. But that’s okay, he adds, because “the hardware has moved so rapidly beyond what people need, you can go with four-year-old technology and it’s good enough” for most users.
Netbooks exist, says Locker, because no killer app has been developed that requires the full power of today’s high-end notebook computers. He’s half right.
The fact is, many such killer apps with high-end computing requirements have been deployed since 2005. But they all run on the cloud-computing clusters used by companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. To make the best use of those services, users want a take-it-anywhere platform. Lightness, not processing power, is a serious selling point. Hence the netbook’s success.
Power on the Cheap
Except for the relatively small number of people doing high-performance gaming or streaming high-definition movies, today’s computer users do not need all the power that top-of-the-line microprocessors can deliver. Companies like Intel and AMD know this. That’s why they have spent much of the past four years innovating in different areas, such as power management and functional integration. Netbook technology emerged from those decisions.
Though today’s netbook is indeed similar to a typical 2005 laptop in raw CPU and video performance–my 12-inch PowerBook had a gigahertz processor with 512 megabytes of RAM and a 60-gigabyte hard drive–it can do significantly more computing per watt of power than that 2005 machine. As a result, netbook vendors can use smaller, lighter battery packs, yet get more battery life than those older machines ever had.