Ode to Netbooks

Posted on Sat 23 September 2017 in Articles • 3 min read

Earlier this morning, my mother emailed me asking what ever happened to netbooks. She lamented on the death of her netbook and expressed the need for something portable and light to take on the go and use in meetings.

Although my mother and I are in different professions (she's a lecturer, I'm a writer) we have similar needs. The medium of both our professions is text1 and we are both mobile, having to travel not only on our daily commute but also between cities.

Like many mobile professionals, we have come to depend on small form-factor computers to be productive away from the desk. Raw CPU performance take a backseat to light-weight chassises and all-day battery life.

The only device I've owned that can be called a netbook is the Samsung N210 my wife and I took to the United States for a three-month trek in 2010. We needed something small, functional and light (by 2010 standards). The N210 was a great choice; we still have it in fact and it gets occasional use by the kids.

Samsung N210

2010 was peak netbook. A few years earlier, Apple and Intel came up with the concept of an ultrabook, first realised as the 2008 MacBook Air. It was the canary in the coal mine; although the first two versions were mediocre, it promised of things to come.

Then in 2010, two things happened that sealed the netbook's fate: the introduction of the iPad and the re-imagined 11 inch MacBook Air.

2010 11 inch MacBook Air

The iPad brought tablet computing to the masses while the 11 inch MacBook Air showed us what an ultra-portable laptop should be. Plastic and bulky tech and was out, seek aluminium unibodies and solid-state drives were in.

...and prices went up.

PC manufactures followed suite with offerings from Dell (XPS), Lenovo (X1 Carbon) and Asus (Zenbook) appearing in Apple's wake. Meanwhile, Android handset makers decided the appropriate thing to do in view of Apple's iPad success would be to flood the market with cheap Android tablets.

For a while, that's how the market split. Mobile professionals went with macOS or Windows ultrabooks while the consumer market went bananas for iPads2 and Nexus devices.

Then a funny thing happened. The Netbook returned with a vengeance in the form of Google's Chromebooks. Not everyone was happy with paying premium prices, not least the education market or users who wanted a cheap secondary device but preferred a clamshell laptop rather than a tablet.

Chromebooks kind of took off, attracting schools, those heavily invested in Google's ecosystem and Linux enthusiasts who bought them because they were cheap and fun to hack on. I bought an Acer C720 exactly for this reason.

Acer c720 running Linux

Microsoft got worried that ChromeOS, Android and iOS could make Windows obsolete in the mobile and education market so they got the idea of cutting the Windows 10 licence costs as a means of tempting manufactures to ship a cheap-arse version of Windows on hardware typically found in Chromebooks.

So we have offerings from PC manufactures, effectively 11.6 inch ultrabooks that are netbooks in all but name. Models like the Asus E200HA3 have Intel Atom CPUs, 2GB of ram and 32 gigabytes of eMMC4 storage. Like their netbook predecessors they're fine for email, basic productivity using MS Office and casual browsing.

Asus E200HA

Essentially, what we have today is choice; perhaps a bewildering array of choice: phones, phablets, tablets, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, Windows 10 hybrids and cheap 11-inch laptops. There's a device out there to suit any need and budget

The netbook is dead, long live the netbook!


  1. Written and spoken. 

  2. Eventually, I fully embraced the iPad as my portable solution 

  3. This model designation harkens back to the Asus EEE PC netbook days, by the way. 

  4. Cheap, nasty and slow flash storage that has more in common with a SD card than the PCIe storage drives found in high-end models. 

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