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R.I.P.: Netbooks

The last two netbook vendors standing, Acer and Asus, have both announced they’ve produced their last netbook. So they’re joining the Playstation 2 in the land of the digital dinosaurs, though I suspect more people will miss the 12-year-old game console than the netbook. The Guardian has an analysis, but basically they blame the emergence of tablets, and the increased cost of producing netbooks with Windows.

I bought an HP Mini 110 about three years ago, and it was fine for what it was: a low-end, very basic machine for basic tasks. It runs Office 2003 perfectly fine, though I’d be afraid to try Office 2007 or (especially) 2010 on it. And it’s fine for most web browsing. But it has its limits. If it’s possible to hook it up to a 720p television and get it to produce a 1366×768 display, I haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

And I suspect most people didn’t use netbooks like I do. In fact, my posts about speeding up an HP Mini 110 were, for a time, some of the most popular things I ever wrote, though the traffic on those pages is dropping.

I think, in the end, they were a niche market. When the One Laptop Per Child first appeared, a lot of people wanted one for themselves. Then Asus obliged by making a similar unit, loading Linux on it and pricing it at a low $199. They became a sensation; I ran into hardcore garage sale addicts who bought netbooks and mobile data plans so they could use them to investigate sales and rumors they heard about when they were on the road on Saturdays.

For that use, a tablet works just as well, and it’s more portable.

I’m sure some people still want tiny laptops with real (if undersized) keyboards, but it’s probably mostly people like me, who are fine with picking up a used netbook and fixing it if need be, or grabbing a Google Chromebook and adapting it to do whatever we want to do with it.

But tablets are a bigger deal than netbooks ever were. I’ve had more than one person tell me they bought a tablet for someone who doesn’t like computers, and they loved the tablet. I can understand that; sitting down at a desk or even the kitchen table and using a computer feels like sitting at the office, while you can use a tablet while you lounge on the couch or an easy chair. Since they were just different enough that people didn’t expect to be able to run Microsoft Office and whatever this week’s hottest 3D shooter game is, designers could rethink the experience without having to worry about backward compatibility, and they reinvigorated a market that was stagnant except for upgraders. And it worked. Sitting with a tablet running the BBC news app feels nearly as natural as flipping through the pages of a news magazine, but the information is much more current.

So the netbook was an experiment that turned out not to be exactly what everyone wanted. But that’s OK. Eventually the industry figured it out.

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3 thoughts on “R.I.P.: Netbooks”

  1. I had a similar post planned, but I think you covered all the bases. I bought an Acer netbook a few years ago and it has done nothing but collect dust. It’s definitely a purchase I can attribute to buying in to the hype. Whatever trade off I gained by shaving a couple of inches and a couple of pounds off hauling a laptop around I definitely lost in usability. I never adjusted to the tiny keyboard and the screen resolution was too small for a lot of things I wanted to do. I forced myself to use it for a while, but I haven’t turned it on in years after buying a tablet.

    1. I traveled with mine quite a bit because I did find the netbook easier to get through airport security than my Dell laptop, due to it being so much smaller and lighter. I could just toss the netbook, my phone, my belt, my keys and my change and my shoes in one bin and the empty case in another. I found that anything that saved me even the smallest amount of stress at the airport is worth it. My current job doesn’t require me to fly though, so that use is out now.

      When traveling, I generally packed a USB keyboard and mouse in my suitcase; netbook keyboards are much better for women and children to type on than adult men.

      Probably the main reason that netbook still gets use is because it’s running XP, so I have everything that doesn’t run well on Windows 7 loaded on it. That accounts for a few minutes’ usage per day, or every other day. I do still take it with us when we travel for the holidays because it takes up less space than the Dell, and space is at a premium, especially during Christmas travel.

  2. They went away as a concept – the 10 inch, 1280×800, 1 (2)gig ram, atom powered net books. I see quite a few 11-13 inch screen machines, with more RAM and better CPUs (Ivy Bridge Celerons and up)and desktop resolution (minimum of 1366×768) being sold now. They just don’t brand them as net books any more.

    Still useful for a few purposes – cheap machines for experiments and the like. But I understand why the companies would kill the net book. Suspect that quite of a few net book innards end up in some of the tablets too.

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