Is Windows killing the Netbook?

Posted on Monday, June 1, 2009 by Erlik

Is Windows killing the netbook?I suspect that Windows is slowly killing the netbook concept. I realized this when I walked into a big computer shop and saw the following sign beside the Netbooksaisle: please note that these computer have reduced functionality and will not run games.

After investigation it seems that the sign was put there by the salesmen because a lot of consumer that had purchased netbooks were returning them when they realized that these small machines were not able to perform all the tasks of a full size computer, like playing games or editing video. Most of us would say: duh, of course such heavy applications would be killing a netbook processor, that is not what a netbook is for. The question is: what made these consumer believe that a netbook would be able to perform such heavy tasks.

The problem is Windows XP. The first netbooks were delivered with a customized version of Linux installed. Since the interface looked very different from Windows it was clear to most people that these were not full computers but companion devices. These devices sold well, even if they were not making a killing in the market like current netbooks are. The problem is that a lot of shops complained about Linux. Not on technical grounds, Linux is an excellent operating system and is ideally suited to netbooks, but more because it was unknown to most salesmen and consumer, and that it was difficult for an ignorant salesman to sell the OS to the ignorant consumer.

The netbooks manufacturers however had seen the potential of the small machines and decided to oblige the shops. They installed the machines with Windows XP. That's when things started to go wrong for the netbook concept. A lot of consumer made the equation: Windows equals full capacity laptop, so these netbooks are full laptops that are cheaper just because they are smaller. Of course the netbook manufacturers made a killing with these machines: who would not buy a $400 subnotebook! The problem is that these were not subnotebooks, and when they failed to play Far Cry 2or run software like PowerDirectoror Adobe Premiereproperly the returns started.

But by then the concept of the $400 mini laptopthat can replace your $700 laptophad become extremely popular, and killing it was not longer possible. What the netbooks manufacturers had condemned themselves to was selling mini laptops for $300 less than the laptops they used to sell. Also the real netbook concept of an ultra-portable companion machine to surf and perform simple tasks was getting lost in the rush to crank out better laptop replacement netbooks. These machines are better described as mini laptops and have little to do with the original netbook concept: they have larger 10 or 11 inch screen, large HDDs and more memory than required for netbook tasks.

Who can save the real netbook?

Some help is actually coming from Intel and Microsoft: Intel is now forbidding manufacturers to install Atom processors in machines with a screen bigger than 10 inches, meaning that tricking unsuspecting users into buying a netbook that looks like a full laptop won't be possible anymore. Microsoft also put severe limitations on the hardware of machines running Windows 7 starter edition, meaning that Windows mini laptop will become more expensive and will be better differentiated from real netbooks.

The biggest help for the true netbooks however will come from ARM and Linux. Manufacturers like Qualcomm are now releasing ARM based processors that are much better suited to true netbooks than the Atom processor. On the software side Linux distributions are gearing up to provide more netbook optimized interfaces and unlike Windows they will be compatible with the ARM architecture. Efforts like Ubuntu netbook remix, the HP MI interface,the Jolicloud operating system or even Google Android will soon result in a second generation of true netbooks than may end up killing the Windows based mini laptops, just like the mini laptops are now killing the first generation of netbooks.
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20 Responses to "Is Windows killing the Netbook?":

Anonymous says:

I don't agree. Netbook will evolve, just like any technical device does. ARM-Netbooks will not have a chance if they perform bad at tasks like playing Videos (worse "Flash-Videos). The Internet is not only looking at Html 1.1 Pages and checking E-mails. Multimedia support is the bottom of needed functionality.

I use Linux by myself, but I hate to admit, that even on Netbooks WITH linux preinstalled often a lot of Hardware support is missig. Wireless, DRI/3D, Supend and sometimes even the build in cardreader didn't do anything you would assume it should do. You could say if there is a new Netbook, it takes 1-2 Years to have all the Hardware supported... if your lucky.

I would love to have a Netbook with a good Videochip like Ati Radeon, to watch Flashvideos or just to have more choice. I agree that playing Games is not the primary goal of a Netbook, but I think it would not hurt if you could.

Anonymous says:

Here's an ARM/Linux based netbook, with full video, Flash playback etc.

Anonymous says:

AT anymous #1

>Netbook will evolve, just like any technical device does.

Duh...

>ARM-Netbooks will not have a chance if they perform bad at tasks like playing Videos (worse "Flash-Videos).

The author of the article was speaking of editing video, not playing video. rtfa

>The Internet is not only looking at Html 1.1 Pages and checking E-mails.

Please, now you´re insulting other peoples intelligence.

>Multimedia support is the bottom of needed functionality.

Luckily, any decent netbook will play video and audio.

>I use Linux by myself, but I hate to admit,

This is the oldest troll in the book...

>that even on Netbooks WITH linux preinstalled often a lot of Hardware support is missig

Rubbish, practically everything is supported nowadays, and you don´t even have to download drivers or pop CD´s. As any real Linux users knows.

>I would love to have a Netbook with a good Videochip like Ati Radeon

If you want a netbook with an Ati Radeon, you don´t want a netbook. It is that simple.

>I agree that playing Games is not the primary goal of a Netbook, but I think it would not hurt if you could.

Sigh, you really don´t know what you´re talking of.

Anonymous says:

Pretty lame report.

You also forgot to mention Moblin.

D.

Erlik says:

ARM netbooks should be able to play video thanks to hardware decoding, but unfortunately there is no proof that flash will be able to take advantage of that hardware.

I did not mention Moblin (which is also an excellent distribution optimized for netbooks) because since it's an Intel based project I don't think it will ever be ported to ARM.

Anonymous says:

"I use Linux by myself, but I hate to admit, that even on Netbooks WITH linux preinstalled often a lot of Hardware support is missig."

I also think this is a troll, but in case it isn't-- then you purchased a defective product, and should return it to the vendor, or make them fix it. I believe that the many crappy Linux implementations on netbooks are either incompetence, or deliberate ploys merely to negotiate better deals with Microsoft. Which worked, and MS was forced to discount XP licenses to as low as $15.

Scott Dowdle says:

I'm not sure why one product has to kill another product. Why can't we have both minimal netbooks and beefier netbooks?

The main limitation is 1024x600 resolution of the internal displays. It isn't really the screen size but the resolution. The next gen of netbooks will have higher resolutions. Acer supposedly has an HD capable netbook coming out RSN.

I bought an Acer Aspire One D150 unit. Like almost all current netbook models, it has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom, 160GB hard disk, 1GB of RAM, a 10" screen... and almost everything works great in Linux. The webcam works in Cheese but I can't seem to get it to work in any chat applications. The microphone doesn't work but maybe a kernel update or two and it will. The mic and webcam aren't that important to me.

I disagree that a netbook can't be a replacement for a desktop or a laptop. 1.6GHz is fine... although I do plan on upgrading the memory to 2GB next paycheck.

Sure some applications are limited by the 1024x600 resolution but my netbook will do everything I use my desktop and previous laptop to do... since I'm not a hardcore 3D gamer and I don't use any highend vertical apps that need higher resolutions (like video editing might... and CAD... etc).

Why anyone would be fooled into thinking a $200-400 mini-laptop / netbook would be as good as a cutting edge desktop/laptop, I'm not sure. Hook it up to an external monitor and you can probably run anything... although noticably slower than on a system with a higher end / dedicated video card.

You say Intel is limiting Atoms to 10" screens and smaller... but then you say it isn't really appropriate for a netbook... or maybe I read into it too much. Sure ARM processors will be great too... but thinking they will kill the Atom machines doesn't make sense. There is plenty of room in the market for everything... and the main reason "netbooks" and "mini-laptops" are doing well is because they are cheap. If they came out with full sized laptops for the same price, they would sell better... although there is a certain percentage of folks who want the smaller and lighter setup.

Erlik says:

@Scott
Some peoples are fooled into thinking that netbooks are full sized machines simply because they run Windows. For some peoples Windows = computer.

What I mean also is that current 10" Netbooks are not so cheap anymore. With Moore's law machines like the original eeepc should sell for around $200 now. Instead we are seeing a lot of $350 netbooks with a lot of non essential features like 10" screen or 2GB of ram, faster Atom processors etc...
ARM based machines should bring us back to the original netbook idea: a $200 barebone surfing machine.

Nevyn says:

I agree that Windows is killing the netbook but for different reasons.

The low cost devices we were promised have been slowly climbing in price. A couple of years ago I could buy a laptop for around $700 NZD. Then vista came out and that price shot right up. Then came netbooks which were around the $700 mark - which has been climbing.

There are very few models sold in New Zealand with the robust SSD's (although the Random Write Speed on these was limiting). Linux models are a thing of the past - you can't buy new Linux Netbooks in NZ anymore.

And the price... you can pay around $1200 NZD on a netbook easily nowadays. I blame this in some part to MS license fees. The price was offset with hardware previously (bigger capacity on the Linux models).

I was finding these machines great for installations. i.e. set one up as a pxe boot server and install Linux from one of these little machines. Not much heavier than a cd and with a menu, you can choose which distro you want to install. Don't go telling me that netbooks should have low capacities. That's short sighted and not catering to potential audiences.

Intel limiting screen size is not a good thing. It's limiting innovation. If they can find a market for lower power, longer lasting (on a single charge) laptops, then manufacturers should feel free to provide what the market demands. If salesmen and consumers have issues with the fact that these are low power machines, then it's about education.

Lets not just cater to the misinformed.

Anonymous says:

Be aware unlike the netbook devices smartbook devices do not have MS applied limits. So there will be no reason why we could not see a 15 inch smartbook.

What is the one thing all laptop users complain about it is universal. Battery life.

ARM processes are over 1 ghz these days. ARM instruction set is more effective than x86. ARM devices are all in 1 chips with support mainlined into Linux kernel.

Stand by on battery of a ARM can be over 200 hours in a normal phone. So no reason why smartbooks cannot have the same. 8 hours + of flat out processor running will be possible in ARM devices. So yes a device you charge once per day.

Normal cpu is truly crap for a lot of things. Solution use the GPU. So if an arm unit ever gets a high level GPU as a optional to use GPU ie turn it on when you want to run games and other 3d work knowing it going to shorten battery life. Smartbooks then could truly become upper end market killed.

ARM design smartbooks are also heading in the price range of 100 USD. What is in the range of what you call a promoter give away. If user buys enough software or signs up for a contract you throw the smartbook in for so called nothing. This will be smaller contracts than what netbooks are thrown in with.

Anonymous says:

I hope the new smartbooks keep MS away.
If MS ports Windows 7 to the ARM architecture...then the only thing to be done is to call some of those devices "Linuxbooks"... There will be no more mistakes because they will run Linux... That will make impossible to MS to replicate it.

I don't want MS to kill the new thing... like it did to the concept of "netbook".
;)

Anonymous says:

Windows 7 ported to ARM is deadman walking. Most windows applications are x86. Anyone else remember running the PPC port of Windows. You had jack. And jack is being nice. Not even MS open products like MS Office worked.

When MS releases a pure .net based OS maybe. But there are not enough applications to support a pure .net based OS. Linux basically has 3 years to dig itself a home.

Linuxbooks would not be a bad name at all.

The Mad Hatter says:

Ouch. This article is so out to lunch it's hard to know where to start.

1) Intel isn't doing the Netbook market any favours by limiting screen size, what they are trying to do is to increase their profits, by making sure that more expensive processors are used in machines with screens larger than 10 inches. For an example of why they would want to do this, see the excellent Dell Mini-Inspiron 12.

2) Microsoft is doing the same thing, they want more money, so they make sure that a more expensive version of Windows Vista 7 is installed on machines with larger screens.

3) The stores I've talked to tell me that netbook returns haven't been because of inability to play games, but rather tend to be on the smaller machines because some users cannot get used to the tiny keyboard.

4) It wasn't the stores who wanted XP, it was Microsoft, as they saw an entire market pop up that they didn't expect, and that Vista wasn't going to work in. According to what I've heard, some of the vendors (ASUS for one) are in effect getting copies of XP for free, just so that Microsoft can keep Linux from gaining market share.

5) Dell states that they sell 33% of their netbooks with Linux, and that return rates for netbooks are no worse than return rates for notebooks, no matter what operating system.

I'd suggest that you do more research before writing an article like this. Get the Facts (and I don't mean from the Microsoft web site!)

bernard_swiss says:

Mad Hatter -- despite his moniker -- has it right. These restrictions by Intel and Microsoft have nothing to do with promoting the public interest, and everything to do with promoting their bottom line, by exploiting their position to leverage greater profits from the customers.

It should be a red flag to any responsible adult, when any mega corporation says that they won't sell what the customers have shown interest in, for the customers' own good.

The very fact that Intel and Microsoft feel the need to enact such restrictions is prima facie evidence that the demand is there -- in other words, people want to buy such devices, and other people want to supply that demand, but the mega-corps don't want to deal with the modern reality. This is the same backwards-looking, dinosaur-style approach that the American automotive industry has made so (in)famous.

Bernard Swiss

Anonymous says:

So, what makes you think you can't play games on a 1GHz processor with 3D accelerated graphics? My 2002 vintage PIII laptop does the job quite well. I also use it to edit movies with Kino. Limiting screen size is just a market protection measure. FUD is killing the category as surely as M$ fights it and OEMs cooperate to cover themselves.

OEMs want to sell 12" screens to business users for $5,000. Business users would greatly prefer a $400 version that lasts 8 hours on a single charge. They demand media but could care less about, and mostly loath, stuff like the latest World of Warcraft. Most of all, they want stability, security and privacy. Only GNU/Linux can deliver what they want. Sooner than later, OEMs will have to bow to demand. No one bought Vista and Windows 7 is a bad joke.

Erlik says:

@ The Mad Hatter

1 & 2: Off course they are also limiting screen size to sell more expensive products, but in the context of the article (ignorant users not understanding the difference between a netbook and a laptop) it has a beneficial side effect.

3) The keyboard size was something that was obvious to them when they purchased the machine, the atom performance was not.

4) In Europe at least (were most netbooks are sold) it was the brick and mortar shops that stopped selling Linux netbooks. These Linux netbooks still sell well online and direct trough Dell because there you don't have the ignorant user / salesman problem. It is true that Microsoft helped by selling Windows XP for next to nothing.

5) Indeed Linux Netbooks sell well online & at Dell because the people that shop at Dell (and online) are informed customers that know what they are getting when they purchase a Linux netbook (see point 4).

Victor J Kinzer says:

I have to completely disagree with your assessment. Intel's limitations on the Atom processor are strong arm tactics, and Microsoft's crippleware version of Windows is ridiculous.

The linux/ARM netbooks will be what you describe a netbook being for. However, laptops have been hideously overpriced for some time now. For a long time "ultra portable" devices were more expensive because they were small. Asus did a great service to consumers by breaking this stereotype. I did audio editing on my 1st generation Asus EEE PC and the hardware handled it perfectly. There were some temp file issues with the very small storage, but when I threw on an external hard drive and saved my source files there it went beautifully. That is certainly not a "netbook task". Now I have a Dell netbook and it is used as a second computer in the house as our main computer is hooked into our TV, so productivity needs tie up entertainment availability.

The netbook is used for Skype, Typing, general chatting, and occasionally audio editing, a little GIMP work etc. It allows multiple people to use a computer in the house at once without the need for multiple full powered machines. So in that respect it does fit your definition, but we still go well beyond your scope of work for the netbook. People need to start demanding efficient software. Photoshop 5 ran beautifully on Pentium IIs, and performed the majority of the tasks that the average image editor needs. Now you couldn't even run Picasa on one of those machines.

We need to start programming software with average hardware needs so average people don't need to buy workstations that could run as supercomputers if they didn't have ludicrous overhead, and people who do real honest to god high end work like graphics/high end video/programming/high end gaming can bloody well buy workstations.

Anonymous says:

If the hardware is powerful enough to run XP well, it should run almost any desktop-oriented versions of Linux just a little better (the obvious exception is SLED).

Of course, any reasonably well-tuned netbook version should run even better. Some OEMs can't really be bothered (and in these cases one has to wonder whether they are actually interested in selling Linux systems, or just want to negotiate a better deal with Microsoft). Fortunately for the customers, the Linux community has made a number of excellent, newbie-installable, attractive netbook Linux versions readily available.

Anonymous says:

If the netbook keyboard was too small, the store could have had the opportunity to sell more full-size USB keyboards.

The Mad Hatter says:

If the netbook keyboard was too small, the store could have had the opportunity to sell more full-size USB keyboards.

What an idiotic comment. You bought a netbook to be mobile, and you are going to carry a full size USB keyboard with you so that you can use it while sitting on a plane? I wouldn't work for any company you were running, it would be dead in no time at all.