Why I loved the idea of Netbooks, but now hate them. The case against Netbooks

So when netbooks first came out I was really excited about them.  Back in December 2007 the Asus EEE was a super cheap netbook that could run linux and check email and a device you give to schoolchildren and have them learn computers in a relatively safe closed environment.  Netbook’s unfortunately have been anything but…

The Dream

Netbooks were originally sold as these niffty cheap computers that would run on Linux and you give to your mother and it does a dozen tasks easily.  Nothing more nothing less, a device cheap for the masses to do simple tasks. I think many Linux enthusiasts (myself included) were hoping they would take off and be an entry point for the masses to start using Linux in a real way.

The Reality

Initially Dell, Acer, Asus made Netbooks available in two flavors the Linux variants (to which there was not a unified standard), and the Windows XP machines.  Much to the distain of Microsoft OEMs were packing XP on this low end hardware because well Vista was too much for most netbook hardware to run smoothly.  The brutal reality is that the Windows Netbooks sold, the Linux ones did not.  And the few Linux machines sold largely got snatched up and got Windows loaded on (without a valid license).  So much for the Linux dream.

Who is to blame?  The hardware?

I love the Intel Atom CPU, and it’s great that is it cheap.  I love it like I love the Toyota Yaris.  It gets you from point A to B, it does a decent job at it.  But, it’s slow, its no fun to drive, and why would you buy it when you can buy a used Subaru WRX for the same money?  This requires a chart to fully explain.  I know I am picking an arbitrary benchmark however this illustrates how badly the Intel Atom compares to well just about anything sold in the last 6 years!  So what is the Atom good for?  Embedded solutions, Linux, and platform with a very closed hardware system, but NOT WINDOWS! Sure the Atom is cheap, but on a performance per dollar it sucks!  On a performance per watt it still sucks!  The Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500 is the exact same wattage as all of the N450.

The performance gap compared to modern chips is just a canyon, when a i7 mobile now over TEN times faster than the Atom there is something wrong.  I know the i7 isn’t in cheap systems, however netbooks are not priced ten times cheaper.

As a side note I find it hilarious when these snobby people on forums act all elitist stating that they are so much better since they have a N450 CPU vs. N270.  Or the Core 2 Solo SU3500 vs. Celeron 743, the actual benchmark difference is actually very low.

Processor ALU (Gflops) Year Released
Intel Core i7 920QM @ 1.6Ghz 40.12 2009
Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 @ 2.53Ghz 22.44 2008
Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 @ 2.0Ghz 14.01 2008
Intel Core Duo T2300 @ 1.66Ghz 11.29 2006
Intel Pentium M 760 @ 2.0Ghz 8.65 2004
Intel Celeron M 360 @ 1.3Ghz 5.60 2006
Intel Atom N270 @ 1.6Ghz 3.97 2008
Intel Atom N280 @ 1.66Ghz 4.16 2009
Intel Atom N450 @ 1.66Ghz 4.08 2010
Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 @ 1.3Ghz 11.68 2009
Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500 @ 1.4Ghz 5.76 2009
Intel Celeron 743 @ 1.3Ghz 5.61 2009

Who is to blame?  The software?

Partially yes, unfortunately most of the Linux netbooks have had some one off variant of Linux.  There wasn’t much consistency (but the whole Linux community is pretty much the same).  Yes there are some compelling Linux distributions for Netbooks, such ad Ubuntu Remix, Jolicloud, Eeebuntu, and Moblin.  However, none of these have hardware partners willing to ship their products (at least no in large quantities), to retailers.  They got burned on that deal once so perhaps never again.  The problem is these OS’s appeal to geeks and require a decent understanding of computers to even get installed.

Who is to blame?  The consumers?

I’m always hesitant to blame the consumers.  How can the consumers be at blame?  Well first of all they didn’t buy the Linux loaded Netbooks in mass.  They aren’t willing to drop their affliction to Windows.  And perhaps they are not educated enough to load up their own Linux OS.  Sure the consumers could do better, but ultimately they aren’t totally at fault.

What netbooks have become:

Two words: Cheap computers!

Why Netbooks suck

So the hardware performance leaves a lot to be desired.    They have small screens and small keyboards.  The battery life is decent, but if it takes longer to do things due to the poor performance what is the point?

Why OEM’s hate netbooks

So OEM’s don’t make nearly the margin on netbooks as other machines.  Consumers are often disappointed by the poor performance, and it doesn’t really add anything to their brand image.  So you will see a push from OEM’s to dump the Netbooks and forget this whole chapter in computing.  The dream was a nice one too bad it didn’t work out.

Ultra portable computers, what consumers actually want

I’m really quite interested in these ultra portable computers coming out of OEM’s.  They pack in low voltage CPU’s have decent battery life.  And their performance is at least acceptable.  Examples are, Dell Vostro V13, Acer Timeline 14, Dell Adamo, Alienware M11x.


The iPad is perhaps the encapsulation of what the dream of what Netbooks should have been.  It remains to be seen if Apple will blow this out of the park but by all indications it looks like Apple is going to accomplish what a dozen OEM’s couldn’t with the netbook.

The netbook hardware is only so fast so it always made sense to have a fairly structured OS that only allowed you to run a collection of applications.  The fact that people are trying to play Hulu in HD is simply beyond most Netbook’s capabilities so don’t let the users do it.  Manage the expectations of customers and say here are a the 2,000 apps you can run.  Sometimes having choice isn’t a good thing.  The iPad is a closed hardware and software platform that structures  exactly what the user can do.  Apple simply managed expectations on the iPhone, so I’m sure they will do the same with the iPad.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010 at 8:07 am and is filed under biz, Reviews, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Why I loved the idea of Netbooks, but now hate them. The case against Netbooks”

Buhrietoe March 24th, 2010 at 11:52 am

I love my Dell Mini 9. However I and the hardcore linux geek type as mentioned. I dumped the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distro it came from Dell with and built up my setup from the base Arch Linux install to make it lightweight. I only have one real complaint about it, the lack of Intel supporting their 945GME graphics chipset in Linux. It can do opengl but the drivers are horrible. Other than that it is exactly as I thought it would be. I use it as a mobile full featured web browser and to aid in sysadmin tasks, mainly ssh on the go. One of the main selling points for me with the Dell Mini 9 was the SSD it came with. It boosts the performance just enough to make it worthy of use. It is older SSD technology but it still boots faster than some much more powerful desktops I use with normal hard drives.

In conclusion, I feel that my android phone is slowly replacing my netbook.

Emily N. June 10th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Hi, I’m very interested in Linux but Im a Super Newbie and I’m having trouble deciding on the right distribution for me (Havent you heard this a million times?) anyway here is my problem, I need a distribution that can switch between reading and writing in English and Japanese (Japanese Language Support) with out restarting the operating system.

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