Since Asus’s Eee PC 701s started wowing consumers in 2007, just about every computer manufacturer (with the notable exception of Apple) has come out with their own take on the genre. Asus themselves seem to have more models available than all other manufacturers put together, and you can now get machines with much more comfortable keyboards, bigger screens, with and without Solid State Disks, luxury versions, with Linux or with Windows XP; and they’re now powerful enough to run Windows 7.
In fact where there was a clear differential between netbook and conventional laptop, now there’s more of a continuum of sizes and capabilities. As regards the name of the category – that first became the recognized moniker by some mysterious osmotic process in 2008 – Psion is now busy warning off people who dare to use ‘their’ word. I have a lot of affection for Psion, having owned a Psion organizer and my wife having owned the excellent consumer version of their Netbook (Psion Series 7). Although I admire what Psion achieved, I was upset when the company just gave up the struggle, and have little sympathy with their landgrab on ‘netbook’. They have little hope of turning back that particular tide, so they may as well face that fact now before their legal spending gets silly.
Intel is busy cooking up netbook processors with dual cores, so perhaps the netbook will start to catch up with conventional notebook performance. Already it’s a match for notebooks in terms of memory, disk space and battery life. The screen is always going to be a compromise, but you can get used to a smaller display area quite quickly, and then going back to a big screen can feel agoraphobic. For what most people need them for, netbooks are already good enough, and the Atom processor can handle multimedia, office tasks and at a pinch, Photoshop work.
Personally, I’d like to see more elegance and lightness without sacrificing battery life and performance. The Asus S101 ‘luxury’ netbook is great but I wouldn’t compromise on battery life or go without a decent-sized hard disk just for the sake of sleekness. There has been talk of touch-screens but I don’t find pointing at a computer screen to be very ergonomic compared with keeping your hands near the keyboard.
Samsung – please do a version of your netbook without the nano-technology antibacterial keyboard. We don’t yet know how harmful this stuff and I’m pretty shocked that most people buying these things won’t know what they’re introducing into their home. Maybe it’s not a problem, but why take the risk?
I’m not sure there’s huge room for improvement in netbook hardware. If it’s cheap, sturdy, light, with a decent keyboard., sufficient storage, good battery life, and adequate connectivity, then further improvements will mostly be confined to the software. Windows 7 is showing promise, even on modest machines, and I’m sure there will be improvements in the Linux user experience. But perhaps a company will come along with another wildcard, just as Asus did with the Eee PC. After all, when e-book readers finally take off big-time, as they just might in 2009, even netbooks will seem bulky by comparison. But it would be a challenge to marry the specialist e-book reader display with the input requirements of the netbook.
Who knows what innovations 2009 will bring…