Can netbooks get cool again?

Earlier this week, my colleague Chaim Gartenberg covered a laptop called GPD Pocket, which is currently funded on Indiegogo. As Chaim pointed out, the main advantage of the Pocket is its size – with a 7-inch screen the problem is really, really small – and its price, a reasonable price of $ 399. But he didn’t mention that the Pocket is the resurrection of one of the most compelling, but fatally flawed, computing trends of the 2000s: the netbook. So, after ten years, are netbooks cool again? It might be too much, but I’m ready to hope.

If you’ve naturally forgotten about the netbook boom, it started around 2007 with a computer called the Asus Eee PC. The original Eee PC was a $ 399 laptop with a 7-inch screen, a modest processor, and ridiculously tiny 4GB flash memory instead of a hard drive. Especially if you were a student at the time it was amazing. The Eee PC had the portability of an ultra-mobile PC, but at the price of a cheap Windows laptop. It was a small Linux-based laptop like the OLPC XO-1, but felt actually usable, instead of just confusing. The battery wasn’t amazing, but you could squeeze out several hours at a time, a big improvement over my laptop desktop back then. And the thing was adorable, especially because Asus’ slogan at the time was “Rock solid, heart touching,” which splashed across the screen every time you turned it on.

Over the next several years, virtually all Windows PC manufacturers produced their own inexpensive ultra-portable laptops. If you needed a lightweight, low-investment machine for writing articles and surfing Facebook, this was perfect. The iPad wouldn’t be released until 2010, and the first-generation MacBook Air – by that time the thinnest and lightest laptop on the market – would cost over $ 1,500. Most netbooks began to ship with large hard drives and a version of Windows, which removed the barrier to moving to Linux. The battery life has been extended to six or eight hours. The designs remained light, but the screens and keyboards got a bit bigger, making the experience more comfortable.

But netbooks also came with major tradeoffs. One was the ubiquitous low-power Intel Atom processor, which sometimes struggled with basic computing multitasking. Windows seemed slow and cumbersome compared to a good netbook-specific version of Linux, but if you were to run a Windows-specific program you wouldn’t be out of luck. (Yes, you can set up a dual-boot system. It takes more effort than most people want to put in a $ 400 laptop.) And even as netbooks grew, their keyboards were often out of order. narrow – my little fingers started to feel like a superpower, and I again had issues with the original Eee PC. After a while, the netbook became one of those things that I would suggest with the caveat that it wasn’t for everyone, like my favorite cheap whiskey or one of the early Man Man albums.

I stuck with netbooks for years after they hit their prime, because they were good extra computers and I was kind of tight-fisted. But after trying to retouch photos with just one during my first CES in 2012, their performance shortcomings became more and more evident. Meanwhile, my options had blossomed: the category of higher-powered thin-and-light ultrabooks was gaining momentum, tablets were true productivity devices, and Chromebooks offered similar basic features at a rock-bottom price. competition. Netbooks remain on sale today, but they are largely a holdover from an earlier era.

The GPD Pocket looks like a nostalgic throwback for netbook enthusiasts, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It brings back their combination of tiny form factor, long battery life, relatively low price, and full desktop operating system; you can even get a version with Ubuntu Linux. If it works well, I think there is a real audience, even if it’s niche. But without trying it, the Atom processor still makes me nervous, as does the size of the keyboard, which reminds me a bit too much of the Psion I briefly tried to write with.

Will I have a pocket? Probably not. My phone can now handle email and web browsing that I would once have used a netbook for, my MacBook can do heavy typing, and if I need a super portable writing tool, I have a literal paper notepad. Also, I still have three small computers stacked in my office, two of which I have rescued from neighbors and coworkers who are considering throwing them away. I can no longer bring fancy new netbooks into my life – I only collect stray animals. But here’s hoping GPD resurrects the best features in this particular class and makes new netbook converts along the way.


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