Small is beautiful - Dec 4th 2008 From The Economist print edition
Computing: Netbooks are small computers that are cheaper and lighter than full-scale laptops. They have their merits—but do not ask too much of them
STEVE JOBS says Apple does not know how to make a $500 computer “that’s not a piece of junk”. Yet this article was written on a small computer that costs less than that—and barely a quarter of the price of the Apple iMac that sits on the desk beside it. Small, cheap mini-notebooks like this, or “netbooks” as they have come to be called, are not as fast or as capable as a big computer like an iMac, and in performance terms they trail behind most laptops. But they are certainly not junk, and for some people they may be the best computers money can buy.
Netbooks are a hot-selling consumer product. The first to appear on the market, a year or so ago, were aimed at children. But now they are proving popular not just with families and first-time computer buyers but also with power users who want something small, lightweight and cheap.
They typically have screens measuring seven to ten inches diagonally. They have built-in wireless networking, but lack an optical drive for CDs or DVDs. Some use flash memory for storage instead of a hard disk, which makes them more robust and extends battery life. Netbooks generally cost less than $500. IDC, a market-research firm, reckons worldwide sales of netbooks will reach 10.8m in 2008 and more than 20m in 2009, during which they will represent 11-12% of the entire laptop market.
Keep it simple: Most current models, including Samsung’s NC10, much of the Asus Eee range, the MSI Wind and the Acer Aspire One, use Intel’s Atom as their central processor. This is the chipmaker’s smallest processor, designed specifically for low-cost and portable devices, not for intensive number-crunching. But because a lot of things that people do with computers, such as e-mail, writing and web browsing, do not require fancy graphics or lots of processing power, netbooks can still be extremely useful.
The number of netbooks available is growing as more producers pile into the market (but not Apple—at least, not yet). But if you are buying one, avoid the temptation to get the slickest, most powerful machine available. Much advice on offer online suggests souping up the specification of a netbook so it can run Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system, rather than the free, open-source Linux system that is offered as standard on many netbooks.
Yet increasing the specification only makes sense for people who want to run (and to pay for) Windows and specific Windows-based applications. The extra hardware and software costs start to push the price of a netbook towards that of a standard laptop, which will invariably be better because it has a bigger processor and superior graphics. For many users, the basic, free software shipped with a netbook will be quite enough.
The most basic model of the Acer Aspire One can be found for £179 in Britain and around $300 in America. It simply switches on and runs with the minimum of fuss. It has 8 gigabytes (GB) of flash storage and 512 megabytes of RAM, which is a bit puny. But that is perfectly adequate to run the customised version of Linux that comes pre-installed on it, along with a suite of software, including Open Office. With no hard drive, and a switch to turn off the wireless connection (not the fastest in the world), power can be conserved. So a bigger, bulkier battery may not be necessary either, unless you want to use the computer untethered for long periods. Because it boots up in a few seconds, rather than thinking of the Acer as a mini laptop it might make more sense to view it as a beefed-up personal digital assistant, such as an old PalmPilot or Psion, but with a better screen and a proper keyboard.
But what about the lack of storage? Again, the way the machine can be used addresses this problem. First, netbooks are designed to be used with the net, which is where an increasing number of people now store a lot of their stuff, such as e-mail, videos and photos, and where people do other work with online applications. Second, with three USB ports it can always be plugged into devices, such as a portable hard drive, to store things locally. Storage space can also be boosted by plugging a small SD-card flash memory (16GB versions are now widely available) into one of two ports, one of which is designated to act as semi-permanent storage.
As for the software, Open Office was surprisingly easy to use—a doddle for anyone who has used Microsoft Office. Moreover, the ability to save work in different formats presented no compatibility problems when sending files to a Windows-based machine. Photo software and other applications were simple to use too. The machine is not up to much for playing games, but then a dedicated games console beats most computers when it comes to games anyway.
The Acer has a built-in webcam, which makes it ideal for video-calling services such as Skype. Admittedly, installing third-party software can be a bit of a fiddle, and some of the advice available online threatens to lure users into the tangled depths of the Linux undergrowth, where few people will want to venture. But as netbooks become more prevalent, such difficulties are likely to ease.
The upshot is that netbooks are great as cheap, simple and small computers for performing basic tasks—especially if the pre-installed software does what you want it to. They will never satisfy power users who want to edit video and play elaborate games, but they are not meant to. Provided they do not expect too much, most users will be delighted with them.