Ultrabooks to get the CES spotlight, netbooks get the knife

It's a shame the tech industry never liked netbooks

Some 150,000 people are expected to attend the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) next week, and most of them kick netbooks to the curb as they rush to fawn over the pricey ultrabook and lower-cost full-sized laptops.

For sure, there will still be netbook announcements at CES, but this category of hardware is on its last legs -- at least in Western markets.

Vendors have already started to pull back. Just last month, Dell said that it's ending its netbook production. But before bidding netbooks a fond farewell, let's praise them as well as pin the blame on those responsible for their demise.

Netbooks were done in largely by three things:

  1. A PC industry that set rigid rules on memory
  2. Microsoft's Windows 7 "Starter" edition that ships with netbooks
  3. The press, which largely parrots PC industry claims that netbooks are only good for Web browsing and email

Netbooks remain viable, useful and inexpensive, and their performance capabilities will only get better with Intel's new Atom chip. Dubbed, Cedar Trail, it is a dual-core Atom 32-nanometer chip with clock speeds of up to 2.13GHz.

But netbook vendors looking to showcase new models at CES will largely be consigned to the shadows by what's expected to be several ultrabook announcements. The irony is that at CES, where open electric outlets will be impossible to find, netbook users will be in the best position to survive the conference with working systems.

With six-cell batteries, most netbooks deliver battery life of between seven to nine hours. And it's easy to carry a back-up battery in a bag because netbooks don't take up a lot of space.

Netbooks, as a product category, arrived in 2007. Some of the initial models were lemons, including a 4GB flash drive Linux model by Asus (one of four netbooks I've owned) that shipped with about 95% of the hard-drive taken up by pre-installed applications. But it's hard, in hindsight, not to admire the creativity and experimentation the category engendered.

No doubt, sales of the iPad hurt the netbook market, as did the arrival of the MacBook Air, Apple's take on the thin, sleek and sexy ultrabook category. Thin and light, with a full-size keyboard, solid-state storage and a reasonably fast processor, the Air paved the way for what's coming.

But what may have hurt the netbook segment the most are the rules around it.

Netbooks ship with 1GB RAM and most vendors don't offer custom configurations. RAM upgrades (most support 2GB of memory) are a do-it-yourself option. That's one strike against netbooks.

The second strike against netbooks was delivered by Microsoft.

Microsoft initially considered shipping Windows 7 Starter edition -- the default OS on netbooks -- with a limit on the number of apps that could run at any one time to three. To its credit, Microsoft dropped that unreasonable limit, but the very idea of a restricted "starter" OS most likely chilled the market for Windows 7 on netbooks.

The third strike was delivered by the press. Although there were many technical reviews that provided clear-eye assessments of netbook capabilities, the broader picture that always seemed to be that netbooks have limited functionality.

But netbooks were never as limited as they were made out to be.

With 2GB of RAM on my two-year old Toshiba NB205, I can edit photos using Adobe Photoshop Elements, run TweetDeck, have 15 or so open Chrome Windows as well as run Office -- all without a hiccup. At home, the Toshiba is connected to a 23-in. monitor. With hibernation mode, it's almost instant on/off.

Some people, of course, will never accept the limits of netbooks, and for good reasons. The screen size and inability to run intensive applications doesn't work for them. But as an all-day and all-night road warrior machine they're hard to beat.

Without the ability to break free from vendor-imposed configuration constraints, falling laptop prices will ultimately cause the netbook to vanish.

A local Costco, for instance, was recently selling an Acer netbook with an 11.6-in. LED screen, an AMD dualcore chip, 4GB RAM and a 500GB drive with six-cell battery for $349. That's less than the cost of my Toshiba.

The problem with netbooks is they were just too good and too cheap. Ultrabooks may eventually prove to be very good, but they aren't cheap. And that's why at CES this year it will be: All hail the ultrabook.

Want more on CES? See our roundup of everything you need to know from CES.

Follow our staffers live from CES in Las Vegas Jan. 8-12 on Twitter: @Computerworld/CES.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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