Requiem for a netbook
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I bought my last laptop.
It was back in 2008, and the machine — an Asus EEE 1000 — was part of a then-new category of computing devices. They were called “netbooks.” And they were awesome.
The basic idea behind the netbook was simple. The potential of a given laptop has always been constrained by a set of three factors: performance, weight, and price. Of those three, you get to pick two. So you can get a fast, cheap laptop, but it will be heavy; or an expensive, light laptop, but it will be relatively slow. You have to trade off one to get the other two, so picking a machine becomes a matter of determining which of the three factors you can live without.
Traditionally manufacturers came at this problem with two kinds of machines: light and expensive, and heavy and cheap. But the netbook was designed to create a third category: light and cheap.
It got there by sacrificing computing power. A lot of computing power. But the insight the designers of the netbook had was that for most people, modern computers are massively overpowered anyway. You don’t need a quad-core CPU to check your email and play Angry Birds. So by giving up that power, they were able to deliver machines that were both super-portable, and absurdly cheap. (If I remember correctly, mine cost around $400.)
Anyway, I didn’t expect much from that machine, given the low price. I figured it’d be fun to play with, but that I’d probably have to replace it with a “real” laptop in the near term. I was surprised to find as I used it, though, that this was not true. I never felt I was missing out on anything by using the netbook instead of a traditional laptop — especially after installing Ubuntu on it. It was more than adequate for my on-the-road computing needs. And because it was so small and light (and thoughtfully designed), it turned out to be pretty rugged as well. All the storage was solid-state (in 2008! I know, right?), so I could just throw it in a bag and go without having to worry about delicate hard disks. It even had a near-full-size keyboard, so I could touch-type without missing a step.
It was kind of the perfect mobile computer.
Anyway, lately, after all these years of reliable service, I started thinking that maybe its time had come. Not because the hardware ever failed, but just because operating systems and software have made huge advances in the last five years, and the EEE’s weak Atom processor is having more and more trouble keeping up. So I reluctantly started looking around for a 2013 replacement.
It turns out that there are none. Netbooks exploded in popularity in the late 2000s, but the PC makers never really liked them, for the simple reason that they were cheap. No OEM wants to sell $400 machines when they’re used to selling $2,000 ones. And then Apple showed them the way to keep those margins high. Apple never made a netbook. Instead, they attacked that market from two different angles: tablets for people with super-simple needs who were very price-sensitive, and super-sleek ultralight laptops for those who cared more about low weight and didn’t care about price. The strategy worked out well for them, and all the other OEMs stampeded to follow. So today there’s really no machines made with the same “cheap and cheerful” style as the old netbooks; if you want something lightweight, you either buy a tablet for a few hundred bucks, or an “ultrabook” for four times as much.
So goes the world, I suppose. I need to do some work on the road, so a tablet was out; which meant ultrabook or nothing. So now I’m the owner of a shiny new Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch, which I’m writing this post on.
But I kind of hate that I am. The X1 is a nice machine, don’t get me wrong. But it costs more than three times as much as the EEE did. While it’s very slick-looking, and quite rugged (in the classic ThinkPad style), it’s anything but cheap and cheerful. There’s no room in the market for cheap and cheerful anymore.
It’s too bad. My EEE always struck me as a modern incarnation of the spirit of an older machine, the TRS-80 Model 100. That was an extremely simple machine — just a tiny screen and a keyboard. But you could run a tank over it and it’d come up smiling, and it had a built-in modem so you could connect up to the home office anywhere there was a telephone line, and it ran on available-everywhere AA batteries, so it found a niche among people like foreign correspondents who needed simple and reliable more than they needed sexy. And those folks found the Model 100 so useful they held on to them for decades — even long after technology had supposedly passed them by.
I like humility and loyalty more than swagger and flash. So inexpensive, tough machines like the EEE and the Model 100 are closer to my heart than brushed-aluminum top-dollar MacBooks. But the market, it turns out, doesn’t care much for humility. So I end up with a ThinkPad Carbon.
Am I complaining? Nah. The ThinkPad is a fine machine, at least so far. But the EEE was something special. And I wish that we lived in a world where “special” wasn’t a synonym for “doomed.”