Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ultrabooks: The Future of Netbooks

Netbooks, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

First off, you're exactly as slow as balls. Like, exactly. That's because you all use identical, anemic Intel Atom processors, slow-spinning cut-cost hard drives, and a mere 1 GB of RAM. Just because Windows will run on you doesn't mean that it should - in fact, part of the reason the netbook experience is so bad is that Windows 7 was, at its heart, designed for computers with more oomph.

But, netbooks, it's not just your wimpy internal hardware that makes me cringe: it's also that you're so damn cheap. Not, like, cheap in price, which we'll talk about later, but cheap in construction, all flimsy plastic chassis and bad, washed-out screens, and cramped keyboards are the order of the day.

Netbooks, as originally conceived, were about running a simple OS designed to check email and browse the Internet, while maintaining good battery life. Netbooks, as executed, are disappointing, cheap, hard-to-recommend little machines that try to do everything a PC can do and fail miserably and only last for a few hours while they're doing it.

The failure of netbooks as they are shouldn't distract us from the real market demand for a computer that does what the netbook set out to do - deliver the essentials of the computing experience in a small, lightweight form factor with good battery life. Enter Intel's Ultrabook, which aims to be just such a product.

To understand the Ultrabook proposal, we must first look at another form factor that has, generally speaking, fulfilled the netbook's original promise: the tablet.

We'll use the iPad as an example, since it pioneered the market and is still largely dominant: it got around speed problems not necessarily by using stronger hardware, but by running an operating system tailored to convey the hardware's strengths (low-power requirements, Flash storage with no moving parts, small physical size) while covering up its weaknesses (low clock speed, limited RAM). And it's not just the internal hardware that makes tablets appealing - the best of them are also thin and light and easy to use, and aim to simplify the computing experience as much as possible.

All of these reasons explain why tablets have basically killed the netbook, but they're also informing where the netbook is going - Intel's Ultrabook wants to speed the netbook experience up by using fast, solid-state hard drives and processors built more like those found in regular laptops - that is to say, not the horrible Atom. The operating system will likely still be Windows (or some possibly Android-flavored version of Linux), but the mandatory hardware improvements (it can't be called an Ultrabook without the improvements, for whatever it's worth) should drastically improve the experience.

If the aforementioned notebook sounds a bit familiar to you, it's because there's already a version of it that exists: the most recent revision of the MacBook Air introduces most of these innovations, and it did it in October of last year instead of at some indeterminate point in the future. Just as the MacBook Pros will eventually lose their optical drives and become more like MacBook Air, so the standard laptops of today will slowly shed unnecessary extra parts to become more like these Ultrabooks.

So, netbooks suck, tablets are better, and netbooks that take some good ideas from tablets and actually run well are now going to be called Ultrabooks. Look for them, and read more here while you're at it.