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Can netbooks be cool again?

Earlier this week, my colleague Chaim Gartenberg covered a laptop called the GPD Pocket, which is currently being funded on Indiegogo. As Chaim pointed out, the Pocket’s main advantage is its size — with a 7-inch screen, the thing is really, really small — and its price, a reasonable $399. But he didn’t mention that the Pocket is the resurrection of one of the most compelling, yet fatally flawed, computing trends of the ‘00s: the netbook. So after ten years, are netbooks finally cool again? That might be putting it too strongly, but I’m willing to hope.

If you’ve quite understandably forgotten 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 a ridiculously tiny 4GB of flash memory instead of a hard drive. Especially if you were a college student at the time, it was amazing. The Eee PC had the portability of an ultra-mobile PC, but at the cost of a cheapo Windows laptop. It was a tiny Linux-based notebook like the OLPC XO-1, but felt actually usable, instead of just confusing. The battery wasn’t incredible, but you could eke several hours out of it at a time, a great improvement over my portable desktop at the time. And the thing was adorable, especially because Asus’ slogan at the time was “Rock solid, heart touching,” which splashed on the screen every time you booted it up.

Over the next few years, basically every Windows PC maker produced its own cheap, ultra-portable laptop. If you needed a lightweight, low-investment machine to write papers and surf Facebook on, these were perfect. The iPad wouldn’t be released until 2010, and the first-generation MacBook Air — at that point the coolest thin-and-light laptop on the market — cost over $1,500. Most netbooks started shipping with sizable hard drives and some version of Windows, which eliminated the hurdle of switching to Linux. Battery life stretched to six or eight hours. Designs stayed light, but screens and keyboards got a little bigger, making the experience more comfortable.

But netbooks also came with major compromises. One was the ubiquitous Intel Atom low-power processor, which sometimes struggled with handling basic computer multitasking. Windows felt slow and heavy compared to a good netbook-specific flavor of Linux, but if you needed to run a Windows-specific program, you’d be out of luck. (Yes, you could set up a dual-boot system. That requires more effort than most people want to put into a $400 laptop.) And even as netbooks grew in size, their keyboards were often cramped — my small fingers started to feel like a superpower, and I still had trouble with the original Eee PC. After a while, the netbook became one of those things I’d suggest with the cautious qualification that it wasn’t for everybody, like my favorite cheap whiskey or an early Man Man album.

I stuck with netbooks years after they had peaked, because they were good supplementary computers and I was kind of a cheapskate. But after trying to edit photos with one at my first CES in 2012, their performance shortcomings became more and more evident. Meanwhile, my options had blossomed: the higher-powered thin-and-light ultrabook category was gaining steam, tablets were real productivity devices, and Chromebooks offered similar basic capabilities at a rock-bottom price. Netbooks remain on sale today, but they’re largely holdovers from an earlier time.

The GPD Pocket feels like a nostalgic throwback for netbook lovers, and that’s both a good and 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’s a real, if niche, audience. But without trying it, the Atom processor still makes me nervous, and so does the keyboard size, which reminds me a tiny bit too much of the Psion I briefly tried writing with.

Will I get a Pocket? Probably not. My phone can now handle the emails and web surfing I’d have once used a netbook for, my MacBook can do the heavy typing, and if I need a super-portable writing tool, I’ve got a literal paper notebook. Besides, I still have three little computers stacked around my office, two of which I rescued from neighbors and coworkers planning to throw them out. I can’t take any more fancy new netbooks into my life — I only collect strays. But here’s hoping that GPD resurrects the best features of this peculiar category, and makes some new netbook converts along the way.


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