Netbooks Aren't Dead, They've Risen as Windows 8 Hybrids

PHOTO: An Acer netbook is pictured left, an Acer Windows 8 tablet / keyboard hybrid on the right.Acer
An Acer netbook is pictured left, an Acer Windows 8 tablet / keyboard hybrid on the right.

I am typing this piece on a cramped keyboard. On the 10.1-inch screen, I have Internet Explorer open on the left and a Word document on the right.

In 2009 you would have assumed I was pounding away on a netbook -- the type of machine that The Guardian reports is now officially dead. The paper didn't quite write a heartfelt obit, but did report that the last two major PC makers making netbooks -- Acer and Asus -- have halted production of their little laptops.

That's right, all the major PC makers -- Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung, Dell and HP -- that started making the once-popular, very affordable and portable Windows PCs starting in 2008, all have killed off their netbook lines.

Yet they haven't really. They killed them -- only to bring them right back to life with a twist. Yes, the undead netbooks -- zombies, if you like -- are still rolling off the production lines. You could call them tablet hybrids.

A New Touch of Windows
Look at HP's Envy X2, Asus' Vivo Tab, or Samsung's Ativ Smart PC 500T. Acer's W510 (the machine on which I have written this entire editorial). All of those are tablets, which run Windows 8. But with each comes a keyboard dock, turning them into mini-laptops. You've got it: just like those old netbooks.

By that definition you could say the iPad can be made into a netbook with one of the many Bluetooth keyboards available, but these hybrid tablets have more in common with those now-perished netbooks. They have Intel Atom processors (the same family Intel put in netbooks), 10- to 11-inch screens, and they're being marketed as devices you can work and play on. True fans of the Eee PC, Asus' netbook line, will remember that those three E's stood for "Easy to Learn, Easy to Work, Easy to Play."

They are also quick to boot, connect to the Internet, and get upwards of seven hours of battery life (even more if there is an extra battery in the dock) -- just as the netbooks promised. I'm not including Windows RT tablets here, like the Microsoft Surface RT -- those are cheaper, but don't run older Windows programs.

But there are a few significant things that set them apart from the original netbook generation. First, they are more expensive. The $299 to $399 price tags were arguably what fueled the popularity of the small computers. Most of the new machines start at around $650. And then there's the new and improved operating system -- Windows 8. Microsoft's designed Windows 8 for touch, but also for keyboards and mice. The company has made it very clear that it wanted to embrace the new style of mobile apps without giving up the familiarity and productivity of Windows.

"You have the full power of being able to use Office," Steven Sinofsky, the former head of the Windows team, told me before he left the company in November. "We didn't want to give that up."

With the new set of smaller hybrids -- the 10-inch tablets with keyboards, not the more powerful Intel Core processor powered ultrabooks like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga -- Microsoft wanted to take the best of the tablet (or really what Apple did with the iPad), and merge it with the productivity and portability of netbooks and laptops.

History Repeats
It makes a lot of sense. Who doesn't want just one computer and tablet? But the problem is that Swiss-army-knife devices -- ones that try to do it all -- usually have big drawbacks.

Some are heavy, the keyboards are cramped and the track pads can be horrendous (my thumb is actually red from using the track pad on this Acer). Others are slower and simply don't provide the power and smooth experience you'd expect for $600. (Laptop Magazine has a great piece quantifying the shortcomings.) When we were dealing with $299 computers maybe that was acceptable, but not when you are inching toward $1,000.

Unfortunately, it really is as Apple CEO Tim Cook put it: "The problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone," Cook said on an earnings call in April. "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user."

Just like the original netbooks, the new hybrids don't provide anywhere near the performance of a real laptop or ultrabook. And then there's the device that already has blood on its hands for killing the first generation of netbooks -- the iPad. As tablets, the new Windows 8 devices are just not as good as the iPad. At least not yet.

Bottom line: You're better off getting a thin and light laptop or an iPad or cheaper tablet. Once again, netbooks are stuck making serious compromises, and this time there isn't the cheap price tag to keep them alive.

But, of course, zombies can pretty much survive anything.