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Netbooks were a GOOD thing and we threw them under a bus

Fondleslabs and ultrabooks? Only if you've got deep pockets and short attention spans

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Packing for a week-and-a-half road trip to Silicon Valley and back triggered a moment of introspection over the impending end of netbook production.

I had some devices to choose from for my journey. I could have taken my Alienware MX18, my first-generation Samsung Galaxy Tab, my Asus Transformer, my Samsung NF210 Netbook, my Acer Aspire 5110 or my ageing 2006 silver Macbook Pro. Which to choose?

My primary consideration was battery life. I was moving from one PR schmoozefest to the next or locked in conference for the better part of 12 hours a day. One too many times I've gone to these shindigs only to discover that all the power plugs had been claimed long before I arrived. I predicted that I would realistically get one opportunity to recharge my devices per day: during merciful unconsciousness at the hotel.

The battery issues meant that the Macbook, the Alienware and the Acer were all out; none of these would last more than a couple of hours. It also took virtually every "Ultrabook" on the market out of contention: Intel still doesn't grok that "all-day battery life" means a minimum of eight functional hours, realistically 12.

I have a feeling that despite all the hype, Chipzilla's Haswell processor will ultimately not turn out to be the miracle that we've been promised. Those of us who value battery life are going to miss those small, cheap Atoms - or start turning to ARM for salvation. I sincerely hope Intel proves me wrong, but I remain skeptical.

Beyond battery life, the ideal device had to connect to the internet, let me comfortably RDP into my work and home virtual machines, use Dropbox, record audio, have a spare USB port to charge my phones. All my devices can do the above, except the 7" Galaxy Tab, which cannot share its battery with my phones via USB charging; so it was out. That leaves Android or Windows.

I love my Asus Transformer. It is nearly the perfect device. My only arguments with it lie in the crap Google keyboard (I need one with delete and backspace keys), that multitasking requires a series of workarounds and a lack of a workable WIMP* office package.

Office packages for Android are embarrassingly terrible. They are mediocre if you want to do minor edits on touch-only devices, but worthless with a keyboard and mouse. The availability of a WIMP version of Libreoffice on the Samsung netbook makes it the hands down winner here.

Were I in my home country of Canada – which has something resembling usable mobile internet infrastructure – I would have chosen the Transformer as my primary device. Its battery life is superior to the Atom-powered netbook: I have reliably squeezed 10 solid hours out of the unit as a thin client. The office package "disability" inherent to Android ceases to exist in that circumstance.

Differing goals

Google could make Android a serious contender as a "good enough" netbook OS in a very short timeframe. The web giant won't because it views Android as its touch-based consumptive tablet and phone OS, and ChromeOS as the desktop replacement. ChromeOS is entirely reliant on internet connectivity and keeps you trapped into doing everything using SaaS apps; great for Google because it can ruthlessly invade your privacy in order to sell more advertisements. Bad for us because it cripples the OS in order to achieve this goal.

Microsoft, similarly, has little interest in meeting the needs of people using computers on the go. Instead, we get this enormous bloated operating system that takes up way too much space and costs too much power. (Let's all have a nice long conversation about WinSXS and free space on your Surface tablets over time, shall we?) Microsoft's OS licensing is byzantine – in the case of VDI it is outright insulting – and the uncrippled versions only run on Intel's "not-quite-all-day" chips. That's without getting into the ridiculous farce that is the Metro user interface.

The only perennial non-Android manufacturer-supported Linux endpoint OS is Ubuntu. Unity and Gnome 3 are awful on the order of Windows 8: if you want a usable interface, you'll have to beat it into submission. If I have to beat something into submission, why am I paying money for it in the first place? Even if you happen to love Unity – you might want to have that looked at – if the rumours of Microsoft's potential massive investment in Dell prove true, we can probably kiss even this limited support goodbye as well.

The death of the "good enough" computer represented by the netbook disturbs me. I don't need anything more powerful than an Atom or modern ARM processor for the system I am hauling around with me. What I want is a multitasking operating system (Mint, preferably) with a passable WIMP office package. I want it installed – and supported - by a computer manufacturer on a device with 12 hours of real-world battery life and a 10" to 13" screen.

I don't care if the OS is Android, Windows, OS X, Tizen or Bubba-Bo-Bob's Fun Family Linux Distro. For the portable office/note-taking device, the OS is irrelevant so long as it runs usable apps and works on hardware I actually want to own.

In today's hype-fuelled world of incomplete UIs and desperate attempts to gain lock-in and increase the average revenue per user, is there any manufacturer out there brave enough to risk the wrath of the dominant operating system vendors? Is there a hardware maker brave enough to provide not what the tech giants envision, but what users actually need? I hope that by the time this netbook of mine is ready to give up the ghost, the answer is yes. ®

* Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer - you know, typical desktop mouse-driven software, not swipe and smear touchscreen stuff.

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