Jag Venugopal's Blog

November 12, 2012

Return of the Netbook

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 9:10 pm

Amid all the hoopla about this tablet and that, the resurgence of netbooks has quietly flown under the radar. A few years ago, they were all the rage, and for a while until the arrival of the iPad, were very popular. I bought my father in law a WinXP based netbook three years ago, which serves him faithfully to this day.

The netbook had many disadvantages, however. The major one was that the Intel Atom was vastly underpowered for Windows (XP/Vista/7), and using one was a subpar experience. There were a few that ran various versions of Linux (e.g. Lindows) but they, too, floundered quickly.

Google is betting that the next iteration of netbooks in its Chromebook avatar can change all that. The Chromebook runs Google’s derivative of Linux, called Chrome OS. Where it departs from traditional Linux and Windows OS’es is that none of the operating system is exposed to the user. They see only the Chrome browser. The bet is that the user will perform all activities in Chrome and save their work to Google’s cloud. Thus, instead of Microsoft Office bloatware, the user is directed to Google docs and Google email. The operating system is reportedly kept secure by allowing virtually nothing else to run on it other than “Chrome Apps”. Now I’ve never tried a Chrome App, but I believe it is a scripted application that runs on the Chrome browser.

The Samsung version of the Chromebook is a super-slim affair, resembling a much more expensive Macbook Air. It contains no hard drive, and 16 GB of Flash memory. The CPU is an ARM derivative manufactured by Samsung. Because its an ARM, power consumption is much lower than X86, allowing the system to be designed without a fan or other accoutrements common to Windows machines (e.g. VGA port). As with all Chromebooks, the OS is installed and is self-updating over the web. There are no patches to apply, and no antivirus to download.

While the Samsung was a bargain at $250, and continues to have customers on a waiting list at Amazon, there is a newer kid on the block. This one is from ASUS. It appears that ASUS has repurposed a traditional netbook (X86, 320 GB HDD, all PC ports) into a Chromebook for an even lower price of $199. For that kind of money, expect a much heavier and thicker machine than the Samsung.

Google may find a niche with its Chromebooks, for users that live their electronic lives in the cloud (preferably Google properties), and that have robust Internet connections. For such people, the devices present a zero-hassle computing system that allows them to get 80% of their job done at far lesser cost than a Wintel solution.

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