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How Small Is Your PC? The Rise of Netbooks and Other Small Form-Factor PCs

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With laptop sales outpacing desktops, and mobile phones outselling both, David Chisnall talks about the current state of portable computing and where he thinks it will end up.

Something happened around the year 2000 that changed my computer-buying patterns. CPU speeds got fast enough that my CPU usage graph rarely hit 100%. Some things that I do still tax it, of course. Running pdfLaTeX on a book to turn a few hundred kilobytes of text and markup into a large PDF takes around 10 seconds on my Core 2 Duo (versus around a minute on my last laptop), and big compile jobs are still time-consuming.

In 2004, I bought a laptop that had very similar specs to the desktop I was using at the time. The desktop was a few years old at that point, and the laptop was a lot more expensive. My reason for upgrading was not to get a faster computer, but rather a more convenient one. I can use my laptop in bed or sitting in the park or in my garden. I can't do the same with my desktop.

Since I bought my laptop, a new category of device has started to gain a lot of attention. These things, variously called netbooks, mobile Internet devices (MIDs), or other buzzwords, are somewhere between a laptop and a PDA. In some cases, they have the same form factor as a PDA, but with enough processing power to be considered a real computer. My current mobile phone is a few years old (and was cheap when I got it), but even it has a 200 MHz CPU and 32MB of RAM—the same specs as my workstation a decade ago. Where, then, are these devices going to end up?

What Is a Netbook?

The term netBook (note the spelling) originally referred to a machine, produced by Psion, which ran EPOC32—the operating system that would later become Symbian. The OS included the Opera web browser and a mail client, a serial port for connecting to either a modem or a mobile phone, and optionally supported a WiFi card—all of this back in 2000.

More recently, Intel has tried to appropriate the term netbook to describe a new category of device. This is somewhat ironic, considering that Psion's netBook device contained an ARM chip, and Intel wants to make x86 chips a standard component of the form factor.

A netbook is smaller than a laptop, but bigger than a mobile phone. It's also bigger than a PDA, which means that you can't fit it in your pocket. I'm not entirely sure I see the attraction of the form factor, to be honest. I tend to view computers as coming in five sizes:

  • Small enough to fit in a single room
  • Small enough to fit on a desk
  • Small enough to fit in a bag
  • Small enough to fit in a pocket
  • Small enough to wear

A netbook and a laptop both fall into the "small enough to fit in a bag" category, but neither will fit in a pocket. I have a machine that I can fit in my pocket—my Nokia 770—but it's a bit underpowered for regular use. The 770 has a Texas Instruments OMAP CPU. The latest one in this series runs at around 600 MHz, with a 400 MHz digital signal processor (DSP) and an OpenGL ES 2.0 graphic processing unit (GPU). The latest revision of this chip can have up to 256MB of RAM and 512MB of flash in a package-on-package configuration, where each of the three chips is layered on top of the others, requiring no connections on the motherboard. Of course, it won't run Windows—but these days neither do I.

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