Since before the release of Asus’ first EeePC, people have complained about the speed, or lack thereof, experienced on the netbook form factor. Issues such as boot time, lag between clicks, slow application load times, and limited screen resolutions have been the key concerns for many of the people who report on such issues as technology. But, despite these supposedly grave disadvantages, people are enamored with the super cheap, relatively peppy machines. So this begs the question: what’s the problem with netbooks?
The idea behind the netbook is nothing new. Essentially they’re supposed to be functional computers in a size that’s substantially smaller than a regular notebook, with the ability to do things just as easily. For a long time the market was dominated by companies such as Kojinsha, who would often charge a substantial price for something that was poorly designed and truly underpowered. When Intel released their Atom processor, the playing field was changed drastically almost overnight, as it meant that companies could now produce incredibly cheap machines that were half the size of a notebook and could do just as much as the average entry-level machine. Due to the relatively low amount of processing power, the netbooks were first sold using a light form of Linux. However, when Linux-based machines failed to catch on, companies like Asus and Acer began selling the same machines with Windows XP installed. Since a large portion of the population was already familiar with Windows XP, this configuration became an instant success.
Yet, despite this success, reviewers continued to say just how weak these machines were and how Atom-based computers could never replace a Core2Duo-based machine for the regular day-to-day.
But is this statement true for average computer users, or merely an opinion by people who merely review computers?
Should Businesses Be Atom-Powered?
Processors have come a long way since I first started expressing an interest in computers. Back in the good ol’ days of 1995, people would scoff at 133 MHz processors saying that no business person would ever need so much power. Yet now we have cell phones capable of more calculations per second than an entire computer lab could ever hope to achieve fifteen years ago. Looking at how different business processes were in the mid-90s to how they are today, though, reveals that much of the raw processing power sitting under the hood of our desktop computers is completely wasted. Systems sit idle for so much of the day that it’s hardly worth even paying to have a Core2Duo in most businesses.
I examined some of the activities of business people here in Japan perform on a daily basis and, while this is by no means a thorough investigation, it reveals that while computer technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last decade, the software used in the office has not. Here’s a taste of what I see in most organizations (excluding departments such as R&D and Graphic Design where a computer can actually be thoroughly used):
- OS: Windows XP, Windows NT 4.0
- Office Software: Microsoft Office 2000, XP, 2003
- Company Software: Something written in VB6 or run through a web browser
- Other Software: Solitaire, iTunes, Adobe Acrobat Reader, MSN Messenger, and Windows Media Player
Hmm … nothing on this list aside from the current bloatware of Adobe Acrobat Reader would require anything above a first generation Pentium 4, and those computers would be considered ancient by today’s standards. So why are so many companies spending a ludicrous amount of money every few years to upgrade their computers when a 35,000円 netbook would work just as well? Heck, for the number of places I’ve seen with notebooks chained to the desk, they might as well skip the netbook route and just go with nettops and a cheap 15v or 17v monitor. The total cost of a new system would run less than 50,000円 and would use quite a bit less power than the current run of machines. Depending on the total cost of savings, a company might even use this as a marketing tool saying they’re being more “Eco” than the competition.
But They’re So Weak
I had the rare opportunity of speaking with someone in the IT department of a large organization a few weeks ago and asked them this very question. They responded by saying something along the lines of “we’ve looked at netbooks running at Bic Camera and found them to be too slow for the employees”. I asked a few more questions, trying to probe deeper, but each question was met with the lack-of-speed answer. So, as many have come to expect, I decided to prove once and for all that an Atom-based system would be more than enough for the average business person in Japan.
I pulled out my AspireOne and hit the power button. 22 seconds later the system finished a cold boot, I typed in my password, and the computer was logged in and ready for me to use it. He asked me to load Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all at the same time. I did, and opened some of the bigger files that I had for each. A 390 page Word file full of images, formatting, and everything else that makes Word slow and sluggish. The Excel file was full of VLookups, had two pivot tables, hundreds of calculations, and was spread out over 14 workbooks. The PowerPoint presentation had over 90 slides, embedded video, a special font, hundreds of images, and lots of animations. The Acer continued to purr as though it hadn’t loaded anything to begin with.
“You program, right? Can you show me how fast those IDE's load?”
I laughed inside as I knew what was going to happen next. I fired up Visual Studio 2005, phpDesigner, and MySQL Query Browser. phpDesigner had 8 PHP files open. MySQL Query Browser, a known memory hog, was connected but hadn’t run a query. Visual Studio had a small solution I was working on for Windows Mobile 6. Nothing too extreme.
“Now Alt+Tab through your programs.”
I did as he asked, and he noticed that there was a definite lag as the system went from Visual Studio to phpDesigner, and from Word to Excel. The wait was just over one second. It took less than a half-second for the other applications to cycle.
Kenji: "See. That’s why we can’t use netbooks where we are. It’s not powerful enough."
Me: "Not powerful enough? I’m running seven rather large applications, Adobe Air is running in the background, the loaded files are both big and complex, and the lag when Alt+Tabbing is less than a second for most applications. How can these things not be powerful enough for the average business user?"
Kenji: "Business users don’t like to be kept waiting."
I didn’t even know how to respond to this statement. It’s obvious that business users don’t like to be waiting on their tools, but I’ve yet to meet a non-technical businessman who can tell the difference between an Atom and a Celeron, or even tell me what these words refer to. Sure, my AspireOne required about 20 seconds to load Visual Studio, and another 30 seconds to load the mobile application solution, but this is hardly something that needs to be done in 10 seconds or less. A full-time application developer would more often than not have a more powerful computer to develop on in any case.
Not wanting to miss his chance to show me just how stupid I really am, Kenji took out his Core2Duo-based Let’sNote and proceeded to launch the 2003 versions of Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, and Word. He then Alt+Tabbed through each of the (empty) applications to show me just how little lag there was, except it would have been unnoticeable to anyone who didn't have an atomic clock embedded into their skull. His (misconfigured) Core2Duo with four times as much RAM, faster graphics card, and every other bell and whistle he (probably) didn’t need was not noticeably faster running empty documents through Microsoft Office than my cheap little AspireOne could when it was displaying big and heavy graphics files.
Kenji: "When a businessman needs something done, I make sure they have all the power they can handle."
Me: "Well, clearly you know more about this than I do."
Kenji went on to berate my intelligence on everything digital for another 20 minutes before putting his Core2Duo back in its bag. I can’t quite remember everything he said during that time, which means it wasn’t useful or thought provoking, but I am fairly confident that he’ll be ordering Atom-based notebooks for new recruits next year to be hailed as a cost-cutting genius by his boss. He may not have wanted to admit that the Atom-based AspireOne was just as capable of performing regular office duties as the more expensive Core2Duo-based machines, but his eyes said it all.
Too Slow To Be Useful?
Maybe I’m just foolish enough to believe that the average person does not need half of the computing power that’s now available for about 70,000円, but if my AspireOne can use something as big as Visual Studio 2005 and something that leaks as much memory as MySQL Query Browser, then the average person should have no troubles so long as the screen size is big enough to be comfortable, no?
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m blind to the reality of what goes on in most offices around the world (I’d honestly be shocked if this wasn’t the case). So are Atom-based or Ion-based systems up to the challenge of being business machines? Does the average person really need a Core2Duo for a web browser and 5 year-old Microsoft Office software? I’d love to hear your thoughts.