SpoonFed: Will Smartbooks Sink or Swim?

They’re getting bigger—and they’re about to get smaller, too. Apparently there’s a fork in the road up ahead for netbooks, and the two paths couldn’t diverge more. On one side, you have devices with 11- and 12-inch displays that offer just enough screen real estate and power that owners wouldn’t think twice about using them as their primary PCs. Down the other road, are the “smartbooks,” a term recently coined by Qualcomm, which refer to devices that are even thinner and lighter than today’s netbooks. These devices also boast integrated mobile broadband and GPS, and last all day on a charge. Wait a minute. Didn’t I just describe a smart phone?

Therein lies the challenge for Qualcomm, Nvidia, Freescale, and others entering the smartbook market: Convincing the masses that a smart phone with a much larger screen (and in most cases, a full-size keyboard) is worth schlepping around.

The slick video Qualcomm recently posted on its promotional site for smartbooks, shows you several scenarios in which you might use such a device. These include surfing the Web, playing games, and in-car navigation. The iPhone and other smart phones already do all of these things, and they fit in your pocket. A smartbook would need to fit in a backpack or a purse.

So, who might want a smartbook when they start appearing this fall? People looking for an even lower-cost alternative to today’s netbooks. And there are some pretty compelling reasons to believe that smartbooks will resonate with buyers, especially if wireless carriers sell them at a steep discount when bundled with a data plan. Unlike Windows-powered netbooks, smartbooks turn on almost instantly and last longer on a charge (sans a bulky battery). Some even promise high-def video playback and robust 3D graphics performance.

This week at Computex, we went hands-on with some of the first smartbooks, and came away more intrigued than impressed.

These systems included a 10-inch ASUS Eee PC powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon CPU running Google Android, an 8.9-inch mini powered by Nvidia’s Tegra platform running Windows CE, and a 10-inch Wistron machine powered by an 800-MHz Freescale processor running Ubuntu Linux. The ASUS performed like a smart phone, taking several seconds to load some applications, but it was a very early prototype. Nvidia’s smartbook seemed speedy, and sported a more polished interface; and the Freescale machine wasn’t the peppiest multitasker but played a movie trailer smoothly.

Smartbooks have potential, especially if they leverage touchscreen interfaces as well as today’s smart phones do. But, their success hinges on whether consumers will want to carry a device that looks like a notebook, but doesn’t run full Windows—and on whether smartbook makers can convince us that longer endurance is worth that trade-off.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.