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Smartbook: the ultimate evolution of the netbook?

10 things Google can do to popularise the form factor

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The netbook promises convenience and capability in a small, lightweight, and generally inexpensive package, and the concept of a smartbook goes even further: a handy-dandy combination of smartphone and notebook. Alas, most netbook offerings come burdened with a full blown Windows operating system, which runs slowly on performance-limited netbook hardware and saps battery life. And Windows is not exactly smartphone-oriented.

AndroidCould Google's Android come to rescue the netbook and enable the smartbook vision? After all, Android is a fast, lightweight OS, proven in the mobile phone market, with an elegant user interface and application portability. It's a natural candidate for the OS inside your dream netbook.

There are signs that Google is preparing for a new generation of netbooks and smartbooks, with its OS at the centre, but it's not so clear which Google OS. Motorola's Droid smartphone shipped recently based on Android 2.0, which adds interesting netbook-oriented features such as variable screen size. But then last week Google demonstrated its Chrome OS, the core of a future cloud-based web appliance, slated to ship a year from now, raising questions about whether Android is really appropriate as a netbook OS. Is Android a dessert topping or a furniture polish? Both, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who implied at last week's Chrome OS press conference that the Android and Chrome OSes could merge in the near future.

Even as the Android/Chrome OS relationship plays out, Android-based netbooks have also begun to appear: Acer just shipped its Aspire One D250-1613.

With the market on the verge of defining itself, now is a good time to help manufacturers fine tune their imminent offerings by laying out the essential features of a future ideal smartbook running some variant of Google's Android. Although Android is really mostly the Linux OS and WebKit browser foundation under the covers, it sports a novel user interface geared specifically for mobile use. That interface requires specific hardware capabilities, and mobile operation in general demands networking features that aren't found in most notebooks or even smartphones.

The basic pedigree of any smartbook falls between that of a smartphone and an ordinary notebook. Today that means about a 1.6GHz dual core CPU, a gigabyte or so of RAM, and around 100GB of disk space. Other aspects focus on usability. Here are our 10 essential features that any future Google smartbook should encompass, in priority order. Want to see examples of each?

1. Multitouch screen

Smartphones such as the iPhone and Palm Pre rely on a multitouch screen interface for almost all of their operations. Although not fully implemented in the Motorola Droid, the Android OS has the same capabilities. The key is that the screen itself be touch sensitive: As users of Acer's Aspire Android netbook have reported, a multitouch trackpad is not an adequate substitute. There are just too many times when you have to locate your fingers directly on objects on the screen, and moving a pointer first is just plain ugly. Imagine Tom Cruise trying to operate the "Minority Report" screens with a mouse. A multitouch screen can still be used with a trackpad, so users can keep their hands on the keyboard when they like.

Thinking outside the box, there is no reason a dream smartbook has to follow the clamshell bandwagon. Consider a twist-around touchscreen that lets you turn your smartbook into a netpad, like the Acer Aspire 1420p laptop does. Dreamalicious! Even a detachable, stowable keyboard is no fantasy feature.

2. Android buttons

Android smartphones use four dedicated hardware buttons (Home, Menu, Back and Search) as integral components of the user interface. Android overloads these buttons with multiple functions, depending on whether the button is pressed once quickly, pressed and held (the "long press"), or double-clicked. For example, holding the Home button brings up a list of running applications, similar to typing Alt-Tab on a Windows notebook. Android phone users become intimately familiar with these functions, making them part of their gesture muscle memory. Regardless of whether that's good or bad, users transitioning between devices had better find Android's special buttons on any Android smartbook they use, or else they'll quickly become frustrated.

Do the buttons have to be actual hardware? Not really: Virtual buttons on the trackpad, or even the touch screen itself, could be acceptable substitutes. As a corollary, the device should have hardware audio volume and mute controls, rather than double-duty keyboard buttons, to give users fast access to sound levels. Why? Because phones do, and many Android smartbook users will have Android smartphones.

3. Fullsized keyboard

Some netbooks take little to inappropriate lengths, as it were, with keyboards that are just slightly smaller than full size: generally about 90 percent as large. Small keyboards are workable when you can operate them with two thumbs, such as on a BlackBerry Bold, but when they're too large for that, anyone without small hands will likely find themselves typoing rather than typing. The 10 percent size difference is not worth the pain it induces in users. Because Google is about nothing if not usability, any truly dreamy smartbook will have a full sized keyboard.

While on the subject of keyboards, netbook and smartbook builders of all stripes should consider keyboard noise. Any Google smartbook is going to find itself in quiet settings where continuous click and clack (sorry, Tom and Ray) is not welcome. We've sent men to the moon, we can send quiet keyboards to the library.

4. Solid state drive

There's nothing worse than waking up from a good dream, but that's what happens when your netbook battery dies. SSDs (solid-state drives) can double battery life, as well as spiff performance by a factor of two or three. And that all important startup time will always be much shorter when booting from a solid state device. (That's why Google's specs for its Chrome OS-based net appliances allow SSDs but not hard drives.) Fortunately, solid state technology is improving apace, making SSDs affordable standard equipment for smartbooks.

Security is a natural concern with any portable computer, so the SSD should be combined with whole drive encryption technology to give users peace of mind about sensitive data that could fall into the hands of criminals. Even though Google envisions storing user data in the cloud, information is necessarily cached on a smartbook's internal storage, that's what it's there for. Bonus points accrue for built-in two factor authentication using biometrics or plugin tokens.

5. Ubiquitous networking

The "net" in netbook stands for networking, and no self-respecting dream machine can claim the title unless it has the ability to latch onto any modern network. This means 10/100 Ethernet (GigE is a bonus), Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), 3G, 4G and Bluetooth.

Each of these networking technologies has its place: Ethernet for the desk, Wi-Fi for meetings, 3G and 4G for the road, and Bluetooth for tethering devices like phones, headsets, and mice. A Google smartbook maker gets extra points for upgradeable networking via plug-in modules, which helps future proof your investment.


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