3 Apr 2016

Catching up with Smartbooks

Before tablets took off, there was an interesting new category of device called the smartbook. These had a 5-to-10 inch screen, a physical keyboard, 3G and GPS. They had power-efficient processors (like ARM) and were always-on:

Smartbooks brought many of their advantages from phones to a clamshell form factor.

Smartbooks ended up being killed by the iPad. Looking back now, you may dismiss them as an oddity, but in their heyday, nobody knew how the future is going to turn out. It’s interesting to live through a time of experimentation, when novel tradeoffs are made, and devices with unique combinations of features are created, before the market settles on one and others are wiped out, and things are back to boring and routine and predictable. A time of experimentation is an exciting time to be in.

More than reminiscing, though, it’s interesting to note that the winners of this battle, tablets and laptops, still don’t have many of the features smartbooks, like cellular connectivity [1] or a GPS. And laptops are still not always on — if you close your laptop’s lid, you miss Skype calls, Dropbox syncs stop, downloads are canceled, and so on.

Only now are laptops and tablets starting to match some of smartbooks’ advantages. For example, we are starting to see laptops that are light (sub-1 kg), thin and small, like the 12-inch Macbook [2]:


More impressive is the Lenovo Lavie Z, which packs a 13-inch screen into a sub-kg laptop. Even more so is the LG Gram 15, which packs a 15-inch screen again into a sub-kg laptop! So, only now are laptops starting to be lighter than a kg, and thin and small, like smartbooks were.

Another advantage of smartbooks was a power-efficient processor. Only now are laptops coming with fanless processors, like the 12-inch Macbook or the Asus UX305.

Laptops and tablets should all come with 4G, not as an overpriced extra that few people opt for, because that defeats the purpose. Instead, 4G should be a standard feature. In a world where you can buy a 4G smartphone for ₹3999, there’s no excuse for a mid-to-high end laptop or tablet not to have 4G [3]. You shouldn’t have to decide whether your laptop has cellular data connectivity any more than you have to decide whether your phone has cellular data connectivity or your laptop has Bluetooth. Cellular data should be a standard feature for laptops and tablets.

Likewise for GPS. Thin and light devices tend to be carried around when you go out, all the more so when the device has cellular connectivity, so GPS should be a standard feature.

As for always on, few laptops support it even today.

In summary, tablets and laptops still have to catch up with some of the advantages of smartbooks. More laptops need to become lighter than a kg, thinner and smaller, and adopt power-efficient fanless processors and always on. Laptops and tablets should both come with built-in 4G and GPS.

There’s more progress to be made.

[1] Tablets do come with cellular connectivity, but those are a minority. Cellular data connectivity should be standard on a tablet, like it is on a phone.

[2] If a device has a hardware keyboard, it should have a full-sized one, so that you can be productive with it. There’s no point having a cramped keyboard. Better to get rid of it entirely and make the device lighter and thinner. Apple says that the 12-inch Macbook was designed starting with the keyboard: they built a full-sized keyboard, and then built the laptop around it. This is the right way to do it.

[3] 4G should be implemented in the form of an embedded SIM. This is a SIM that’s built-in to the device. That way, instead of the hassle of visiting a customer-hostile carrier shop, you can activate service right on your device. You’re not locked to a particular carrier, and you can switch carriers every time your plan expires. You can roam globally without paying exorbitant roaming charges, and without the need to get a local SIM.

Ideally, these plans should never expire, so that you won’t hesitate to buy data because unused data will go waste. And you shouldn’t have to choose between plans. Recharge with any amount, and you get a corresponding amount of data.

Once you buy some data, you should be able to use it on any device, just by entering a user name and password.

To take this one step further, I would like to buy data from Apple or Google, and have my device connect to whichever of their network partners has the best connectivity and speed at a given place. If I’m traveling in the city, my device could connect to different networks at different places.

There can also be a nano-SIM slot for an old-fashioned SIM.

[4] Windows 10 has a feature called InstantGo, but almost no laptop supports it.

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