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Relaxing the netbook laws

NetbookIt looks like a netbook, smells like a netbook, even tastes like a netbook. So it must be a netbook, right? Nope, says Microsoft and Intel. Not if its screen is bigger than 10.2in.

Since this new category in portable computing appeared, we've seen innovation and exciting developments... effectively extinguished. Until now.

Asus can be credited with stirring up that first excitement, back in late 2007, by making a small, cheap portable computer - some even called it cute. Lightweight and imbued with potential, it set the scene for simple laptops, with no moving parts to break thanks to their solid-state storage. The Eee PC ran Xandros Linux and booted in less than half a minute.

MSI, meanwhile, can probably be credited with the first popular Windows netbook, the Wind, featuring a 10.1in screen, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk. Fast booting and shock resistance were put to one side, and it soon became the blueprint for all netbooks.

But a limit was being imposed on netbook specifications, and on innovation itself, because certain firms were worried about the burgeoning popularity of the machines. Intel was concerned that more people buying Atom netbooks would undercut the sale of Core processors used in regular laptops. For Microsoft, the issue was simply nipping competition in the bud.

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In fact, the first shoots of Linux appearing on consumers' computers was enough for the software giant to dust off its WIndows XP operating system and, in the words of Mark Shuttleworth - cosmonaut, IT entrepreneur and sponsor of Ubuntu Linux - literally give it away to manufacturers, rather than let their customers - us - get a taste for a free, open-source platform.

So the Wintel partnership decreed that, if you wanted to use an Atom processor and XP on a laptop, it should be limited to a 10.2in, 1024x600 screen, and have only 1GB of RAM. Which would explain why there's almost nothing to differentiate every netbook we've tested, other than a choice of paint job.

Only now are we starting to see netbooks with 11in screens. Samsung's Ion-powered ‘not a netbook' N510, for example, benefits from a high-resolution 11.6in screen and packs enough graphics horsepower to play 3D games, HD video and other multimedia.

Meanwhile, Acer has given us a return to Linux on the netbook. It's an ill-suited mobile-phone operating system snuck into a netbook that's already hobbled with Windows 7 Starter - but at least it's different.

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