The $100 Netbook has arrived.

It’s only just two years ago now since Asus grabbed the PC market by the balls with the launch of the Asus Eee 701.

This was the first complete mini-laptop for under £200. It ran Linux and gave you everything you needed for 90% of your PC work. The only downsides were the fiddly keyboard and the 7″ 800×480 display. New versions quickly followed, and the second Eee featured a more usable 10″ 1024×600 display. Microsoft saw the huge numbers of these Netbooks being sold and realised that if they didn’t supply a cheap OEM netbook version of Windows XP, and bloody quickly, then Linux would take over the world!

I’ve still got my original 701 Eee, and a 901, and also an Acer Aspire One, and also a Advent 4211 / MSI Wind. They are all great machines. I only bought so many because I spotted a niche in the market for a custom build of Ubuntu for each of them. The standard Linux that came with most of them wasn’t very flexible, or at least didn’t seem flexible to someone only used to a Windows PC. I made a build of Ubuntu that was built on the un-swoppy EXT2 format, came with ability to play YouTube & iPlayer video content, working WiFi drivers etc, 3G broadband USB support, and a VOIP client that people wanted to use. I’m still selling these today (on Kingston 8GB USB sticks for £29), mainly to people who don’t have the spare time or inclination to figure everything out for themselves. (see spystore-uk on eBay).

Anyway, I’ve digressed. While looking on eBay last night I spotted a new Netbook running Windows for £75 including UPS shipping to the UK. At first I think this must be a scam, but there are lots of them, and the vendors have good feedback. Of course I ordered one immediately, now I just have to wait for it to show up.

The $100 netbook really is the next step on from that original Eee 701. It’s less powerful in terms of processor power, memory & storage – but the price point is a truly compelling feature.

Right now these $100 netbooks are keeping the cost down by using 7″ 800×480 displays and a low power 300MHz ARM processor. The downside is that the lack of an x86 style Intel processor means you won’t be running Windows XP or an Intel compatible build of Ubuntu anytime soon.

On the horizon though is a promised firmware upgrade to Google’s Android operating system, which should give users the Flash/Firefox combination they need to use iPlayer & YouTube – for now they ship with Windows CE.

New versions of the ARM processor promise extra grunt quite soon. So the next couple of iterations of this device really will shake everything up – sorry Intel.

Think of it this way – right now you have Apple iPhones with similar processing power and smaller screens for £500; you have proprietry eBook readers (Kindle, Sony, etc) with mono display for £150+. Yes these devices are beautifully designed, have very appealing interfaces, and will continue to sell by the bucket load. But it will be the $100 netbook that causes a quantum shift towards the always-connected world of cloud computing – with WiFI & 3G everywhere – where everything sits on a server (an example of this being the Promptu voice-recognition software for the iPhone that uploads a voice file to a server, which the server converts to text, and sends back to the phone – because the iPhone doesn’t have the raw processing power for speech to text, but the server does).

Reading what others have said about the $100 netbooks out there right now, it’s not yet possible to boot an alternative OS from a USB stick or SD card. These machines are pre-programmed at the factory with the OS on-board, and the Bios doesn’t supply an alternative boot menu right now. The manufacturers talk about them being able to run Android (linux) sometime soon via a Flash upgrade, so in the near future it should be possible to ‘jailbreak’ (sorry) them to run another OS – although that mechanism doesn’t seem to be known just yet.

So what can you reasonably expect from a $100 laptop? Don’t expect to be watching HD video content anytime soon. Better to splurge out on a £200 Intel Atom based netbook if you want; your kids to look grateful on Christmas day, a real hard drive, Windows XP (and therefore any real Windows applications), lots of Youtube content, iPlayer, etc. But for basic website surfing & email a $100 PC that comes with WiFi is hard to beat!

The last thing I can remember being so revolutionary was when the Sinclair ZX81 launched, and if you wanted the cheapest version you had to solder that together yourself!

UPDATE 6/2/10 : $100 netbook packed up last week. MORAL: you get what you pay for!

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