Friday, June 18, 2010

To Netbook or Not To Netbook

Netbooks, those tiny little laptop computers, are showing up for sale everywhere. Sam's, Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, heck I think I saw one at Walgreen's. You might be tempted to buy one of these because of the low price, but before you do, you need to ask yourself, are the tradeoffs worth it, or would I be better served with going with a full sized laptop with a 15.6" screen?

The answer depends on what you are going to use it for. The netbooks are great as long as you don't expect more from them than they were designed to do. Netbooks are designed for ultra-portability and long battery life at an inexpensive price. You will not get the power of a desktop or even a $500.00 laptop.

Pros and Cons of Netbooks

  1. Inexpensive - starting price of around $300, can be found cheaper during sales
  2. Long Battery Life - lightweight 3 cell batteries can last 3 to 4 hours. Slightly heavier 6 cell batteries can last 6 hours.
  3. Light weight - netbooks usually weigh less 3 lbs or less.
  4. Easy portability - netbooks are generally available in screen sizes from around 9" to about 11.6", with the smaller sizes easily fitting into a briefcase or larger purse.
  1. Slow - the processors in netbooks are slower than in full size laptops. They take longer to load apps and are not good with multitasking. Picture and video editing are horribly slow.
  2. Small screens - the small screens can be hard to read, especially for people with some vision impairments and for older adults. They also require more scrolling to be able to read web pages.
  3. No optical drives - in order to keep the netbooks thin and light, optical drives, such as DVD or CD drives are not included. You will have to purchase an external drive if you need this functionality.
  4. Non-standard keyboard layouts - in order to fit the keys in such as small space, the keys are shrunk and some keys are moved into a non-standard location. Some designs are better than others. My recommendation is to try out one in a store, even if ordering it online.
  5. Odd touchpads - some touchpads are a little odd. The buttons have been moved to the sides on some models, in addition some touchpads are hard to distinguish from the chassis.
Some Things To Look For In A Netbook

The faster the better, but it is not cut and dried, due to things like architecture design and number of cores. Look for at least an Intel Atom N270 processor as a minimum. Better still, look for an Intel Atom N450, this processor offers better graphics. Even better than the N450, if you can afford the price increase, look for an Intel Celeron SU2300 Dual Core Celeron or a Intel SU4100 Dual Core Pentium. These last processors will increase the price, but will also increase the performance to close to regular notebook levels.

2gb is the sweet spot. This cuts down on the power robbing disk swaps and allows the machine to be peppier when running multiple tasks. If you are going to multitask with one of the faster processors, 4gb is nice. Avoid 1gb unless going with Linux. With Windows, you will be very disappointed.

Depends on what you want to do with the machine, but most come with a minimum of 160gb, which should be adequate for most uses of a netbook. A few have 32gb solid state drives, which use memory chips rather than metal platters to store data. These are faster and use less power, but also offer a third of the storage space. These are fine if you are not going to be storing media, such as large pictures, music or videos.

Screen Size:
I prefer the 11.6" screen. I find that it is a little easier to read and the chassis allows the manufacturer to include a better keyboard. The 9" models can be tiring to read in long sessions, while the 10.1" size offers a decent compromise between better portability and screen resolution.

Operating System:
There are three basic choices in operating systems, Windows, Linux and the new linux based Google Android and Chrome.

For Windows, get Windows 7. Hands down the best windows OS for netbooks. Netbooks run smooth and the battery life is better out of the box. XP is not a bad second choice, but is getting harder to find and is an older OS that is on its way out. Avoid Vista at all costs on a netbook. They run like a 20 year old dog with hip arthritis. You will be sorry if you get a netbook with Vista.

Linux, a decent operating system, fast and peppy, has a plethora of free and open source software. I love Linux, but you will have a learning curve if you have never used it before. You will not be able to run software written for Windows. No iTunes for one thing and gaming can be problematic, even some web gaming, because Linux does not do Shockwave, but more games are being written for Flash, so this might not be as big a problem as it used to be. You can get Open Office, a great alternative to Microsoft Office and pretty well compatible with with Microsoft Office. There are alternatives for the various softwares, but each will require a learning curve, especially if you have used a different software for years.

Google Android is mainly a phone operating system and as such seems limited for netbook duty. There are not many out there, but Acer does offer a netbook that allows you to use either Windows 7 or Android. This would be how I would go if I wanted to try Android on a netbook.

Google Chrome, is basically the Google Chrome browser, but as an operating system. That is all you get. It is designed to be always connected to the internet, although you can use Google Docs offline with Google Gears, but that is about it. You cannot even play solitaire or minesweeper if you don't have an internet connection. Personally, I will pass on Chrome.

Both Android and Chrome require you to have a Google Account to realize the full potential of them, something also to keep in mind.

Closing Thoughts:

In closing, netbooks do have a niche and can be quite useful as long as you know their limitations and advantages. I use one here at work all the time and it is very helpful for what I use it for. It does not replace my main desktop, but rather compliments it, allowing me to take it with me around the library to troubleshoot networking problems and giving me ready access to support documents, even when the network is down or the computer is messed up. I can take it easily to meetings and type notes on it, or show presentations. It travels easily when I have to go to meetings at other libraries or in Montgomery. Heck, I can take it outside on break and read the internet while eating.

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