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Netbooks for Newbies

It has been fascinating to observe the rising adoption rates of netbooks. Think of netbooks as filling the technological niche between smartphones (such as the Blackberry and the iPhone) and full-sized laptops: they are compact, light-weight, and inexpensive computers for the price-conscious mobile user. Netbooks generally feature a diagonal screen size of 7–10 inches, wi-fi, a slower processor which consumes less power (resulting in often considerably longer battery life), a smallish hard drive, and no built-in optical drive (CD/DVD).

I see more people working off the library's wi-fi connection using netbooks every day. But given such a stripped-down feature set, why would you want these computers? Mainly because they’re cheap: your run-of-the-mill netbook starts at around the $250 price point. Given the global economic recession we’re facing at the time of writing, that affordability alone makes netbooks a serious contender for those in a need of a new computer. Their portability lends them a sense of practicality, not to mention fashion, as they can fit quite nicely in most purses, briefcases, and backpacks with lots of room to spare. And don’t forget that longer battery life: whereas conventional laptops have batteries which can last between 2 – 4 hours per charge, netbooks will usually last between 4 – 6 hours and sometimes longer.

Though the term “netbook” originated with the now discontinued netBook by Psion, it was popularized by Asus with the release of their Eee PC. Initially other PC manufacturers were slow to adopt the new form factor. However, as the Asus machines began to fly off the shelves, manufacturers like Dell, HP, Sony, and Acer couldn’t ignore the trend and began to release their own netbooks though oddly, there is little to no profit margin on netbooks. With this growing new market, it is important to walk into the store informed instead of just buying the cheapest or flashiest-looking machine available. Looks can be deceiving and prices can too. Below is a feature-by-feature list of what to be aware of and what to look for prior to dropping $300 that you can probably barely afford to part with these days.

The Processor

Because netbooks are so small, they require a smaller, cooler-running processor which consumes less power. The trade-off for this portability is processor speed. That is to say, there isn’t any. Well, that might be exaggerating things a bit. However, using current technology, netbooks are anything but computing powerhouses. Most use the Intel Atom processor which has a maximum clock speed of 1.86 GHz, though I have yet to run into a netbook that runs above 1.6. These underpowered processors also are typically incapable of running Windows Vista, so if you’re particularly enamored with that operating system, this may not be the type of computer for you. Kids (and kid-adults like myself), you won’t be able to play World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. Sorry. Bottom line, if you like to check your email, write letters, listen to music, and play web games, you’ll be set. For anything more than that, you might want to save your pennies and invest in something a bit more powerful.

Hard Drive/Storage

So you say you’ve got 60 GB of music, 30 GB of video, and tons of applications? You’re going to need a large hard drive, aren’t you? Here’s the rub: you may not get one. Most netbooks don’t have a hard drive, but rather they run on flash memory similar to USB thumb drives; 16 GB is the standard. Many come with an SD card expansion slot, allowing you to add extra storage. Now, hope is not lost. Many do come with a larger hard drive, but it’s still not as large as most conventionally-sized hard drives. These usually run in the area of 120-160 GB, but you’ll end up paying $50 - $100 more. You might also have the option of a 30-60 GB solid state drive. Unlike the hard drives of old, solid states do not use moving parts, making them considerably faster. On the other hand, a solid state will raise the price several hundred dollars, sometimes pricing the netbook above $1000. Buyer beware.

Operating System

Due to limited processing power, as well as the limited storage, the vast majority of netbooks do not run Windows Vista. The cheapest of these will be running a version of Linux--the free, open source operating system. If this is the case, there may be a small learning curve while you adjust yourself to a new operating system. The next step up from Linux, in price anyway, is Windows XP. Because Linux is free, the savings are passed on to the consumer. Windows XP is not free and will probably tack on $50 - $100 to the price. But most users are comfortable with Windows XP after having used it for so many years. As for netbooks that can run Windows Vista, they probably can’t run it very well, given Vista’s monstrous hardware requirements. Windows 7, the follow-up to Vista, will be released within the next year and its release candidate (available for free download to the public at http://www.microsoft.com/Windows/Windows-7/download.aspx until July) reportedly tests very well on netbooks. If you can stand to wait, it could very well be to your advantage to hold your purchase until the full version of Windows 7 is released to PC manufacturers; save a few more pennies though, as a Windows 7 netbook will be a sight pricier than a Linux or XP netbook.

Screen Size

As noted previously, netbooks generally have screens which are 7-10 inches with very low resolutions (the average being 1024 x 600). This means you won’t be able to have as many windows open on the same screen at once and even a maximized window will require much more vertical and even horizontal scrolling. Keep your vision in mind when purchasing a netbook.

Memory

The standard amount of memory for a netbook is 512 MB to 1 GB. If you’ve been running a computer with 2GB of memory or more, get ready for a slowdown: the less memory you have, the fewer programs you can run at once. If you have the option to add more memory, it can be purchased cheaply from sites like newegg.com or amazon.com.

CD/DVD Drive

Netbooks, as a rule, do not have an optical drive; there simply isn’t room for them and they add to the price. This is less of an issue than it might have once been, however. Most music is downloaded from iTunes or Amazon.com, a growing number of movies and televisions shows are available to watch online from sites like Hulu.com and Joost.com, and almost all games and computer programs can be downloaded as well without the need to ever step foot in a brick-and-mortar store to soil yourself with physical media. Additionally, when you consider that files can be backed up onto flash drives with greater storage capacity than recordable DVDs (not to mention greater dependability), optical storage is beginning to go the way of the floppy drive. You may be surprised to discover just how well you do without an optical drive.

Battery

The battery life is one of the biggest selling points for netbooks. As stated above, most netbooks will get about 4–6 hours of battery life out of a single charge. Some will get more, some less, but that is the average. This will all depend on what you're doing with the netbook. Frequent use of features like wi-fi and bluetooth, maxing your screen brightness and playing lots of games and movies will burden the battery charge more. Still, you will notice a marked difference between normal laptops and netbooks when it comes to battery life.

The Keyboard

Carpal Tunnel and other RSI sufferers beware: your keyboard is going to be cramped. Even at a generous (for a netbook) 10 inches of screen space, your keys will be much smaller and closer together than you'll be used to with a conventional keyboard. At the very best, it will be 85% of a standard laptop keyboard. Some netbook manufacturers make up for this by offering easier-to-press keys, but no matter what your typing experience will be reduced.

Overall

You make a lot of trade-offs with netbooks. There are many power-users for whom these trade-offs will outweigh the benefits. But having typed and researched this entire article on my new Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook, I can safely say that with the right purchase, you may come to love your netbook more than any other computer you've used. The size, portability, and battery life lend themselves to a more personal experience, though not in the traditional sense of the ultra-customizable “personal computer” used in all-night LAN parties by over-caffeinated geeks (something I'd know absolutely NOTHING about...) but rather in a relational sense. One gets the feeling of being truly freed from wire-cluttered desks and bulging, weighed-down laptop bags. A netbook comes to feel like a regular part of your road arsenal, next to your cellphone and tin of Altoids.

That being said, netbooks also concern me, because they are a technological step backwards. With the economy in the state we currently find it, people aren’t spending money on powerhouse computers, thereby decreasing the demand for ever-improving hardware. I’m not implying that computer technology will come to a stand-still, but we might see it go in another direction. Instead of thinking up new ways to increase raw computing power, hardware makers may spend more time trying to cram the kind of power we already see in high-end machines into smaller and smaller packages. I’m all for portable powerhouses, but we need to keep pushing the envelope of computing speed and capability. Netbooks really are quite fun and practical for the moment, but I hope they don’t come at the cost truly revolutionary technology that might have arrived sooner.

Netbook Resources

CNET.com Best Netbooks
http://reviews.cnet.com/4370-3121_7-214-106.html?tag=leftColumnArea1.0

About.com Best Netbook Laptops
http://compreviews.about.com/od/netbooks/tp/netbooks.htm

Gigaom.com 10 Ways to Trick Out Your Netbook for Free
http://gigaom.com/2008/12/02/10-ways-to-trick-out-your-netbook/