Advice from a techie who has learned to love netbooks

TechRepublic member dcolbert shares his experience with netbooks and explains why you shouldn't listen to the advice of people who tried these devices and could never get past the "deal-breakers" to see the full range of possibilities.

This post was written by TechRepublic member dcolbert.

There has been a lot of buzz and many articles recently on the netbook computer phenomenon. A common thread in netbook discussions is that they tend to get derailed on other issues — often Linux vs. XP debates. Another issue that seems to arise time and time again is their suitability or lack of suitability for a particular purpose. The name itself, "netbook," and the very lightweight configuration of the first and most recognizable consumer netbook — the Eee PC 701 — imply certain limitations. Many of the articles that I've read so far seem to suffer from two liabilities.

  1. They're written by very technically competent writers who approach technology the same way an automotive enthusiast might approach muscle cars. That is, the computer-nerd version of, "No replacement for displacement."
  2. They don't seem to account for the fact that if you feel the same as they do, you are probably competent enough to understand the liabilities of netbooks that they're warning readers about. However, if you're not like them in this regard, then it's unlikely that their warnings are going to fully apply to you. This is an odd catch-22 that unfairly discredits the versatility of a good netbook.

I've even heard some authors claim that they've had hands-on experience with multiple netbooks and found the same maddening limitations with all of them. This may very well be true. But I think the key is that those particular authors have not spent any great length of time with any one particular netbook.

I'll relate this to arguments that you have to spend some time with a particular Linux distro or OS X before you can really make an accurate judgment about either alternate OS. Just spending a day or two with each netbook is probably not long enough to begin to adjust and develop new habits to be the most effective you can be with the device. Certainly, many people play with an iPhone for just a few minutes before deciding that the onscreen keyboard is unsuitable — but those who invest some time and effort soon adjust and may come to find that it isn't such a bad thing after all.

In November of 2008, I took a trip overseas, and shortly before I left, I decided I did not want to lug my 17" HP notebook on a trans-Atlantic trip in coach. I quickly contacted a friend I knew who had an Eee PC 701 and put together a hasty trade just a few days before the trip. Once I had the device in my hands, I quickly blew the limited, Linux-based default OS off the device and installed a copy of Windows XP Home.

During the trip, I was constantly frustrated by the small 7" screen, the difficult keyboard, and the very limited solid state memory. I also had a limited license of XP that was legitimate for the trip but couldn't remain on the machine legally for an indefinite period of time.

But I found that the machine did an admirable job handling some travel limitations during the trip. It was a breeze to get through customs, it was a joy to work with on the seatback tray in coach, it played iPod quality movies without trouble, and it even ran old abandonware games without significant problems. Once in Europe, I was able to access Wi-Fi hotspots, plus connect and keep in touch with e-mail, Facebook, and even post images to photo sharing sites. The advantages clearly outweighed the disadvantages.

Once I returned, I decided that a slightly larger screen and more storage would address my primary concerns, and so in January, I purchased a Lenovo S10 and a 500-GB 2.5" hard drive. This also solved my issue with the limited XP license on the Eee PC. In the time between the trip and my January purchase of the S10, I used the Eee PC 701 personally, professionally, and scholastically.

Many of the reasons I decided to purchase the S10 were because the Eee PC became indispensable. The unit is so unobtrusive, even in comparison to a regular 13" or larger notebook, that these devices actually encourage you to take them everywhere with you. I take it to work, and instead of undocking my work notebook to access and test our public facing network, I pull out the netbook and hit those servers and services. I use the netbook at work to download patches and updates over that same public network, keeping the valuable and more expensive bandwidth on our corporate network free.

I also use the netbook at school. I use it when my daughter has sporting meets. I take it with me almost everywhere. I've even occasionally taken both of them, so that I have one for my wife or kid and one for me. Imagine lugging two traditional notebooks with you. Two netbooks often weigh less than a single traditional notebook. I also worry less about theft or damaging the netbook because of the relative affordability of the device.

On the Eee PC 701, I eventually settled on Ubuntu 8.10 with the Riceeey customized hacks for the Eee PC as an alternative to my soon-to-expire Windows XP license. The Riceeey hacks address many of the odd quirks of installing Ubuntu on an Eee PC, including the screen size, the wireless chipset, and enabling the function keys. It is very suitable, although Ubuntu is actually a bigger resource hog than XP in a default install configuration.

Because Ubuntu left me so tight on space, I eventually purchased a 32-GB SD card and a 32-GB thumb drive. I had another 8-GB thumb drive, and because the Eee PC has three USB slots, it's not unusual for me to have 76-GB of solid state memory available to my EEE PC. This is a fairly decent amount of storage, and it's very inexpensive to acquire.

I actually installed Ubuntu to the 32-GB SD card, which is another interesting aspect of the Eee PC. You can install an OS to the external SD, completely bypassing the internal, non-replaceable SSD drive. You could also conceivably have multiple SD cards installed with different OSs and swap the boot OS out simply by replacing the SD card. That's pretty cool for a device you should be able to pick up used for under $200. Boot time for Ubuntu on the SD card is pretty abysmal — but once it's booted, the system operates tolerably. I even run the Compiz desktop cube.

Options for wireless broadband are robust for netbooks, including USB or PCMCIA Express, with integrated, contract-supported solutions from your favorite carrier in the near future. I personally use modem tethering through my Windows Mobile pocket phone, and I've had great results surfing at locations with no Wi-Fi using this method.

Both the S10 and the Eee PC make sacrifices to achieve such a small footprint, yet either unit can hook up to external keyboard, mouse, and CRT to make an effective desktop alternative in a pinch. Many users who never do anything more complicated than surfing the Web, reading e-mail, and writing simple documents would probably find most current netbooks a little sluggish at times, but no worse than some of the still serviceable PCs from the last couple of generations. I mean, I still use a Mac PowerPC 933, and it works well in many situations. I have a sister who struggles with a P3 1 GHZ, but she isn't ready to upgrade. A decent netbook will generally perform equal to or better than either of these machines.

And maybe that's really my point. I'm always amused when I see a person driving a BMW M3 simply because it was the most expensive 3 series they could buy — not because there's ever a chance that they'll take their expensive machine to the performance limit it's capable of. Likewise, I think a lot of people spend $1000 or more on a PC that they will rarely, if ever, tax the capabilities of.

It's quite possible that the majority of PC buyers fit this profile. Specifically, for a lot of people, I think a netbook offers a great mid-tier solution that hits a sweet spot with portability while also being a great desktop replacement alternative. I think many people will frequently use it as a portable PC, not just as a PC they can sit on the couch and watch TV while working. Most notebooks are under-utilized in their role as portable PCs. They spend most of their time sitting on the same desktop. Netbooks can approach the utility of a portable phone, coming along with you on many more trips than you would ever consider bringing your notebook along for.

I think these people will also find that the netbook actually replaces many, most, or even all of their needs from a desktop PC. When you boil it down, if you know a netbook is not for you, you're probably right. If you're not sure, you should certainly give it a try — it'll probably do everything you need and more, and cost you a whole lot less than most of the alternatives that you might be considering. I think it makes more sense to listen to the advice of someone who tried these devices and found them useful than to listen to the advice of someone who tried these devices and could never get past the "deal-breakers" to see the full range of possibilities they open up.

Finally, I will say that the netbook market is rapidly changing, and you should approach it with a certain amount of caution. At this point, there really isn't any reason to consider anything but an Intel Atom-based processor. I also suggest staying away from solid state memory, which is more expensive and offers less capacity. In addition, I recommend that you avoid Linux unless you're a competent pro with this OS, as the various Linux distros are still working out their place in the netbook market.

Dual core and touch screen convertible netbooks are right around the corner, as is the high probability of Windows 7-based netbooks, so this current moment is not the best time to buy unless you're certain you've got an incredible deal on your hands. Finally, several months ago it was rare to find a netbook on display at a major retailer, but now Toys-R-Us, WalMart, Target, Best Buy, and other Brick-n-Mortar stores have netbooks on display, so go down and play around with several of them and get a feel for what they are like. They have different build qualities, keyboard arrangements, ports, and expansion options. Just like any other purchase, to be happiest with your choice, do your research well.


Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the several blogs.

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