The year of the netbook

When all is said and done, I predict that tech geeks will remember 2009 as “the year of the netbook”.

And, if you haven’t heard of a netbook, you soon will.

A bit of background: The personal computer industry is a bit like the Cold War arms race. As hardware prices fall, PC makers are creating more and more powerful machines to keep their products reasonably priced. It’s music to the ears of people who need power for computers, like video editors, animators, hardcore gamers, graphic designers, or musicians.

But for the rest of computer buyers – that’s most of us – the people who use their PCs to surf the web, check email, do word processing and create occasional spreadsheets, the laptops currently on the market are now far too powerful. and just as expensive.

Enter the netbook.

Netbooks are tiny, light, and inexpensive laptops, and they usually run Linux, Windows, or Mac OS (in fact, only the MacBook Air runs Apple’s operating system natively, and at $1,800 it difficult to rank it with its competitors).

Some of the netbooks on the market sport tiny 7-inch screens. Most float around 8.9 inches, although some are larger. Usually they don’t have an optical drive (CD or DVD) and many use solid slate hard drives instead of traditional spinning hard drives. That means they’re lightweight, rugged and ultra, ultra portable. And really, really cheap.

After doing all the research, I hopped on a President’s Day sale and picked up a 2.2-pound Dell Mini 9 for $199, pre-installed with Linux Ubuntu. While this computer hardly sets the world on fire with its speed or features, it does cost $900 less than my entry-level MacBook. It took some getting used to, but it’s a capable backup and perfect for working on the road. It has decent speakers, modest battery life, good wireless connectivity, multiple USB ports, and a built-in memory card reader. Mine has a small 4 gigabyte hard drive (it also comes in larger sizes). In this world of web-based Gmail and Google Docs, I actually doubt I’ll fill it in, because Ubuntu is lean and mean, and I’ll always be using my MacBook for my photos and music.

Specifically, I chose the Dell Mini 9 for three reasons. First price. A handful of manufacturers, like Asus, Acer, and HP make nearly identical netbooks, but Dell was the first to drop below $200 (follow the netbooks on sites like dealnews.com, and you’ll see prices change frequently. )

Second, I liked the design and expandability of the Mini 9. In “Obsidian Black”, it looks a bit less cheap and boxy than its competitors. More importantly, it’s easy to access its guts, and I quickly swapped its meager 512 megabytes of RAM for a $22 2-gigabyte memory stick. (OK, I guess the netbook now costs me $221, but it’s still incredibly cheap.)

Admittedly, the computer skimps on some features that I expect from a high-end computer. The trackpad is finicky and doesn’t support multi-touch like some other netbooks. And, since this thing is so small, if I put it on my lap, my body frequently touches the trackpad, causing it to click on other Firefox pages. It’s ergonomically boring, but not a deciding factor. Additionally, the screen resolution is 1024 x 600 – wide enough, but too short. Expect lots and lots of vertical scrolling.

Finally, I’ve read that the smaller, modified keyboard is one of the most usable keyboards among netbooks. If that’s true, I’m glad I didn’t buy one of the less usable models, because typing on this little guy is a challenge at best. It’s visibly awkward, and I can’t type on it at all. It took some getting used to, and the keyboard still slows me down a lot. In fact, I took the netbook to Arizona to cover spring training this year, and it seriously hurt my blog productivity. But at home, surfing the web, it’s much easier to use.

A side bonus to this particular model: the web is full of examples of users installing Mac OSX on the Dell Mini 9. Reports indicate that it performs just as well as its $1,800 sibling, the MacBook Air. Personally, I opted for the Linux version, as the clean and sleek operating system seemed perfect for the puny 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor. Ubuntu comes with Firefox and Open Office (a free Microsoft Office clone) and is great for these purposes.

I imagine the netbook running Windows XP is a little more difficult, but I did a side-by-side comparison with my MacBook, and the Mini only opened Firefox a second later. Using the Linux version of Photoshop, called the Gimp, wasn’t pretty, but I don’t use this little computer for that purpose, anyway. It handles digital photos and music, but this netbook is designed for web and email. Period.

Now, I’m no computer expert, although I use one almost every day of my life. Since my first Mac in 1985, I’ve only bought Apple products, and I’ve bought a lot of them. I can only report on my experience using a netbook over the past month and compare it to my desktop at work and my laptop at home.

So I asked two real experts, the programmers/computer scientists at OnMilwaukee.com, for their views on the netbook revolution.

“I think the netbook trend is going to continue to grow,” said Sid Bedi, senior programmer at OnMilwaukee.com. “Apple should soon come up with an attractive offer in the sub-$1000 area with a touch screen. You may soon see some cellphone manufacturers offering a netbook offer (Nokia n97). I also think you’ll see some Cellular and cable service providers offer subsidized netbooks the same way cell phones do with a service contract. Finally, putting it all together, you might find netbooks with SIM card slots built into the phone. to come up.

“I don’t think the netbook will kill the desktop or the laptop, I think it will kill the smartphone. They will provide rich, familiar interfaces, mobility, connectivity and videoconferencing that will change the way we communicate in the 21st century.

Nick Barth, our other OnMilwaukee.com programmer, actually bought the same Dell Mini 9 that I made for his wife (albeit with Windows XP). He said he’s excited about the netbook trend.

“I love it,” Barth said. “Moore’s Law still works, but most people’s computing power needs have been met for a long time. It only makes sense to put more effort into the small and usable rather than the big and powerful. Netbooks are fast, portable, and free of expensive extras that the user will never use. Any kind of technology totally baffles my wife; she loves her netbook for exactly those reasons.

Dell markets these netbooks as “Grandma’s first laptop”. With a streamlined Ubuntu desktop that couldn’t be easier to use, it’s no exaggeration. Maybe they should extend that pitch to the “kid’s first laptop” as well, because the smaller keyboard, price, and durability make it a good buy for an elementary school kid. And if junior drops it and ruins it, you lose a lot less money than if you destroy your laptop on a daily basis.

Bedi accepted. He said netbooks are ideal for “someone who already has a computer, or someone who wants a fancy smartphone but may already have a contract or another device.

“Make sure you don’t push the netbook too hard,” he said. “Running Firefox with Google Apps, Gmail and a few browser windows is fine, but running one or two intensive Flash games, a javascript-heavy page like gMail, Thunderbird and Open Office at the same time is too much. .Understand the limitations of netbooks and work with them.”

According to Barth, “Unless a site is high profile, you won’t have much of a speed issue. Obviously, these aren’t the fastest computers out there, but there are more than enough of speed for this type of use. Five hundred and twelve MB of RAM isn’t much, though; it’s the first upgrade I’d take.”

Who shouldn’t buy a netbook? Says Bedi, “Someone who needs a main computer with intensive processing capabilities, someone with poor eyesight or motor skills may have a problem with the small screen and keyboard.”

I’m not totally blown away by my netbook’s performance, but I like the trend. I wasn’t expecting much from a $200 computer, and it doesn’t deliver much. But it works, it’s small, and it works as well as a laptop I bought a few years ago — but this tiny little computer costs much, much less.

About Jon Moses

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