Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I've been asked quite a bit about netbooks lately, so I'd like to give my thoughts. What exactly is a netbook? I haven't come across a good definition (although I'm sure one exists), so let me try to define it in layman's terms. A netbook is a mini-laptop (9"-12" screen) designed for light computing usage (web browsing, email, word processing).

The upside for a netbook is the portability. A netbook is perfect in an airplane seat (I always found with a full-size laptop that I would have to bend the screen down or recline my seat back). Netbooks are also very light, making them very ideal for traveling. The Dell Inspiron mini 9 even fits inside the top pouch of my Tamrac camera bag.

Price is another upside to the netbook. Most netbooks are in the ballpark of $300. Earlier generations can drop as low as $150-ish, and adding extra RAM and/or storage space will run you closer to $500 on the upper models.

Netbooks are even being subsidized by various cell phone providers. You can purchase a netbook through Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint (and maybe even T-mobile). Deals range from a small discount ($200 on Verizon or AT&T) to as low as a buck (Sprint). All of the discounts require a 2-year commitment to a data plan, which can range from $45/mo to $60/mo completely separate from your cell phone plan. If you are planning on forking over the money for the data plan, it might be worth it. All have 802.11g Wifi, and all of them either come with Bluetooth standard or as an option, so you have plenty of connectivity options rather can a cell phone wireless network.

The downside of the netbook is... well it's size, specifically the screen size. Most early netbooks have a 9" screen, and others are getting a 10" screen, with models topping out at 12". You can't see very much on the 9" screen and a max resolution of 1024x600. Most desktop LCDs and monitors will display atleast 1024x768, 1280x1024, or widescreen resolutions up to 1920x1080.

Another possible downside is performance. Most netbooks use the Intel Atom processor, a CPU designed for low power operation and longer battery life. Do not expect the netbook to be your road warrior for professional digital photography or video editing.

Another possible downside is that netbooks do not come with DVD drives. You can get an external DVD drive and plug into the USB port, but they do not have them built in. Personally, I consider this a plus. Why lug around a DVD drive when I barely use it? When I need one, I just plug it in. You can convert DVDs to a viewable movie file (and the netbook will work well for that), but you won't be able to pop a DVD into the netbook.

Along the same lines of small size and portability, the keyboard is smaller, and that is something you have to get used to. On the Dell Inspiron mini 9, for example, the quote/double quote key is not on the home row (see this picture). It is a tradeoff to have larger key sizes, but lose some keys, verses having all the keys where you expect them, but smaller. It drove me up the wall, every time I would hit the quote key, I would hit enter key instead. Netbooks are on display at retailers (Target, Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, etc) and at cell phone stores (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc). Go and check the keyboard out before you buy. Make sure you are comfortable with both the size and placement.

Specs-wise, most netbooks can be upgraded to 2 GB of RAM for a decent price. Storage on the netbook I've used is only 4 GB. That's not a lot of space at all! Some netbooks use solid state hard drives, super quick drives that don't store as much information. Get one that has atleast 32 GB, although you might consider 64 GB, or 128 GB (based on cost). Other netbooks use rotating spindle hard drives, the ones we've been used to in desktops and laptops for years. They might come in 160 GB, 250 GB or 500 GB models.

Several manufacturers make netbooks, including Dell, HP/Compaq, Acer, ASUS, MSI, and countless others. All have a pretty big following in online communities, so do plenty of reading and searching on reviews and forums. It will help cut down on any surprises afterwards.

Netbooks are interesting. They have a niche between a smartphone and a full-blown laptop, and the costs are somewhere inbetween that range too. It really depends on what you want to do. If you want something cheap and portable to check email and type out a few documents on the road, the netbook is for you. If you want to check out those RAW photos you just shot, the netbook probably isn't for you.

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