The Attraction of the Netbook

About a year ago I followed all the other geeks and nerds in this world and bought myself a netbook. I’d seen the hype and exposure they got over on Engadget throughout 2008 and made up my mind that I wanted one 🙂

Incase you are still not sure what a netbook is, it’s like a mini laptop, reduced keyboard size, very low technical specifications and very, very cheap for what it is. As you might infer from the name, a netbook is designed specifically for browsing the Internet and not too much else.

NetBook Vs Laptop

The black machine in the picture below is my work Laptop, a 15.3″ screen and since the company gave me an unlimited budget, I set it up like a gaming rig which makes it insanely quick (even two years later) but unfortunately it’s bloody heavy and not convenient to cart around. The cute white thing is my netbook, grossly underpowered but I probably use it more than my laptop.

dell xps 1530 vs asus eeepc 901

eeepc vs dell

my work and play laptops

In the photo below you can see some deformation in the top left of the underside of my netbook. I’m not entirely sure what happened but I assume the battery was charging and resting on something circular, which somehow melted it – although I don’t even know how that’s possible….

A deformed eeepc

The reason I wanted one was because they looked really cool and my work laptop is the size and weight of a fridge so it’s not convenient for lugging about except to the office and back.

The thing with netbooks is that they are pretty much all the same in terms of technical spec. They all have the same processor and same amount of memory. The reason for this is that they nearly all run Windows XP and Microsoft, being desperate to get rid of the thing (although not quite as desperate as getting rid of Vista), imposed technical limits on the type of machine XP could be installed on.

For that reason, even now, with Windows 7 out, netbooks are still run on Atom processors with 1 GB of RAM and an Intel Integrated Graphics Accelerator (which is a fancy name for something that doesn’t do too much).

The chief selling point of netbooks are that they are small, light, extremely portable and have a very long battery life – and what traveling businessman or self confessed nerd could say “no” to such a thing!

Back in December 2008, I bought the Asus EeePC 901 (the Eee stands for education because these things were originally designed for kids in poor countries to use) for £250. It had all the usual specs with a 9″ screen and a fantastic 7 hour battery life – that’s about 85% of the time it takes me to get to India!

After a year of using this netbook, I have to say it’s probably my best purchase ever. I knew that it was going to be useful, but bloody hell, I didn’t think it would become like an extension of me.

Even now, after a year, there isn’t one single thing that I would change about it and I use it virtually everyday for several hours. Whether it’s sitting in bed (and writing this blog post), crashed infront of the TV, on an airplane or train, not only does it still have the ability to turn heads, but it’s so damn convenient.

Sidenote: I was coming back from India in October and I had this netbook out, watching movies on it and no fewer than 3 people stopped and asked me about it – it’s that good 😀

The small form factor might put a few people off given that the keys are about 2/3rds the size of a normal keyboard, but unless you have ham fists and podgy fingers you’ll be touchtyping away within hours of using it. To me, the smaller keyboard makes no difference whatso ever – but I have been informed that I have girls hands, a fact that I strenuously deny and put down to unbridled jealousy 😀

I’ve used my netbook to write reports, articles, blog posts, budget reports and keep track of my finances, literally, when it comes to light admin and “office” related tasks, there’s nothing it cant handle.

Watching movies on it is awesome aswell, the Asus EeePC range produces an incredible sound from such a tiny box, I remember a friend conceding that the speakers were louder than their full sized Dell laptop!

However, there are things you can’t do on a netbook that you can on a full sized laptop, chief amongst them are multi-tasking. You definitely can’t have dozens of different applications open and expect to be able to work efficiently. At the most, you will be able to have 2 or 3 different applications open, for example I have Opera (the best browser) and StarOffice (awesome free alternative to MS Office and doesn’t require half the amount of power to run) open right now, but if I opened another app, then I’d start to see some lag.

Naturally, you can’t do photo editing (I can crop photos, like the ones above using GIMP) or play the latest games on it either, although I installed DOS-BOX and got loads of late 90’s / early 2000’s games to run decently enough.

If you are literally going to:

  • Browse the Internet
  • Chat on Skype / Use IM
  • Write documents
  • Do things in a spreadsheet
  • Watch movies (non-HD)
  • Listen / Manage your music
  • Manage your photos

Then you seriously wouldn’t go wrong with a Netbook. I can’t imagine how I would cope without it now as it goes with me everywhere! Not only that, but laptop batteries generally get weaker over time, but amazingly, my Asus EeePC 901 has kept going well and I still get 6 1/2 to 7 hours battery life out of it. With WiFi turned on and Internet browsing that does reduce to around 3 to 3 1/2 hours though.

I’ve got an SSD drive which is way more power efficient and quicker than a standard hard drive – XP boot up time is just seconds. The down side is that you have a smaller storage capacity (about 15% compared to a HDD) but the upside is a faster and longer lasting machine.

Even if you need to do more taxing things, then obviously a more powerful laptop is required, but you can’t rule out a netbook, simply because it is so portable.

I love it when I’m on a plane or train and people get out ridiculously large laptops (like my work one) that weigh a tonne, and simply use it to watch a film or write a Word document. I get out this tiny little thing (the netbook!), which can be shoved in the top of your rucksack and proceed to do everything that people with laptops are doing – and I can’t help but stifle a smirk when their battery gives up after a couple of hours and I still have another 4 hours left!

I can get a train to the airport, and use my netbook, sit in the departure lounge, using the netbook, get on the plane and use the netbook and there will still be a couple of hours of battery left at the end of the journey!

Beware of Cheap Laptops

Some people I know have said they don’t see the point of buying a small netbook for £300 when you can get a full sized ‘proper’ laptop from just £399 now.

This is something that catches most tech illiterates out, the cheap computers are going to be not much better than a netbook. For a start, they run Windows 7 now, which is very resource intensive, and the cheap laptops provide you with just enough power to run Windows 7 and very little else.

Cheap £399 laptops is why Windows gets a bad name for being slow, clunky and unstable – the hardware it runs on is barely enough to support it…but I feel that is a rant for another day 😀

Don’t buy a cheap laptop, especially not from a supermarket!

Future of Netbooks

I got the Asus EeePC 901 from my current favourite online retailer, eBuyer. I’ve generally found them to be cheaper than elsewhere, especially the ripoff merchants also known as supermarkets. It has a 9″ screen which has a resolution up to 1024×768 which I’ve found to be perfect for everything and have never wished that it could have a bigger one (steady!).

Unfortunately, it seems that that the trend is leaning towards larger screens and I’m not sure if you can even get a 9″ one anymore. The smallest that Asus do are now 10″, I’m not too sure how much that affects the size of the netbook though as I haven’t seen one, but if I find a 9″ one to be perfect, I’m sure 10″ is going to be fine.

With the onset of Windows 7 which has a version specifically built for low powered computers, the technical restraints have largely been removed, meaning that netbooks can become more powerful, while retaining their portability and convenience. However, a more powerful system is likely to come at the expense of a reduced battery life, and how can you smirk at people when your netbook only lasts for one hour more than their laptops?!

The next logical evolution in netbooks is to take their portability to the next level and bring in 3G cards where you can pop in a sim and access the Internet just like you do on your phone, and with the introduction of the new Nokia Booklet (I think it will be next on my list of things to buy – once they’ve upped the power and specs of course!), this will just be around the corner.

I’m sure they could make netbooks a whole lot more powerful than they currently are, but to be honest, there is absolutely no need, it already does everything 90% of computer users will require anyway.

Netbook Buying Tips

If you are going to buy a netbook, here’s some things to consider:

  • Virtually all netbooks have the same hardware meaning there is very little difference in terms of performance
  • The cheaper netbooks have smaller batteries, so one of the deciding factors should be the battery life – do your research!
  • If you go for a setup that’s different to the Atom N270 / 1GB RAM / WinXP be aware that the battery life will be significantly reduced
  • I’m more than pleased with my 9″ netbook, if you go for anything larger, you may lose some of that portability
  • Storage space or performance and long life. If you need storage, get one with a traditional hard drive. If you want performance and long life, choose an SSD. I put backup everything on an external hard drive anyway.
  • Shop online rather than offline, it’s always cheaper 😀

Well, I hope you found that informative and helps you decide whether a netbook might be for you. Thanks to Tom and William for inspiring me to write this thoroughly nerdy post!

3 Comments The Attraction of the Netbook

  1. Tom

    It’s a pleasure, my friend; always good to find out you’ve provide a useful service to someone, somewhere!

    Liked the post; I’d have been interested to know your opinions regarding choosing a netbook running something other than a Microsoft operating system- I was researching netbooks a while back (particularly hovering around the Eee pcs) and it appears to me that the operating system supplied can make a massive difference to the price whilst other specifications remain identical- as much as a three-figure difference in some cases.

    I too have noticed the tendency towards the larger netbooks. Surely this puts them in danger of becoming redundant? At the moment, a 9″ Eeepc nicely fills the gap between smartphone and full-spec laptop.

    Reply
  2. admin

    One of my friends in India had one of the original EeePC 7″ netbooks with linux on it, he too, swore that he wouldn’t change it for the world, although I just think a 7″ version would be a little too small. 9″ fills the gap nicely because it lets you show a 1024×768 resolution which accommodates 99.9% of websites.

    Another friend had full size Dell laptop running Ubuntu and he absolutely loved it. I really don’t think there is too much difference now between the latest distros of Ubuntu and Win XP.

    With StarOffice, Firefox and Mozilla, you are covered in virtually everything everyone wants from a computer.

    My advice, if you are thinking about Ubuntu, take the plunge. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think you have to be a tech-nerd to use it either.

    Reply
  3. Ed Drake

    Acer already put 3G slots into some of their netbooks. Makes for a very portable solution but quite expensive if you want to do any serious web usage.

    Having used Aacer netbooks for work, I would rate them as slightly better than Asus. Mainly because their form is almost identical to a full sized laptop (but scaled down). The head turning ability of Asus netbooks is great when you are on a plane next to a pretty girl but can get boring when you want to get on with work.

    Reply

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