Saturday, July 25, 2009

To Netbook, or Not To Netbook, Part II

Yes, I have written about netbooks before. But it keeps coming up and people keep asking me questions. So here’s take two.

For about the last year or so there has been a huge craze around “netbook” computers. They are selling like hotcakes. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever purchased any hotcakes, but I’m told that they set the standard for product sales. Nevertheless, netbooks are very popular. But before you consider buying one yourself, it might do you well to understand what they are and aren’t good for.

Simple Tasks, Simple Machines

Netbooks can be manufactured and sold at low prices because they use lower cost (slower, often older) parts than regular notebook computers. The price you pay (in addition to the lightening of your wallet) is performance and usability. Netbooks are fine for some tasks, but are horrendous at others.

Simple tasks like reading email and browsing most web pages usually work fine on netbook computers if you can live within their attached limitations. Personally I don’t find their slow processors to be much of an issue (most of us don’t really need fast CPUs), but they have other limitations that might be show stoppers.

Tiny Screens

The most significant for most netbook computers is the screen. Not only are the screens small, but they are of low resolution so you can’t display very much on screen at a time. In fact, if you install a couple of toolbars in your browser, nearly HALF of your vertical screen space will be used up with buttons, menus, etc. even with your browser set to Full Screen mode. That’s an awful lot of space being taken away from the web site you wish to view. Email might not be much better. The Preview Pane in Outlook only shows about 4 lines of each message… hardly useful at all.

Dell and HP both make netbooks with High Definition screens, which are MUCH better, but these are rare, must be specially ordered, and add noticeably to the price tag. (Don’t expect to pick one of these up at Best Buy.) The screen resolution on netbook computers is typically 1024 pixels wide by 600 (or 576) pixels high (that’s 0.6144 megapixels for anyone counting). The width is fine, but the height can become a real limitation. We’ve become used to high resolution monitors on our desks, and so have software developers and web page designers. Everything is designed around larger screens, so expect to do a lot of vertical scrolling no matter what you’re doing on a netbook. And please don’t expect to be editing photos or videos on screens that small unless you happen to enjoy pulling out your hair.


Storage may or not be an issue as well. Many netbooks come with Solid State Drives (SSDs for short). These use memory chips to store your data instead of rotating hard disk drives. While being more resilient to vibration, SSDs are much more expensive than hard disk drives for an equivalent amount of storage. So to keep prices down, netbooks with SSDs have VERY small amounts of storage when compared to models that have hard disk drives. One of the main virtues of more expensive SSDs is that they can be much faster than hard disk drives, but don’t expect any wonderful performance in the low-end SSDs used in netbooks. My advice: the only real reason to consider a model with an SSD is to lengthen battery life. Otherwise I recommend going with a traditional hard disk drive instead.


One last limitation to look at is the keyboard. Some models are okay. Others stink with a capital S. The keyboard on my Dell Mini 9 is infuriating. In order to make a keyboard fit on a small device Dell decided to relocate the apostrophe/quotation key to its bottom row. Each time I go to add a ‘s to the end of a word I die a little inside. Other keys have been moved too, and it’s really hard to adjust back and forth between the keyboard on the Mini 9 and a regular keyboard. Most other models tend to be much better about this, but I strongly recommend taking a look at a netbook’s keyboard before considering a purchase. Any funkiness in the layout will be sure to enrage later on.


Netbooks also nearly always come with 1 GB of RAM or less. This is probably fine for people who run one or maybe two programs at a time, but it probably isn’t enough if you’re someone who regularly keeps 5-6 applications open all of the time.

Saving Money… Really?

The most common reason for people buying netbooks vs. a notebook computer is their low price. (Some truly buy for portability, and I won’t argue with that… much.) But I’m not sure that the apparent lower price is worth it.

A typical usable netbook configuration is going to be in the $400 ballpark. Sure you can get one for a lower price, but you have to give up something to get there. For between $400 and $500 you can also buy a reasonably-spec’d full-size notebook computer. Yes, the prices have dropped that much. Most manufacturers offer at least one or two models in that price range. And you get a lot more. Faster processor, more memory, bigger hard disk drive, larger (higher resolution) and higher quality screen, more external connection ports, bigger battery, just to name a few. If you’re considering a netbook because of its price, you’d probably be a lot happier buying a notebook instead, without denting your wallet too much more, if at all.

It also isn’t uncommon to find that low price netbooks run the Linux operating system instead of Windows. This is strictly a cost-saving measure. Linux is free, Windows must be paid for. But unless you’re already a Linux guru (in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this post), skip it. It isn’t worth it.

It’s Cute ‘Cause It’s Little

Size is a different issue altogether. Netbooks are indeed smaller and lighter than notebook computers. They typically come in at around 2.5 pounds, and around an inch thick. They tend to be much smaller in person than you expect based on pictures online. Modern small notebook computers, on the other hand, are usually 4.5+ pounds, have a much larger footprint, and are just over an inch thick.

While netbooks are small, they aren’t tiny. If I were a woman I wouldn’t carry one in my purse “just because.” I certainly don’t take mine everywhere I go, but when I need something to browse the internet, check email, or answer a customer support call, my netbook is my preferred device because of its small size and light weight.

Time to Buy?

Now is probably not the best time to be buying a netbook; it might be better to wait until late this fall if you can. The reason is Windows 7.

Windows Vista does not run well on netbook hardware. Vista's hardware demands are a little bit too much for netbooks to handle, so netbook manufacturers have been shipping the machines with Windows XP instead. Windows XP runs pretty well. But Windows 7 runs very well on them also, often better than XP.

Windows XP was discontinued before the netbook trend even started, so it hasn't been updated or optimized for netbook hardware. Windows 7, on the other hand, has been. It knows how to handle and optimize for the CPUs and storage devices used in netbooks; XP doesn't. I have been running Windows 7 on my netbook for several months and it works wonderfully! It has fewer issues than XP ever did, and the performance is just as good, if not better. It was also much easier to setup on W7 than XP because I didn't have to go find drivers for the hardware that was too new for XP to recognize.

Many regular notebooks being sold with Windows Vista are eligible for free upgrades to Windows 7 when it ships in October. But netbooks are left out for two reasons: (1) Windows XP, and (2) pricing. Windows XP doesn't qualify for the free upgrades, and computer manufacturers are actually paying for the Windows 7 upgrade on behalf of Vista users. Since the price on netbooks is so low, there isn't enough markup in any netbook for the makers to pay for that upgrade, even if they did include Vista.

Presumably sometime this fall netbooks will begin to ship with Windows 7. The official release of Win7 is October 22nd, but manufacturers are free to decide when they will begin to put 7 on the machines after that date. Some will probably act quickly, while others drag their feet. But either way, I really think it is worthwhile to wait for Windows 7 instead of running Windows XP now.

Should I Get One?

If size and portability are more important to you than power and capability, a netbook might be the right thing for you. I don’t think price alone is a good reason for one, though.

One last bit of advice: don’t make it your only computer. You’ll probably learn to hate computers if you don’t have something else to work on regularly. Netbooks are supplementary devices, not designed to be anyone’s primary machine by any stretch of the imagination.

Using a netbook can be sort of like trying to ride a scooter on the freeway. Yeah, it gets you to your destination, but it probably won’t be very fun getting there.

1 comment:

Dirtius Wifius said...

Thanks for this. Very timely. Since I'm not desperate, I'll hold off and keep doing research to make sure I get what I actually need. Thanks for your tips on Facebook too. :)

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