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Netbooks Considered

In June, I started offering my thoughts based on my experiences with several netbooks and then briefly detoured into Google's Chrome, which in theory will be a widespread netbook OS. Between then and now, many of you shared your thoughts on netbooks with me (thanks!), so I wanted to finish with a look at what seems the most important thing about netbooks (to me, at least): power.

I said earlier that I wasn't a real fan of any of the netbook keyboards that I tried out, and I haven't run into any better news in the past month. I find myself muttering aloud, "Didn't we all decide that creating computers with tiny keyboards was a bad idea back in 1977 after the Commodore PET flopped?" But then I remember that, like other human ventures, the computer industry must periodically re-learn old truths. I'm still hoping that someone will finally create computer dictation software that's worth a darn—then we could toss those old keyboards.

Battery Life Wins
While small screens and cramped keyboards can make a netbook a hair short as PCs go, those are just part of the price that we pay for a system with a long battery life. In the S10's case, I was unimpressed with the battery life offered by the in-the-box battery—two hours—so I invested $70 in the 9-cell, 7200 mAh monster to see how it did. My personal interest in this case was to see if I could use my laptop for an entire flight to Germany, so I set it to never go to sleep, never turn off the hard drive, and told it to run the display at half-brightness. As my interest was in the amount of airborne time I could get away with, I was happy to see nine hours of life—not bad.

Why not just pack two extra six-cell batteries for the laptop that I use most of the time, my Lenovo T61P? Sure, I could have done that, but that might have gone wrong in two ways. First, there is a little-enforced TSA regulation that forbids carrying more than a given amount of lithium batteries onboard (it essentially specifies the amount of lithium, not the number of batteries), and I'd surely hate to spend a few hundred dollars on batteries, only to have to leave them at JFK some day when I'm unlucky enough to run into a TSA guy who's had a bad day. Second, I don't really need nine hours of typing time all that often—maybe four or five times a year—and simply leaving the extra batteries around most of the time and charging them before I go on that big trip will inevitably lead to two useless batteries, and I hate the thought of having that heavy-metal landfill on my karma. The netbook's battery, in contrast, will get plenty of charge/discharge cycles because even if I didn't take it traveling, it still gets a lot of use sitting in the living room: "Who is that actor? I think he was in that movie with Julia Roberts… umm, hand me the netbook, let me IMDB it…."

Powercfg Tip
By the way, I was quite surprised to find that I could not change any of my power settings from Control Panel, as they were all grayed out. I don't know if it was because the netbook came with XP Home installed—I freely admit to being grossly ignorant (aw heck, even a little proud) about Home—or because the manufacturer did something to lock down the power settings, but in any case I immediately knew how to bypass that nonsense: powercfg. It's a command-line tool and I've written about it in Windows IT Pro, but in case you're in a corner power settings–wise on either variety of XP, here's what you do.

Powercfg /l
will list the names of the power schemes on your system, and you can tell your system to use that scheme by typing

powercfg /setactive 'name of scheme.'

From there, you tell the system to change a power setting by typing

powercfg /change 'name of scheme' /option.

For example:

powercfg /change "always on" /disk-timeout-dc 9999999

Would say to never shut down the hard disk when running the "always on" power scheme.

Are Netbooks Worth It?
The bottom line is: are netbooks worth it? If you only use your computer to access the web and email, want your "internet terminal" to be fairly portable, and can't live with the extremely limited keyboards on things like iPhones and Windows Mobile devices, then yes, you'll love your netbook—but be sure to spend some time tweaking its power settings and/or search the Internet for a monster battery for your netbook. Alternatively, if you'd like to get an inexpensive "house" computer, then a netbook may be right for you in that case as well. In short, netbooks are a compromise between PDAs and full-power computers, and I have no doubt that they are indeed the right compromise for some. I just don't see them as a good fit for most of us. (Except when I'm flying to Germany.)

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