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Notes on Netbooks

I've been so busy with Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 news that I haven't had time to comment on the latest hardware thing: netbooks. But, I was looking for a cheap little computer to hook up to the TV to look up the weather (tides, sunrise/sunset times), recipes, etc. In my search, I soon realized that a netbook might do the trick while simultaneously letting me "live" with a netbook, so I picked up a Lenovo S10. So, are netbooks valuable? The answer, of course, depends on who you ask, but here are my thoughts after having worked with the S10 and some friends' netbooks.

Why Choose a Netbook?
What is the value of a netbook in comparison with PDAs and notebooks? Netbooks' salient points when compared to other laptops are that they are physically small and lightweight, and typically offer excellent battery life—some claim eight hours—while being able to almost completely replace a standard-sized notebook, functionality-wise.

Size-wise, netbooks deliver on their promises. I could carry the S10 around me for hours without feeling weighted down, as it tips the scales at 2 lbs, 11 ounces, and uses a power adapter that weighs another 11 ounces. Nevertheless, laptop vendors have long been able to deliver larger notebooks with low weight by skimping on things like DVD/CD drives, and it's not hard to find a notebook under 4 lbs. The diminutive S10 sports quite an array of electronic goodies, including a gigabyte of RAM, a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, and 100 GB of rotating disk storage.

Functionality Woes
We all want a tiny, powerful computing device, but every attempt to fill that need runs up against the toughest reality: these tiny computers must be able to receive input from and provide output to humans. I've used four different netbooks at least briefly and in every case, I've had the same initial response: "Boy, this is a tiny keyboard!" I'm writing this column on the S10 for the sake of sheer journalistic verisimilitude and let me tell you, if I had to write a book on one of these little keyboards, I'd be extremely inclined to make it a very short one!

Besides the keyboard, there's the need for a pointing device. Most laptops of all sizes feature some version of the Synaptics touch pad: a small, rectangular, pressure-sensitive pad that lets manufacturers offer something mouse-like that won't take up much space. My experience with these has never been good because I'm a touch-typer, and find that the weight of the heel of my hand brushing the touchpad leads to the computer marking a bunch of text which is then deleted when I next press a key (the cause of three incomprehensible paragraphs in one of my Linux books). Don't misunderstand—I'm not picking on the Synaptics folks, as I'm very impressed with the wealth of mouse features that they've managed to map onto a small flat surface; it just doesn't work for me. What would work would be a multi-touch screen. I know, I'm probably only the millionth person to make this observation, but the system's small size cries out for a multi-touch screen like peanut butter cries out for jelly. It was chagrining to realize that it's leagues easier to point to things and control things on my iPhone than it is on my much larger netbook. (In the netbook's defense, though, the iPhone was also more expensive than the netbook!)

Screen Display
The flip side of the input issue is the display, and a small physical footprint probably leads to a small display, right? Well, maybe not. I recently picked up what might be called a "wearable display" from Myvu ( It's a 640x480 display mounted as two small LCD displays on a frame that looks like a pair of glasses. The point of the Myvu viewers is that they let you watch TV or movies in your airline seat via a pair of glasses rather than staring at a tiny screen like the one on my iPhone. I love the things and wish they'd figure out how to support an XGA level of resolution so that someone could make a netbook that didn't need a screen at all. Anyway, the SC12 included a 10" diagonal screen that supports a 1024x600 display. While that's fairly tight in comparison with the 15.5" display on my main computer (another Lenovo, the T61P), it's still clearly readable. I've owned several other extra-small laptops over the years—call them "proto-netbooks," like the Toshiba Libretto 20 or the various Fujitsu Lifebooks—and always run into the fact that many apps can fit in 800x600 or 1024x768 but sit sorta strange in 1024x600. IE 8.0 has so much window chrome that surfing the web is almost like looking at it through a mailbox slot, until you remember that F11 puts IE in "chromeless" mode.

More Next Time
I've got more to say, but that's all the room I've got for this piece. Next month, join me for a look at battery life, networking and The Bottom Line. And meanwhile, if you've got a minute, drop me a line and share your experiences with netbooks!

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