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Netbooks: The Perfect Stocking Stuffer

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (16-Dec-2008)

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What's bigger than a smartphone, smaller than a notebook computer, gives you the same connectivity and productivity as a normal computer, and won't give you BlackBerry thumb? Answer: My new Acer Aspire One netbook.

In case you've been stranded in the Andes for the past two years, a netbook (also known as a "sub-notebook") is a low cost, ultra-compact, energy-efficient, portable computer. Computers manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Acer, and Asus all have their own version of a netbook. They come in all sorts of the usual processor/memory/storage capacity configurations, with screen sizes ranging from seven to ten inches. And depending on the model, you have the choice of a solid-state drive (SSD) or hard disk drive (HDD), and the choice of Windows XP Home or some flavor of Linux.

With all the portable gadgets already on the market, where does a netbook fit into your arsenal of mobile techie tools? Or does it have a place in your kit at all? Well, it depends on whom you ask and what your particular mobile needs are.

I'm not a big fan of smartphones. It's tough to write or edit an article on a device slightly bigger than a deck of playing cards. They're way too expensive when you're a freelancer and don't have the luxury of a company footing the bill for you. Plus, I donít have a need for, nor do I want, the 24/7 connectivity that smartphones boast.

After the unfortunate demise of my desktop computer last spring, my primary computer has been a 15.4" notebook that I use in my home office—and thatís where I'd like it to stay. I hate the idea of carrying my primary computer around with me when I'm off-site, where it's vulnerable to any number of threats. I also find it too cumbersome to lug my notebook from place to place—especially when my main off-site needs are simply word processing, Internet access, and email. Smartphones are too small; regular notebooks are too big. My netbook, with an 8.9" screen and weighing in at approximately two and a half pounds, is just right. A netbook, coupled with a simple cell phone (without all those extra accoutrements like a music player or camera), is all I really need to get any on-the-road work done.

Netbook comparison
Acer Aspire One netbook next to a Dell 15.4" notebook

It's always risky carrying a high-end device around with you when you're off-site, whether you're going to the local café or traveling overseas. I can tuck my netbook into a small messenger bag or briefcase and do away with carrying one of those notebook bags that have a big neon sign saying, "I've got something really valuable in here."

Netbooks are a lot less expensive than a regular notebook or a smartphone with all its associated data charges. Many netbooks fall within the 300-500USD range. Should something happen to your netbook while youíre on the road—theft, damage, or confiscation by an overly aggressive border guard—it won't be as tragic as, say, losing a MacBook Air. When compared to a regular notebook computer or a smart phone, a netbook can be considered somewhat "expendable".

I don't store any personal data on my netbook. I carry the bare minimum on it—the files necessary for the story or project I'm working on—and a set of backup files on a USB flash drive that I keep in my pocket, not in the same bag as my netbook. If something happens to my netbook while I'm off-site—while a total bummer and a financial loss—I won't lose as much sleep over it as I would if it were my primary notebook.

It's important to realize, however, that netbooks aren't meant to take the place of a regular notebook or desktop computer. They're made for portability, not to run processor intensive applications. Besides, with its relatively small form factor, I canít imagine working on such a small keyboard for more than two or three hours at a time without my shoulders, arms, and wrists seizing up and creaking like a rusty gate (coincidentally, three hours is the approximate battery life of my fully charged Aspire One).

Only time will tell if netbooks will catch on with mobile users. They're not suitable for everyone. Graphics designer, for example, aren't going to be running Photoshop or CAD on a netbook. But for basic productivity and connectivity needs, I can think of no better solution than a netbook.


Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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