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Netbooks: a new portable computing solution?

Submitted by Jason Griffey on February 24, 2009 - 8:56am

At my place of work, we are considering circulating so-called netbooks to our students. This would be done initially alongside traditional laptops, but with the possibility of moving the majority of our portable computers to netbooks. In thinking about moving this direction, I've been looking at a lot of these machines, and realizing that there may be a good number of libraries that haven't been watching the rise of this new platform. So I thought I'd take just a few paragraphs to try and explain why these machines are popular and what options are available.

The very term "netbook" is currently under some scrutiny, but it has come to refer to a class of small, portable computers with certain characteristics. These machines have a smaller-than-notebook screen, normally 10-11 inches or under (most notebooks come in a set of standard sizes; 13, 15, or 17 inches). Netbooks tend to use specific types of processors designed for low cost and efficient performance, not for pure speed and efficient processing like the processors you find in standard notebooks. They also tend to have minimal amounts of memory and disk space, often with 1 megabyte gigabyte of less of RAM. Many of them ship with solid state hard drives that only have 4 or 8 gigabytes of space. The good news about this is that, thanks to Moore's Law, even older, slower, cheaper processors are almost always capable of handling most common computer tasks these days.

The model that launched the current craze for the netbook is the Asus Eee-PC, but most companies that make computers these days have a netbook model; Dell with the Mini 9, HP has their Mini 1000, MSI makes the Wind, and many others. The one major manufacturer that hasn't yet come out with a low-cost netbook is Apple.

The other very interesting thing about these systems are that they normally come with a choice of operating system. The first generation of these netbooks came with an open source operating system, with almost all of them initially shipping with some flavor of linux. A few netbooks now give you the option of running Windows XP, but none of them currently run Vista.

So what's the benefit if you're giving up speed and power and memory? Netbooks are half the price or less of most notebooks, with prices recently dropping as low as $200 for some models. Most models cost well under $400. $400 for a computer that will surf the web, allow you use a word processing program, check email and weighs less than 4 pounds. In other words, $400 (or less) for a computer that will do 99% of what students need.

With computing and data moving more and more into the cloud, netbooks make a lot of sense for anyone who is interesting in having a computing device that is light and portable. And in times of economic adversity, being able to purchase and circulate sub-$400 computers when your current crop of laptops is dying sounds like a heck of a deal. Next time your looking for portable computers or are just getting into circulating laptops, take a look at netbooks and see if they meet your needs.

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Comments (4)

Most claim 4 or more hours

Most claim 4 or more hours of battery life, and most things I've seen say the Dell Mini 9 goes 3 plus pretty easily. If you opt for the SSD option, you'll get better life, obviously.

We're definitely picking some up at MPOW. Will report back to TechSource how it goes.

This is clearly an option I

This is clearly an option I had not considered. In a recent proposal to the campus, I asked for laptops to use in our instruction classroom and to circulate to students in the library when not in use for a class. I'm not sure what our IT department will think of this idea, but I am certainly going to bring it to the table for discussion.

Any idea on battery life?

All very good points. I

All very good points. I corrected the mega/giga typo (thanks!). Most are using the Atom, but not all. There's a ton of advantages to the Atom, though, not the least of which is crazy energy efficiency. Great battery life on them.

Also a good clarification on the fact that pretty much all of them ship with XP Home, which is NOT the preferred version, certainly. I would suggest not paying the MS tax and going with Ubuntu, but that's not always possible in the library infrastructure.

a) "often with 1 megabyte of

a) "often with 1 megabyte of less of RAM" -- 1 gigabyte (GB) or less of RAM!

b) "even older, slower, cheaper processors" -- maybe slower and cheaper, but not necessarily older ; most of the netbooks are using Intel Atom processors (http://www.intel.com/technology/atom/)

c) I'd add Acer's Aspire One to the list

d) "A few netbooks now give you the option of running Windows XP" -- note, they typically run Windows XP Home not XP Pro ; Home does not have all of the features of Pro, so just be aware

e) definitely try out a variety of them before purchasing a whole bunch ; especially use the keyboard (can be rather scrunched), touchpad, and click buttons ; not all are created equal! ; the same is true of solid state drives (SSDs) (they are not all created equal) and you normally have a choice between an SSD and a miniHDD

f) small screens = small fonts/type!! (and a lot of scrolling) (screen resolutions are typically 1024x600 -- on a 9", 10", or 11" screen!) ; yes, you can resize the type on many pages, but, if you do it too much, many pages don't handle it very well :-(

They are very neat! Just know what you are getting into ;-)