Monday, March 30, 2009

Hey all you gadget freaks! What do you know about netbooks?

When netbooks -- small, stripped-down laptop computers -- were first introduced, I was really intrigued by the idea. They were originally intended as cheap, reliable computers for the Third World, but quickly found a market in the developed world, too, among people who really don't need video-editing capability and heavy-duty gaming as default choices when they go shopping for laptops. So the market seemed to be moving toward giving people what they actually wanted, rather than just loading on the gee-whiz.

I wasn't impressed by the introductory price for some of these computers. Six-hundred bucks for something with a 7-inch screen? Really? But the price tags have come down to earth in recent months. Systems introduced at $500 or $600 six months ago are now going for $300 -- or less. And that's the way it should be.

So now I'm considering buying one of these widgets as a bang-around computer for when I'm on the road. Basically, I look at the things as rugged mobile devices that let me write, research and receive email when I'm on vacation or going to a meeting or bopping around town. I mean, my life is on my main laptop. I don't really want to carry that expensive piece of hardware every place. But if a netbook gets stolen or confiscated ... no big deal. Especially if I'm smart and store my documents online, so that nothing is actually lost except a few bucks.

Really, what a perfect device for journalists. Write from the scene on the hood of a car using Google Docs and a 3G modem. If the cops grab the device, you just head home and pick up the story where you left off, since it was never "on" the computer to begin with and didn't cost too much.

Along those lines, I've been looking at two specific models. I like the Acer Aspire One and the Asus Eee PC 901, which have 8.9-inch screens. In both cases, I'm looking at the versions with solid-state storage, not hard drives, because flash memory is much more rugged for a device you're sticking in your pocket and banging around. I'm also looking at the Linux versions since Linux runs faster than Windows XP on a solid-state drive (and is resistant to malware, which means less defensive software to load).

The Acer seems to get slightly better reviews, but it has a miserly battery life compared to the Asus. The Acer also includes only 8GB of storage, with the ability to slap in an SD card for another 8GB (at my cost). The Asus, on the other hand, includes 20GB of solid-state storage, with another 20GB online included in the price.

Both computers are widely available for $250 - $300, with occasional deals down to $200.

So, my question to you, oh dear geeky readers, is whether you have any experience, good or bad with one or the other of these devices? Or do you recommend a different widget entirely (keep in mind that I plan to tote this around in my pocket, so I'm looking for something rugged)?

Whaddya say?



Blogger Socialism Sucks said...

My wife uses an Asus Aspire One to avoid toting her main laptop around when all she needs to do is send email and read documents - it's been very reliable and she's been very happy with it. I'd try one to see if you can live with the keyboard if you intend to do a lot of writing.

March 30, 2009 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

I just bought my wife an HP Mini. Her only complaint is that it's a tad slow at times. Other than that she loves it for email, surfing and word processing.

In my usage of it I found that the compact keyboard would take some time to get comfortable with and you have to scroll quite a bit while surfing.

March 30, 2009 7:00 PM  
Blogger Kn@ppster said...

I bought the next grade up from the Acer Aspire One (an Aspire laptop with a 15" screen, $358) for my younger son (the older got a Compaq laptop -- homeschooling was the excuse for both).

The Acer has performed well except in two respects:

- The keyboard was starting to fall apart within minutes of taking it out of the box; and

- I never could get the product registered online (it kept rejecting the serial number ... I bought the thing at Wal-Mart and have no reason to think it's a counterfeit).

The keyboard is no big deal for me -- when you have kids and cats around, you expect it, and we can always plug a USB keyboard in as needed -- but it probably would be for someone who carries the thing around for "netbook" type travel use and would rather not have to carry a detached keyboard, too.

Don't know if the Aspire One suffers from the same defect, or even if the defect is endemic to the 5515. I may have just got the one lemon in the bunch.

An alternative to buying a new "netbook" is to grab an old laptop and install a low-demand OS like Puppy Linux on it. It'll get you online, and it will run fast even with an older processor or not a lot of RAM.

That's what I'm doing on my desktop with an obsolete or near-obsolete machine. I realized that most of my stuff is done on the net anyway, and that most of the rest can be done "in the cloud." Machine runs MUCH faster than with one of the newer full-featured OSes. My guess is 8-10 times as fast as it ran with OpenSuse 11.

March 31, 2009 10:57 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Homeschooling as an excuse to buy gadgets. Hmm ... I like.

Thanks all of you for the feedback. I'm leaning toward the Asus Eee PC 901, but I haven't made a decision yet.

March 31, 2009 12:48 PM  
Blogger David said...

My 17 year old son got an eePC (the Windows version) for Christmas and uses it constantly, or whenever he's not texting on the stupid cell phone. He appears quite happy with it, but the one time I tried to edit one of his school papers on it I found it nearly impossible to touch-type using its reduced-size keyboard. It is tiny, has all the big PC bells and whistles, and is a "home run" for portability and battery life, but before you get one, test drive the heck out of the demo unit at a store to make sure you think you can adjust to the keyboard (my son says it's no big deal, he adjusted just fine).

April 2, 2009 6:17 AM  

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