news / tech talk


by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

Like many techies, I have a weakness for gadgets. That led me to obtain one of the new generation of Netbooks on the market. “Netbooks” are essentially tiny laptops with a screen between 8 and 10 inches diagonally, a power-conscious CPU, and various storage options including solid state and conventional hard drives. They were intended to cater to a niche market that was willing to sacrifice performance for high portability and basic applications. However for a variety of reasons they have been much more successful than originally anticipated.

The biggest reasons are probably cost, size, functionality and coolness. Most of the systems available cost less than $500 and many go for about $350 well equipped. Size is extremely small and light so they are easy to toss into a backpack, daypack or virtually any bag. Functionally, most use the Intel Atom power conserving CPU but that processor is still a dual core unit and packs enough punch for email, browsing, and text editing. I have loaded and used free image processing software (GIMP) and it has worked fine. It isn’t a gamer system but no one expects it to be. Battery life is reasonable but not spectacular since the power savings are offset by small, light batteries. Finally, though it may be superficial, it is hard to deny that they are cool with their hit-by-a-shrink-ray size and bright little displays.

I got a Dell Mini 9 and upgraded its solid state hard drive with a 32MB unit which I loaded with a customized light version of Vista. The major plus to me is functionality with totally quiet operation - the system has no fans or mechanically moving parts. The major downside to me is that the keyboard is really small and requires key chords for the function keys. I supplement its storage with a 16GB SD memory card. That brings up the other issue with these systems and that is the required use of an external CD/DVD drive. It is not a big deal for me as I find my use of CDs or DVDs is pretty rare but if it’s a big part of your use then note that this will be cumbersome to carry around and power.

I replaced my wife’s aging single core home PC with a Lenovo IdeaPad S10, a 10 inch system that comes with Windows XP Home edition and a much roomier 160GB hard drive. Attached to an external keyboard, mouse, and a 19 inch flat panel monitor, it easily powers her applications at home, runs the printer and generally does whatever she wants. Plus she can take it with her by disconnecting a USB hub and monitor. Both the 10 inch and 8.9 inch systems use a display resolution of 1024x600 but the 10 inch screen is easier on the eyes. The nice thing with the Lenovo is the included keyboard is larger and has dedicated function keys though it only has 2 USB slots. Both our Dell and Lenovo netbooks have web cams, Bluetooth, and wireless cards. I “tether” my netbook via Bluetooth to my mobile phone for connectivity anywhere I have cell signal.

Again, the downsides are a small screen and cramped keyboard that become tedious for prolonged use. So consider what you generally expect to do with a system. I would mostly recommend them for supplemental use if you’re a power user but they can be an acceptable main system if accessorized with full size components. Finally, if you’re thinking of getting one, try one out at a store so you have a real idea what the keyboard is like and how well the screen will meet your needs. There are contenders from Acer, ASUS, HP, and most of the rest of the major makers now.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business