05 October 2009

Do you want a Netbook...Do you NEED a Netbook?

In the past couple of months I've been asked, "My computer is getting long-in-the-tooth (well, really not many people use that expression much anymore, but you know what I mean) and I was wondering if I should pick up one of those new ultra-light laptops...wadda you think?" I don't follow all the techno-trends and am certainly not an early adopter of new gizmos for the sake of being an early adopter (evidence: I was late to the CD revolution and I still have a boat-load of vinyl and cassettes; I still own VHS tapes -- sorry no betamax -- in addition to my extensive DVD collection, and have no intention of jumping to BlueRay anytime in the foreseeable future; and while I have a BlackBerry and two iPods, I have no interest in an iPhone or iTouch, etc., etc.). I prefer to move to new and/or improved technology devices when there is a demonstrable need to make such a move. That is why I recently picked up a Netbook even though I have a perfectly fine MacBook Pro.

I love my MacBook. With a 300GB hard drive loading with graphics' apps, Windows via Parallels, the Office suite, etc. and 4GB of RAM powering a dual-core 2.4GHz Intel processor, it has plenty of umph to compete with my Windows desktop computer. (True, it "only" has the 15" screen, but I didn't want to buy all new carrying bags and just try opening one of the 17" laptops in coach class!) The downside is that battery life is poor and it weighs over 5 pounds. Drag a couple of extra batteries along and we are now around 9lbs! The final limitation is size. Open that beautiful 1440 x 900 pixel resolution screen in coach class and all is fine until the gent in front of you puts his seat back. If you happen to be "fortunate" enough to fly in one of the upgraded planes that have TV screens on the back of every seat, you have lost several more precious inches. I briefly thought of adding a MacBook Air to my computing arsenal. Elegant but its small hard drive and dearth of ports coupled with its high price make it a non-starter make for me. Then I heard about a minor phenom in the computing world called Netbooks. Really, this is nothing new: people have been downsizing laptops for decades. The problem was that you always gave up something essential when going small: screen size, screen resolution, keyboard, trackpad, power, flexibility, versatility, etc. And, frankly, that's still the case. The big difference is that our computing needs and purchasing expectations are now more in sync with each other.

What dost that mean? The Netbook concept fills the need (for some) to have a light-weight computer for travel that can act as foundation for three activities: email, browsing the Internet, and light-duty work. It is not suitable for processor intensive computing, watching movies (no internal DVD drive and though you can buy an external drive, generally the anemic processor found in most Netbooks cannot play the movie seamlessly) and gaming. It is a great second computer for the person on-the-go. It is a terrible choice for a primary computer. Match your needs with the true expectations for the device.
My needs were a platform that was light and compact, with ample storage space for image files. I wanted long battery life without dragging along multiple batteries and I needed to be able to open it in coach class, where I now consistently find myself when I flying overseas. It had to be sufficiently powerful enough (coupled with enough RAM) to open and run PhotoShop for the occasional image I might want to edit, but I did not expect to engage in any heavy-duty processing of multiple images, like I do on either my desktop or my MacBook Pro. The screen resolution had to sufficiently large enough that when I opened up a RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw I could access the controls without scrolling. And, it had to have video, audio and multiple USB ports. Finally, it needed to be less than $500.

As of this writing really only one netbook fit those needs: the Gateway (yes, GATEWAY!) LT3103u (catchy, huh?). Sporting a 11.6" screen coupled with HD resolution, 2GB Memory, an AMD Athlon 64 Processor and a 250GB hard drive. Battery life? On a return trip from Slovenia, I was able to use this little guy for almost 2/3's of a 10.5 hour flight from Paris to SLC. I was pretty amazed by that.
I just checked on the Best Buy site and can no longer find that model. Yes, I did buy it in August but really that is only 2 months ago. My how time flys...

The chase: Netbooks are not for primary computers, but potentially perfect if you know what you are going to use it for. This one -- while certainly slower than my MacBook -- will be in my bag when venturing overseas.