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    New netbook combines portability and affordability

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver April 14-20, 2009; issue 1016

    High Tech Office column

    Up until recently, I had an HP Omnibook 6000 laptop sitting on my shelf. It was a high-end model from about 2001 with a 14-inch screen, 800 Mhz Pentium III and 17-gigabyte hard drive. Original retail price: US$4,200. I paid a fraction of that a few years ago, wanting a system that would be easy to carry and not a disaster if it was stolen, broken or lost.

    For quite a while, I’ve been looking for technology that is portable, capable and affordable. Everything’s been a compromise. I could find any two of the above, but not all three at once. I’ve tried PDAs and smartphones; very portable, but limited in their usefulness and usability – and often tied to expensive data plans. Ultralight laptops like the Macbook Air or Toshiba Portege R500: more useful, pretty portable but way beyond my budget. Larger laptops have become increasingly affordable, but aren’t as portable as I’d like. (And the cheapest ones are, well, cheap.)

    I think we’re getting closer, though. Netbooks are the bright spot in the otherwise gloomy market for computer systems. These are small notebooks – screen sizes ranging from seven to 12 inches, with most models sporting nine- or 10-inch screens. Available from a variety of manufacturers, most offer virtually identical specifications: an energy-efficient 1.6 Ghz Intel Atom CPU, one gigabyte of RAM. No CD or DVD drive. Some come with relatively small solid- state (flash memory) drives, others with traditional hard drives. Most have prices under $500 – in some cases, a fair bit under that mark.

    I recently bought a Dell Inspiron Mini 9. Reviews suggested it was a more solid piece of hardware than some of its competitors. And it’s a favourite for users installing Mac OS X onto it, making it the netbook that Apple hasn’t released. (I haven’t tried that.)

    I got a 16-gigabyte solid-state drive (SSD) rather than a much larger traditional hard drive. Why? Faster performance, more reliability. Netbooks get bounced around a lot, and I’m not planning to store a large amount of documents, photos, music or video on it, so big storage shouldn’t be an issue. (I could plug a digital camera-style SD memory card into its slot for additional storage.)

    Dell offers the Mini with Ubuntu Linux or Windows XP. Ironically, the XP version was on sale at a lower price than the model with the free Ubuntu, so that’s what I ordered – though the first thing I did was install Ubuntu onto it. (Microsoft is low-balling XP prices to netbook manufacturers to try to keep Linux from making inroads into that growing market – as part of the deal, it insists netbooks be limited to one gigabyte memory. The Mini is easily upgraded after purchase to two gigabytes.)

    Is it at the sweet spot between portability, capability and affordability? While too large to fit in a shirt pocket (like a PDA or smartphone), at 2.3 lbs it’s far more portable than a standard-sized laptop. Running a full version of Windows or Ubuntu, it’s far more capable than a PDA or smartphone; though I wouldn’t want to do a lot of, say, video editing on it, it does fine online or in an office suite. (While low-powered by today’s standards, it’s faster and more powerful than that $4,200 2001 laptop.)

    The 1024x600-pixel screen requires more scrolling, and the 92%-sized keyboard is a bit dinky. Dell also placed a few keys in unusual locations. While more awkward than a standard laptop, it’s far easier to enter text than on an iPhone or BlackBerry.

    And the $349 I paid (Dell’s pricing seems to vary with the phases of the moon) is in the same ballpark as, say, an iPod Touch. Portable media player, e-book reader, Internet connectivity and even getting some work done. For going anywhere, doing (almost) anything and not breaking the bank, it’s as good as it gets for now. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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