Netbooks make small computers affordable

3 Aug

At about half the size of a regular laptop, the Lenovo S10 netbook offers a great deal of functionality. (Geoff Meeker photo)

August 3, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

Okay, so you’ve got that lovely desktop computer system, maxed out on the RAM, processor and hard drive, and loaded with all the bells and whistles.

But still… you are chained to your desk. You can’t take it with you, There are times when you want to surf on the couch, in bed, or even on the deck. But you can’t justify laying out $800 and more for a laptop computer.

Maybe it’s time you looked into a netbook.

A netbook is a small “ultra-portable” laptop computer with many of the same features as a regular laptop, but a lower price tag.  There are trade-offs, which I will get to, but a netbook may be the device you’re looking for.

First, the upsides, beginning with price. I just purchased a Lenovo S10 netbook, with 1 GB of RAM and 80 GB hard drive, for $400. (It comes with 512 MB of RAM standard, but for a limited time, Avalon Software includes another 512 MB at no charge.) Thankfully, it comes with Windows XP – not Vista – and is preloaded with a trial version of Microsoft Office that works for 60 days (after which you can elect to purchase). And it’s made by IBM so the quality is there.

There’s a built-in webcam, wireless Internet (and Ethernet connection), microphone and speakers (plus input jacks), two USB inputs, and a card reader slot (which can accept a wireless modem for go-anywhere Internet).

The computer is easily half the size and weight of a regular laptop, yet it has a 10-inch screen and a keyboard just two inches narrower than standard size. I adjusted quickly and painlessly to the slightly smaller keypad.

All in all, a dandy little computer for just $400.

But before rushing out to buy one, you need to consider the netbook’s two key shortcomings. For one, the computer’s graphics quality is fine for watching video and most animations, but is limited for more demanding graphics programs and 3D videogames.

Second, there is no internal CD or DVD drive, so you cannot watch DVDs or burn files from CDs (unless you have an external reader/burner). This also complicates the software loading process, though most programs these days can be downloaded online.

Both issues should be minor for the majority of users, as many already have a good desktop system at home. In fact, industry experts say that netbooks – despite their strong sales – do not appeal to first-time computer buyers. They are more popular as accessories in homes that already have one desktop system.

“The main attraction is their portability,” said Alex Harris, Sales Manager with Avalon Software. “It’s a very lightweight device. You can easily put it in your purse, backpack or briefcase, whereas a laptop is more bulky. It’s mainly aimed at students, or people looking for something with basic functionality such as surfing the web, sending email, doing online banking, logging onto Facebook, working in Word files and other everyday functions – nothing too fancy.”

With that, Harris nailed pretty much every task I expect from a computer. It’s coming with me on vacation this year, to enable access to Word files and email, in case a work emergency occurs. I have created a user profile on the computer for each member of the family, and expect it will be a popular device whenever we find an Internet connection on the road.

Speaking of family, the netbook is a big hit with my teenaged boys, who have barely let it out of their sight since I brought it home. In fact, it has disappeared several times from my desk even while writing this review.

The netbook’s portability and utility was demonstrated last week by my eldest son, who was playing a shooter videogame on Xbox Live and monitoring Facebook messages on the netbook – at the same time.

If you get a netbook, I guarantee you will use it. But first, you may have to wrest it from someone else’s grasp.

Or buy two or three. At this price, it almost makes sense.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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