When it's all said and done, I predict tech geeks will remember 2009 as "the year of the netbook."
And, if you haven't heard of a netbook, you will soon.
A little background: the personal computer industry is a bit like the Cold War arms race. As prices on hardware drop, PC makers create more and more powerful machines to keep their products at a reasonable price point. This is music to the ears of people who need serious horsepower for the computers, like video editors, animators, hard-core gamers, graphic designers or musicians.
But for the rest of computer buyers -- which is most of us -- people who use their PCs to surf the Web, check e-mail, do word processing and the build the occasional spreadsheet, laptops currently on the market are now way overpowered and similarly overpriced.
Enter the netbook.
Netbooks are tiny, light and cheap notebook computers, and they typically run Linux, Windows or the Mac OS (actually, only the MacBook Air runs the Apple operating system natively, and at $1,800, it's hard to classify it with its competitors).
Some of the netbooks on the market sport tiny, 7-inch screens. Most float around 8.9 inches, though some go larger. Usually, they don't have an optical (CD or DVD) drive, and many use solid-slate hard drives instead of traditional spinning hard disks. This means they are light, rugged and ultra, ultra portable. And really, really cheap.
After doing all the research, I pounced on a President's Day sale and bought a 2.2 lb. Dell Mini 9 for $199, pre-installed with Linux Ubuntu. While this computer hardly sets the world on fire with speed or features, it cost $900 less than my entry-level MacBook. It's taken some getting used to, but it's a capable backup and perfect for working on the road. It has decent speakers, modest battery life, good wireless connectivity, several USB ports and a built-in memory card reader. Mine has a tiny 4 gigabyte hard drive (it comes in larger sizes, too). In this world of Web-based Gmail and Google Docs, I actually doubt I'll fill it up, since Ubuntu is lean and mean, and I'll still use my MacBook for my photos and music.
Specifically, I picked the Dell Mini 9 for three reasons. First, price. A handful of manufacturers, like Asus, Acer and HP make nearly identical netbooks, but the Dell was the first to drop under $200 (track netbooks on sites like dealnews.com, and you'll see that prices change frequently.)
Secondly, I liked the design and upgradability of the Mini 9. In "Obsidian Black," it looks a little less cheap and boxy than its competitors. More importantly, it's easy to access its guts, and I promptly replaced its paltry 512 megabytes of RAM with a $22 stick of 2 gigabyte memory. (OK, I guess the netbook now cost me $221, but that's still insanely cheap.)
Granted, the computer skimps on some features I've come to expect from high-end computer. The trackpad is finicky and doesn't support multi-touch, though other netbooks do. And, since this thing is so tiny, if I rest it on my lap, my body frequently touches the trackpad, causing it to click away to other pages in Firefox. That's ergonomically annoying, but not a deal breaker. Also, the screen resolution is 1,024x600 -- plenty wide enough, but annoyingly short. Expect lots and lots of vertical scrolling.
Finally, I read that the smaller, modified keyboard is one of the more usable keyboards among the netbooks. If that's true, I'm glad I didn't buy one of the lesser usable models, since typing on this little guy is challenging, at best. It's noticeably awkward, and I can't touch type on it at all. It took quite a while to get used to it, and the keyboard still really slows me down. In fact, I took the netbook to Arizona to cover Spring Training this year, and it severely hurt my blogging productivity. But at home, surfing the Web, it's much easier to use.
A side bonus to this particular model: the Web is full of examples of users installing Mac OSX on the Dell Mini 9. Reports are that it performs just as well as its $1,800 sibling, the MacBook Air. I personally opted for the Linux version, since the stripped-down, sleek operating system seemed perfect for the puny 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor. Ubuntu comes with Firefox and Open Office (a free Microsoft Office clone), and is really just fine for these purposes.
I'd imagine the netbook running Windows XP is a little doggier, but I did a side by side comparison with my MacBook, and the Mini opened Firefox only a second later. Using the Linux version of Photoshop, called Gimp, wasn't pretty, but I'm not using this tiny computer for that purpose, anyway. It handles digital photos and music, but this netbook is designed for Web and e-mail. Period.
Now, I'm not a computer expert, though I use one almost every single day of my life. Since my first Mac in 1985, I've bought exclusively Apple products, and I've bought a lot of them. I can only report through my experience of using a netbook over the last month, and comparing it to my desktop at work and my laptop at home.
So I asked two real experts, the programmers/IT guys here at OnMilwaukee.com for their take on the netbook revolution.
"I think the netbook trend will continue to grow," said Sid Bedi, OnMilwaukee.com's senior programmer. "Apple should have an interesting offering in the sub-$1,000 arena with a touch screen soon. You may see some cell phone manufacturers come out with netbook offering soon (Nokia n97). I also think you will see cell and cable service providers offering subsidized netbooks similarly to cell phones with a service contract. Finally, bringing all this together, you may find netbooks with sim card slots integrated in the future.
"I don't think the netbook will kill the desktop or the laptop, I believe it will kill the smartphone. They will provide rich and familiar interfaces, mobility, connectivity and video conferencing which will change the way we communicate in the 21st century.
Nick Barth, our other OnMilwaukee.com programmer, actually bought the same Dell Mini 9 I did for his wife (albeit with Windows XP). He said he's excited about the netbook trend.
"I love it," said Barth. "Moore's Law keeps marching on, but most people's computing power needs have long since been met. Putting more effort into small-and-useable vs. big-and-powerful makes a lot of sense. Netbooks are fast, portable and not jammed with expensive extras the user will never use. Any kind of tech totally confounds my wife; she loves her netbook for exactly these reasons."
Dell is marketing these netbooks as "grandma's first laptop." With a simplified Ubuntu desktop that couldn't be easier to use, that's not a stretch. Maybe they should extend that pitch to "kid's first laptop," too, since the smaller keyboard, price point and durability makes this a good buy for a grade-school child. And if junior drops it and ruins it, you're out a whole lot less dough than if you destroy your day-to-day laptop.
Bedi agreed. He said netbooks are ideal for "somebody who already has a computer, or somebody that wants a fancy smartphone but may already have a contract or other device.
Said Barth, "Unless a site is media-intensive, you won't have much problem with speed. Clearly, they're not the fastest computers out there, but there's more than enough speed for that kind of use. Five hundred and twelve megs of RAM isn't much, though; that's the first upgrade I'd take."
Who shouldn't get a netbook? Said Bedi, "Somebody who needs a primary computer with intesive processing capabilities, somebody with poor eyesight or motor skills may have a problem with the small screen and the keyboard."
I'm not totally blown away by the performance of my netbook, but I do like where the trend is going. I didn't expect too much from a $200 computer, and it doesn't deliver too much. But it works, it's tiny and it performs as well as a laptop I bought a few years ago -- but this itty bitty computer costs much, much less.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.