Realistic netbook expectations

Regular readers will know that I've become quite a fan of netbooks. After all, why buy a full-blown notebook when a $300 netbook will meet your needs just as well?

Regular readers will know that I've become quite a fan of netbooks. After all, why buy a full-blown notebook when a $300 netbook will meet your needs just as well? Even the bargain-basement laptops that are cropping up in the $500 range tend to be fairly heavy, so netbooks compete well here too (even for the nicer offerings that start pushing $500 themselves).

However, netbooks are purpose-built machines. I had a conversation with a teacher the other day who had taken a look at a couple netbooks to replace the badly aging laptops the school provided four years ago. She was surprised by the lack of Windows XP Professional (and the presence of "some other program", referring to Linux on some) and was concerned because her mom was attracted to them on the basis of price alone. "Someone should tell the public what you really get for $350," she noted.

This, of course, is something most of us take for granted. However, when I tell the average teacher that I'm holding off buying my netbook until a few more models are available with the GN40/N280 chipset combination so that I can handle Internet HD and eke out some battery life improvements, eyes glaze over quickly. When I note that the single-core Atom processor handles simple multitasking relatively well, but seems to have a faster startup time if you install some appropriate derivative of Ubuntu, eyes glaze further.

We already know what netbooks are for. They don't call them hardcore-gaming-serious-multitasking-video-editing-books. They get people online. They handle word processing very well, whether in the cloud or through Word/OpenOffice (or AbiWord for the cheapest models). Photo storage and manipulation, especially if you use a web-based service like Flickr? You bet. Photo editing with Photoshop? Not so much.

The problem is that the average teacher doesn't live, eat, and breathe chipsets, integrated graphics, and LED backlit displays. These mean nothing to them. The teacher who brought this up also happens to be an art teacher and spends a fair amount of time on graphic design and digital media. For her, a netbook probably wouldn't be a great choice anyway. Again, though, average users aren't all that great at assessing requirements and determining which systems meet those requirements. If they were, most of us would be out of jobs.

My point here is that netbooks are the bee's knees as long as your expectations for them are realistic. It's important that we help teachers (and students, for that matter) understand precisely why we might be buying them for our schools and the use models for which they are most appropriate. Kids tend to get it pretty quickly, whether or not they know a GN40 from an M80; kids only want to get on the Internet anyway. Many teachers, though, come from a whole different way of using computers that has very little to do with the Web and we need to take this into account.


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