What Do We Expect from Netbooks?

I am interested in hearing some opinions about what people really expect from a "netbook", and from those who actually own one, or have used one for a while, what did you actually use it for?On one hand, a lot of people seem to expect them to be essentially the same as ordinary laptops.

I am interested in hearing some opinions about what people really expect from a "netbook", and from those who actually own one, or have used one for a while, what did you actually use it for?

On one hand, a lot of people seem to expect them to be essentially the same as ordinary laptops. The most typical thing in this category are expectations (or demands) for complete Office Suites, media players and the like.

On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of work going into "dumbing-down" of netbooks, giving them special user interfaces, making everything proportionally larger on the screen and "simpler" to use. The Ubuntu Netbook Remix is one example of this, but there are plenty of others. Some seemed to be designed to compensate for the limited capacity of the netbook hardware, while others seem more aimed at the limited capacity of the typical netbook user.

I've had an HP 2133 Mini-Note for a few weeks now, and I think that both of these things miss the mark. Now, this has to be qualified with the fact that I have never tried any other netbook, and in particular I have never tried one with an Intel Atom CPU (the Mini-Note has a VIA C-7M CPU), but that is one of the reasons I am posting this for discussion. I'm interested in BOTH expectations and experiences.

In my experience with the Mini-Note, the major limiting factor is the size. Period. Not the processor, not the memory, not the disk space, only the size. It has a small screen (8.9"), and a small keyboard, although it is supposed to be one of the best keyboards in this category. The screen is small enough that you have to make some compensation in the size of fonts and icons - how much depends on how good your eyesight is. But in any case, I wouldn't want to do much Text/Spreadsheet/Presentation work on it, there just isn't enough screen space to work comfortably. I probably wouldn't want to watch a lot of videos, movies, or TV on the small screen either. Likewise, I wouldn't want to have to do a lot of typing for an extended time on the keyboard. I'm a good, fast, 10-finger typist, and I've seen a lot of keyboards over the years; the Mini-Note keyboard is quite good, for its size, but it is still error-prone, and the basic key design and feedback are not all that good. Finally, the small size limits the number and type of external connections it can have. At least HP was good enough to put a normal sub-D external monitor connection on it. But if you need to connect a lot of stuff, or you need/want a docking station, you're probably not going to be happy with a netbook.

On the other hand, the Mini-Note is small, it's not brain damaged. It doesn't need a special version of Linux (or Windows) that has lots of stuff ripped out in the interest of saving space, memory or processing power. Mine is currently loaded with Ubuntu, SuSE, Fedora, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS and Windows XP Professional (although I honestly can't remember the last time I booted Windows on it). All of those run and perform perfectly well on it; in fact, the only thing I have ever seen that didn't run acceptably on it was Vista (big surprise). So in my opinion, if I load a "stripped" operating system, I don't gain much, if anything, and I get a lot of unpleasant surprises when I go looking for something and it isn't there. One good example is the Office software I mentioned above. I don't want to work all day with OpenOffice on my netbook - but if someone sends me an email with a document, spreadsheet, or presentation attached, I want to be able to open it.

What do others think? If you currently have a netbook, how do you use it, and how happy are you with it? What do you find it particularly good or bad at? If you have considered one, but decided against it, why? What was missing or wrong in your opinion? What could be added or changed to make it fit your needs?

My personal experience can be summarized very easily. For what it cost, my Mini-Note is fantastic. I don't see how I could be much happier with it. I use it every day during my commute on the bus and train, and I use it at home so that I am not tied to my desk, I can sit in the living room, in the garden, or wherever, and still get to my email, web searches, pictures and documents. It cost something like 15% of what my Lifebook S6510 did, and I certainly get something like 75% of the use out of it. There are still things that I need/want a "real" laptop for, so I wouldn't want a netbook to be my only computer. Yet.

jw 26/3/2009

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