"It's too small, it's too slow, and the keyboard's dumb"...Or is it?

So says my oldest son after a day of doing homework and socializing online with the Acer Aspire One. I was really hoping that he'd get used to it.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

So says my oldest son after a day of doing homework and socializing online with the Acer Aspire One. I was really hoping that he'd get used to it. I'm almost as speedy on it now as I am on a full-sized keyboard and my 6-year old prefers it since, he's, well, little. My 16-year old is somewhere in between, obviously, and adept at texting away on a numeric keypad, so a netbook certainly didn't see unreasonable.

Unfortunately, he didn't take to it. In my experience, if someone isn't used to the little computers within an hour, it probably isn't going to happen. He may be the exception to the rule, though. He not only has very long fingers, but is quite a fast touch typist on a full-sized keyboard. He inherited my 17" HP laptop when I downsized (and, in my opinion, upgraded) to my MacBook, so I have to wonder if his impression would have been different if he wasn't already spoiled by a speedy, giant, high-end laptop.

Reactions have been mixed among other people who have had a chance to test it out. My 15-year old had no problem with it except that the screen was too small to show dialog boxes in his favorite MMORPG. He's promised to use it all this week to type up notes for his finals. Since he isn't as speedy a typist, he didn't mind the keyboard.

My mother-in-law decided to go for a 10" model with a slightly larger keyboard after trying the Aspire One, but would have been willing to use the Acer just for the portability. About 10 students at the high school gave it a shot; half felt that the keyboard was definitely an issue, while the others didn't mind. All of them, however, wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. If they could receive it for free or at very low cost through the school, they felt that it would be useful in class and at home. Most had access to computers but couldn't bring them to school readily, so even a computer that required some compromise would universally be an improvement for them.

In terms of speed, my oldest is right. It's no speed demon, especially running Fedora. He noted that page loads seemed sluggish, but again, on his laptop, a Core 2 Duo and a couple gigs of RAM mean that everything happens pretty quickly. Since I divide my time between a mobile browser on my BlackBerry and WiFi on my laptop, performance certainly seemed acceptable.

The point, from my perspective, isn't really speed. Obviously, if students are waiting at dial-up speeds for pages to load as they look for information in class, this could become a barrier, but even my discerning and technologically spoiled son admits that it would get the job done in class. He also doesn't bother bringing his laptop to school since it's just too cumbersome.

And there's the point. Netbooks, no doubt, represent some compromises. But as a way to get a lot of kids accessing computing facilities at a manageable pricepoint that can easily sit on a desk or slide into a backpack, I'm still convinced they can't be beat. Will Xfce, or *buntu improve performance? Very possibly. We may also still be in a transitional period as new processors come online, chipsets are redesigned for efficiency, and 1-2GB of RAM becomes the standard on netbooks. For now, though, I think we're very close to the ULPC ideal that will drive realistic 1:1 adoptions.

Editorial standards