Three things to consider before deploying netbooks in business

While netbooks are the hottest segment of the PC market, due to their form factor and low price, IT departments should tread cautiously before deploying netbooks to business workers. Here are three reasons why.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Consumer technology continues to bleed into the enterprise and influence the budgets and deployment practices of corporate IT departments. In recent years, we've seen it happen with smartphones and instant messaging, for example. Now it's happening again - with netbooks.

Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering said, "[Netbooks] are coming in as companion notebooks -- as second notebooks -- that workers are buying themselves. The question is whether notebooks are ready to come in as a sanctioned corporate laptop."

In a recent TechRepublic poll, 21% of respondents said that their IT departments officially supported netbooks. Frankly, I was surprised that the number was that high since so many netbooks only run on Linux or Windows XP Home, neither of which is widely supported by IT for standard client machines.

See also: Are netbooks quietly driving us to thin clients and cloud computing?

Of course, there are now netbooks such as the Lenovo S10, the Acer Aspire One, the Asus N10, and the  HP 2140 Mini that are more business-friendly, but those are new to the scene and typically more expensive than average the sub-$400 netbook. However, even with these "business netbooks," IT departments should think carefully before trying to save a money by replacing standard notebooks with netbooks - even if users are requesting the netbooks.

Here are the three big drawbacks with netbooks that you need to keep in mind before you deploy a netbook to a corporate user:

1. Smaller screen resolution

Almost all netbooks have a seriously-cramped screen resolution. Because netbooks have screens 10 inches or smaller, they often end up with screen resolutions like 1024x600. This makes it difficult to work with many modern Web pages and applications that assume users have at least a 1024x768 screen.

While it can be a pain to have to do extra scrolling on a netbook, that's not the game-breaker. The problem is that many custom applications and pop-up Web windows lock the size of the window. So if your screen isn't big enough to handle it then the app or page becomes nearly impossible to work with.

There are even times when operating system windows and dialog boxes are too big to fit on the screen on a netbook. For example, the OK and Cancel buttons in a dialog box might be unclickable because the window is too big for the screen. When this happens, the average user will get pretty frustrated and could end up having to reset the system.

2. Cramped keyboards

For business users that do a ton of typing, netbooks can be extremely frustrating. Users will find that netbook keyboards have keys that are smaller and closer together, and far less friendly for business-class typing than Lenovo ThinkPads, HP EliteBooks, and Apple MacBook Pros.

The other problem with netbook keyboards is that, because they are so cramped for space, they often use non-standard keyboard layouts. Thus, the function keys, arrow keys, forward delete PgUp/PgDn, etc. can be in strange places or missing altogether. Some of the places the keys end up also interfere with the standard placement of other keys such as Backspace. This can take a lot of getting used to and it can be a significant productivity drain when the user regularly goes back-and-forth between a standard keyboard and a netbook.

3. Limited multitasking

The Intel Atom processors that power most netbooks are actually surprisingly capable. When working with one program, such as a Web browser, word processor, or e-mail client, the average user won't notice much difference between the performance of a netbook and a standard laptop PC.

Where the netbook starts to have problems is when you're working with a bunch of applications at a time, such as running your e-mail client in the background while editing a presentation and carrying on an IM conversation. Of course, the other thing that hurts you on a netbook when you're doing this type of multi-tasking is the lack of screen real estate (see No. 1).

When netbooks make sense

Despite the three drawbacks listed above, this doesn't mean netbooks don't have a place in business. You just need to be aware of these limitations and then only deploy netbooks where they make sense in order to avoid bad deployments.

To help you get a feel for which industries, usage scenarios, and types of users are the right fit for netbooks, here is a selection of comments from TechRepublic members who have implemented netbooks or are seriously considering it:

art (Network administrator in Pennsylvania): "We use them as loaners and haven't had a user request a full sized laptop since we first got them. I like the Linux models because I can create unprivileged borrower users who can't damage the system. If they crap up the borrower account, I just delete and recreate the account. People like the portability and long battery life. 10" is the minimum size for keyboard use. Borrower/travelers don't care about slower CPU or storage size because the stuff they are doing doesn't tax the hardware, and they really aren't saving a lot of their stuff locally anyway."

pierreclark (CIO in Illinois): "I am in the hospital right now waiting on my daughter's birth. I've been here for five days. I'm typing this on my Acer Aspire One w/140 gb hard drive. Since I've been here, I've written dozens of e-mails, two reports and two PowerPoints (both of which I presented on supplied LCD projectors) using the full [Microsoft] Office package installed on the machine (although my personal favorite is Open Office). I consider this Acer almost the perfect PC; I would not have been able to get as much done on a big notebook which would have been very inconvenient for me to carry. Netbooks are selling on price and because they are incredibly useful for nearly every category of pc user."

b.kinney1 (IT manager in California): "90% of our office uses laptops, while those who have to grind out compute intensive work (video edits, et cetera) use workstations. When those Desktop people go to meetings, they don't have laptops to present their info, and leaving shared systems in each conference room is just begging for someone to start installing games for after hours. The middle ground is to get a few Netbooks for these people, and utilize tools like LogMeIn to provide access to their applications, data, and the like. I don't see tools like Citrix supporting heavy apps like video editors over the WAN, plus the fact that this sort of work demands things like large monitors, compute performance and such. Pushing the files around (raw MP4 for example) is a network chore. Providing a netbook has worked for me."

Tiger_Cane (IT manager in Florida): "My company, while not officially supporting any netbooks, is currently looking at them due to the steep price increase our computer vendor has presented us with for thier latest ultramobile laptop. Additionally, I know at least 3 of us (there may be more) that are using personaly netbooks while on travel since our remote infrastructure is Citix/VPN based (which I consider to be a cloud-like environment already) and any computer we take is going to really be a 'dumb terminal.'"

K12TechDir (IT manager in New Hampshire): "I manage the IT Dept for a public school and we support netbooks owned by the district. We upgrade XP netbooks to XP Professional for us in Active Directory, and also have deployed an entire grade level of Linux netbooks on a 1:1 basis of netbooks to students."

dcolbert (IT manager in Ohio): "Price sells Netbooks. It is the sweet spot for a machine that you throw in a back-pack and expose to hostile environments on a constant basis. MOST of us are very uncomfortable with lugging a $1200-2000 notebook with us EVERYWHERE we go. Most Notebooks spend MOST of their time safely in a desktop. People ask themselves, "Should I bring my notebook". The netbook turns this upside down. With a Netbook, you find yourself asking, "should I leave it". Obviously there are still concerns and it is still expensive, but you've marginalized your risk considerably - and the PC is easier to replace if something unfortunate does happen to it. Losing a Notebook, not only are you potentially out the price of the notebook, but you're going to have to purchase an equally expensive replacement. With a Netbook, the same thing applies, but the loss and the replacement are both easier on your wallet."

CodeCurmudgeon (Software developer in Kansas): "While we do not support netbooks at this time, a whole lot of our users are using full-grown laptops which, on account of their age, have specs well within the netbook range. Face it: The specs on three year old laptops are pretty much the same as a netbook, and we've got a fair number of folks still using FIVE year old laptops. Of course, we've been pushing thin clients since the Y2K conversions, first semi-thin clients with Lotus Notes/Domino, and now absolutely thin clients with Oracle 10g."

david.valdez (IT manager in Oregon): "I am honestly expecting to migrate many, if not all, my desktop users to nettops in the next two to three years, but I work in an industry that is largely still run on green-screen emulators (automotive), so this isn't a surprise. Further, the vast majority of applications in my industry are either Telent or Web-based, so nettops make sense. As for netbooks, we'll definitely look at using those for the occasional and casual mobile users, but will still use true notebooks for regular mobility customers."

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