Everyone likes MacBooks and notebook PCs, especially college students. They’re slower and more expensive than iMacs and desktop PCs, but not by too much. And they have smaller keyboards and screens, but again, not by too much. In return, they use very little power, and they can be carried around with you anywhere.
After a while, though, lugging a 4- to 7-pound (2-3 kilo) backpack around with you gets tiring, especially if you’re a college student, and you’ve got all those amazingly high-priced textbooks to lug around with you also. So what if I told you there was a new category of notebook PCs called netbooks, that were only about half the size of a normal notebook PC?
Enter the netbook
The IBM Thinkpad that I’m writing this on has a 14-inch screen, and is about the size of a hardcover art book, like the ones on display at Barnes and Noble. Netbooks, like the HP Mininote, have 7- to 10-inch screens, and are about the size of a hardback novel.
People have tried to make “mini PCs” for some time now, but the first people to get it right were the people at Asus, who created the incredibly cute Asus Eee. It caught on fast, and pretty soon other people were jumping into the fray, with products like the Dell Inspiron Mini and the aforementioned HP Mininote. So far, Apple hasn’t made one of its own yet, but a lot of people expect that they will. If you want, you can test-drive netbook PCs at your local electronics store.
For the techies among you who are curious, as of this writing, netbooks usually have Intel Atom processors with specs comparable to my IBM Thinkpad of four years ago … 512 MB or 1 GB of RAM and 1.6 GHz clock speeds, with 2-16 GB flash drives instead of larger hard drives. And if you don’t understand any of that, just imagine they took a four-year-old laptop and shrunk it, then gave it flash memory like on an iPod Nano instead of a hard drive like on an iPod Classic (and most PCs and Macs). Netbooks are slower than modern PCs and MacBooks, but they are also incredibly small.
So what can they do?
Despite being so tiny, they’re amazingly full-featured. The keyboards aren’t as good as a normal laptop’s, but they’re a heck of a lot better than a mobile phone’s unless you’ve got an external folding keyboard. (If you do, it might actually be better, as I found out when I held mine up to the tiniest Asus Eee.) And they’re full-fledged computers, so they can use Wi-Fi to go on the Internet and everything.
Of course, for college students the biggest questions besides “Can it go on the Internet?” are “Can it run Microsoft Office?” and “Can it play any games?” The answers to those questions are “It depends,” and “Sorta.” Many netbooks don’t have Windows installed, but instead use a customized Linux-based operating system, like the HP Mobile Internet Experience and the upcoming Ubuntu Netbook Remix. These usually have big, brightly colored icons and simplified user interfaces, so using one feels sort of like using a game console. This makes it easy to go on the ‘net and get basic tasks done. But it also means you can’t run Windows programs on them because most Windows programs don’t run on Linux.
Of course, if you’re used to using a Mac, and don’t use any Windows software to begin with, that may not be a problem. And if you start using a Linux-based netbook, you’ll soon find that it has tons of free software included, including a Microsoft Office-compatible office suite called OpenOffice.org. It’s easy to learn if you’re familiar with Microsoft Office, on either the PC or Mac. And while you can’t use Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, you can install and use a powerful free notetaking tool called BasKet (which I’m very fond of).
You could always buy a netbook with Windows XP (not Vista) installed. But it’s not really meant to be used on a PC that tiny, and Windows has its own problems. Not to mention that Microsoft deliberately restricted how powerful a Windows XP netbook can be, placing a cap on how much RAM and hard drive space it can have. If you’re thinking of using a tiny computer, it might be better to use software that was designed for it, rather than trying to cram full-fledged Microsoft Office onto the thing. You can always save your OpenOffice.org documents in Microsoft Office format, and then open them on your main PC or MacBook.
Unless you really know what you’re doing, a netbook is not a good substitute for your primary PC or MacBook. You can’t watch DVDs or install new programs from CDs onto it without an external drive, and it won’t run Windows or Mac programs. Even if you buy a Windows netbook, it probably won’t run Windows programs all that well just because it’s so small.
On the other hand, if you already have a main PC or Mac and you need something smaller to tote around campus, a netbook might be what you’re looking for. It’s not as convenient as a nice smartphone, like an iPhone or a Palm Centro, but it has a bigger screen and an actual keyboard, and it’s a lot easier to carry to lectures than a full-sized notebook is.
If your back is already hurting from carrying those textbooks around, shedding a few pounds from your notebook computer may help. Just make sure to shop around and read reviews first, and try one in person so you’ll know if you could get used to it. Good luck!