Einar's blog

The netbook - a cheap and flexible alternative in the tablet and ultrabook age

There has never been a better time to buy a netbook than today. Netbooks are being replaced by tablets and ultrabooks by a lot of people and the netbook is no longer the new and exciting device it used to be some years ago. Prices are low on the used market and the later netbooks with dual core processors can be had just as cheaply as the less powerful earlier models. There are also netbooks with GPUs (not just integrated graphics), USB 3.0 and HD screens that you could buy cheaply used.

Different people have different needs for different tasks. Fore some, an ultrabook is perfect, for others a tablet, for some a laptop, for some a chromebook and for some a netbook. There are different considerations, such as which operating system(s) you want to use, what form factor(s) you like to use, how much money you are willing to spend, whether mobility or screen real estate is more important to you, how much storage space you need, how long battery life you need, if you want a keyboard or not, if you like touchpads or touch screens or both…

I am touch typist, so I really want a keyboard on my device, but I also want a small and ultraportable devices that is easier to bring with me than my 13,3 inch MacBook Pro. It is just too big and heavy. The 10 inch form factor of most netbooks is very portable, but big enough that the screen, keyboard and trackpad are useable even for adults. There are also netbooks with 11 and 12 inch screens if you prefer a slightly larger size and some people get along fine with 7 and 9 inch netbooks as well. I have got thick fingers, so smaller keyboards than the one on my 10 inch Asus EeePC would be too hard to write on for me.

Netbook keyboards are of varying build quality and size, but I find that the Asus EeePC 1015 PEM I have got is ok to type on, even if it has taken some time to get used to the 93% keyboard size. People often use tablets with bluetooth keyboards, but then you have to carry two devices and you are back to the clamshell form factor of traditional laptops anyway. For me, the price of a tablet combined with apps for it and a keyboard is just overkill when I can get a netbook much cheaper that suits my needs better. I also prefer a full desktop operating system and a full set of ports. For others, a tablet with iOS, Android or Tizen might be perfect. And for the people that want more processor power in a light and portable package, an ultrabook might be right. Personally, I really like the good old-fashioned clamshell laptop form factor.

One advantage of netbooks is that they have all the usual ports like USB, Ethernet, VGA and/or HDMI, sound in and out and SD card reader. If you ever use a USB stick or mobile broadband or want to plug your device into a projector, this might be important to you. Combined with a full desktop operating system, you get all the flexibility of the traditional desktop computer in a light, compact and mobile package. You can run any version of Windows or any Linux distro you want. You can even hackintosh it if you are so inclined. And if you prefer a simpler interface, you might try running Android, MeeGo, Tizen, JolliCloud or any tablet/phone operating system in stead. Choice is good!

Battery life is a reason many people state as their main reason to use a tablet in stead of a laptop. Since netbooks are now getting really cheap on the used market, you could buy a netbook and a high-capacity battery for half the price of a tablet and get more or less the same battery life (some Asus Eee with dual core processors can get up to 13 hours of claimed battery life, which is probably more like 8 to 10 hours in real life). Of course, netbooks with GPUs have shorter battery life, while netbooks with integrated graphics have longer battery life. On my netbook, I am getting around 4 and a half hours of normal use with Wifi on and the screen brightness set to maximum with the three year old low capacity battery that came with the netbook. So far I haven’t bought a high capacity battery, but I am thinking about it. Might be smart to do so before they become too scarce.

With a netbook you have more upgradability than on a tablet or ultrabook. RAM is usually easily upgradable. It is also so cheap now that there is no reason not to max the RAM. Most older netbooks came with 1 GB of RAM and maxed out at 2 GB, but some of the newer ones max out at 4 GB. More RAM will usually increase speed, specially if you are multitasking a lot. A tip if you are running a Linux distro is to maximise the RAM and set the swappiness to 0, so that the netbook will use the faster RAM in stead of using the swap partition on your hard disc as long as there is still RAM available. Since disc writes and reads are draining the battery more than RAM writes and reads, this will also increase battery life as well as make the overall experience faster.

If you buy one of the newer netbooks, they usually come with 160 GB or 250 GB hard disc drives. Compared to tablets which often have 16, 32 or 64 GB SSDs, there is a lot more room for movies and music and whatever you might want to bring with you on most of the newer netbooks. On some netbooks, the hard drive is easily swapped out for another disc if you need more space by just opening a hatch on the back of the computer. On my Asus EeePC, the hard drive is harder to get to, but there are tutorials on youtube and blogs for upgrading it, so it is still user upgradable. Be aware that 2,5 inch SATA drives come in different heights and that your netbook might use a 7 or 9 mm high drive and taller drives might not fit. With hard disc drives up to a Terabyte being quite cheap now, it is not very expensive to get more storage space or a faster hard drive if you want or need to. SSDs bring silent computing since the fans don’t have to remove excess heat produced by a spinning disc. They also bring longer battery life, since there are no moving parts and motors, but the price is high per GigaByte. It is probably overkill to invest in an expensive SSD for an inexpensive netbook. On the other hand, a SATA SSD might be brought over to a newer device or put in a USB, eSATA or FireWire enclosure at a later time, so if you really want one, you might be able to justify it somehow. Personally, I am thinking they are still too expensive and for now, the 250 GB hard disc that came with the netbook is large enough. I keep my ripped DVDs on my MacBook Pro.

Another upgrade choice I mentioned in an earlier paragraph is the battery. Unlike many new ultrabooks and tablets, the battery is usually user replaceable in a netbook. This means that you will be able to use the device for a longer time, since you do not need to pay an authorized serviceperson to open your device to change your battery and you don’t get the dilemma of buying new or a high price for a repairsperson to fix the machine when it is getting old. More user-upgradability means that the device will stay in service longer, which is good for the environment.

There are many things to love about netbooks, but there are also some drawbacks. The main drawbacks are usually the processor, GPU or lack thereof, screen resolution and keyboard. Most netbooks have a screen with a resolution of 1024 x 600, which is useable, but somewhat limiting, specially the 600 pixels of height. Some netbooks have GPUs and higher definition screens, usually 1366 x 768. Even if my Asus has an integrated Intel graphic chip, I have had no trouble utilising projectors or external screens in addition to the internal screen when using Lubuntu. Video playback is fluid. Usually this is not a problem with the newer netbooks.

Keyboards on netbooks are usually smaller than 100%. Some are mushy and very small, while others are quite ok, once you get used to the smaller size and the placement of the keys. I think the keyboard of an Asus EeePC 1015 PEM compares quite well to the chicklet keyboard on the Macbook and Macbook Pro. The main difference is the size and that the keys have slightly more resistance on the Asus. Asus actually used to produce Macs for Apple in the past, so they certainly know how to produce well designed computers.

The processor is usually the main drawback of netbooks. Earlier netbooks had single core Intel Atom processor and later have AMD fusion or dual core Intel Atoms. Even the later netbooks are quite slow compared to full-fledged laptops with Core 2 Duo, i3, i5 or i7 or AMD processors. The ultrabooks, which usually have a slightly bigger screen and a slimmer body beneath the keyboard, have more processing power, but they usually lack the upgradability of netbooks and cost much more.

For most daily tasks like email, websurfing, watching movies, listening to music, podcasts and internet radio, watching online videos and streams, writing documents, making spreadsheets, instant messaging, video conferencing, VOIP &c a netbook is really all you need, but it might take some seconds more to boot the operating system and launch programs than an ultrabook would have used. That is the main trade off for the small size and the quite long battery life. For the low prices of netbooks on the used market, getting a quite new, high-end netbook is a no-brainer if you want a very portable computer and do not need a lot of processor power or a high resolution screen.

After I got my netbook, my huge and heavy 13,3 inch MacBook Pro has become my desktop computer. I still use it a lot at home and when I am away for longer periods at the same place, but for mobile computing, the 10 inch Asus is much more practical. Of course, if you are not a touch typist or don’t want to or need to write on a traditional keyboard, then maybe a tablet might be just as good, but for me, the freedom to install whatever operating system I want and the ability to connect with VGA to a projector or an external screen or use USB to connect to my camera or phone or a mobile broadband USB stick is invaluable. It is much lighter in my backpack than my MacBook Pro. Of course, I might as well have used a small 11 or 12 inch ultrabook, but it would have cost at least triple what I payed. Since I don’t really need the extra processing power, a netbook is perfect for me.

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