Electronic Design

Learn How To Use Netbooks More Effectively

Recently, I received an e-mail with a subject line identical to the headline above. This could not have come at a more opportune time for me, since I had purchased a netbook only a few days before. Mind you, I wasn’t dead set on buying a netbook. But I had this $130 credit burning a hole in my pocket, and I wanted to use it for some kind of computing device.

My first thought, around the holidays, was to use it to buy or rather offset the cost of an Apple iPod Touch. I don’t really know if it was my thought, or if it was a thought placed in my head by the enormous amount of advertising for the device in the subway stop where I get off every day on my way to work. In any case, I was almost ready to pull the trigger when I realized that the iPod Touch does not have a built-in camera, like the iPhone does. That was a deal breaker for me.

Next, I considered the Apple iPad. It should be on sale now, but I haven’t seen it in person yet. I thought about its features compared to a netbook and just couldn’t make the leap to a pad-only product. I guess I’m still old fashioned enough to want to type my editorials on a real keyboard.

THE NETBOOK EXPERIENCE

I researched the available netbooks in the MicroCenter store near my home and scoured the Web for information. I also saw some netbooks a couple of years ago at the International CES, when they were just starting to take off, and some that Bill Wong reported on at this year’s CES. I decided to choose the low end of the Hewlett-Packard line—the Mini 210-1010NR, priced at $299.

This model features the Intel Atom N450 (1.66 GHz), 1-Gbyte RAM, a 160-Gbyte (5400 RPM) hard disk, and a 10.1-in. widescreen (WSVGA) display. It also comes with Windows 7 Starter. For this inexpensive netbook, though, I had to settle for a three-cell lithium-polymer battery rated at 4.4 hours. I decided lighter weight trumps longer play time.

Some of the neat features of this netbook, which I didn’t fully realize it had until I started playing with it, are a built-in Web cam, HP QuickWeb software, and a touch pad from Synaptics that lets you use two fingers to perform operations such as pinching and zooming.

I was most interested in QuickWeb since it promised virtually instant-on operation. This software lets you access almost immediately what HP believes to be the items you might use most with the netbook: e-mail, Web browsing, photos, music, chat, Skype, and a Web-based calendar. The screen appears in less than 10 seconds, but takes a few more seconds to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot. If you choose not to use it, you can continue on to Windows 7 and wait another three minutes or so.

The only drawback I’ve noticed with QuickWeb is that it seems unable to recognize a Verizon 3G USB stick. In Windows 7 mode, I can launch it with Verizon software. Also, the e-mail function works best if you are using Google mail (Gmail) or Yahoo mail. Otherwise, it seems you’ll have a third of the QuickWeb screen blank, since it will not be pulling in e-mail automatically.

Coincidentally enough, my son called me the day after I purchased this netbook to find out my opinion about netbooks. His desktop crashed, and he’s looking for a replacement. My initial thought was that he should either get another desktop or a notebook for his primary machine.

Netbooks, I believe, are just for special circumstances, like making it easier to do work on a one-hour railroad commute, like I have every day and hence my need for 3G connectivity. I did not purchase a netbook with built-in 3G since, as mentioned, I already have a 3G USB stick for my notebook and want to make use of that.

THE NETBOOK SUMMIT

Finally, let’s get back to the e-mail that prompted the headline. It was advertising the Netbook Summit, May 24-25 at the Hyatt Regency at the San Francisco Airport. I couldn’t imagine why the subject line of the e-mail would be what it was. Why, after all this time, would anyone want to learn how to use netbooks?

Apparently, the industry still needs to address lots of problems. Among other challenges, the conference will show attendees how to extend battery life, improve graphics, simplify the loading of software, boost performance, and provide software that’s better suited to the netbook environment. It also will cover typical applications.

Major issues include the choice of operating systems, developing software specifically for netbooks, improving system usability, exchanging data with other computers, the role of the netbook compared to notebooks and smart phones, service plans for netbook users, rugged design, and flash drives versus hard drives.

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