Thursday, August 13, 2009

Netbooks: Cool for School?

Many of us are seeing our little darlings off to college after buying them fancy new notebook computers. However, I’ve overheard some complaints that indicate that many of you need to do a little research before you go plop down money for netbook.

Not to be confused with NOTEbook computers, “NETbooks” may look like laptops, but they don't have the full capabilities of a computer. A netbook is a wireless, streamlined mobile device designed for internet only. You can get up-to-date news, the latest scores and weather information, access your e-mail and social networking sites, and enjoy digital videos, photos and music as long as you have a wireless internet connection. Without a wireless connection to the ‘Net, these things are nearly useless

Netbooks are primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing and are targeted increasingly at “cloud computing” users who require a less powerful client computer. “Cloud computing” is a concept that you will be hearing more and more about. Essentially, it’s a style of computing where no software is loaded on the computer itself but resides only in the decentralized “cloud” of the internet. Google, for example, has a free “Office” program with a full featured word processor, spreadsheet, database, calendar and email that you access from an internet browser instead of installing on your computer.

Netbooks typically run either Windows XP or Linux operating systems rather than more resource-intensive operating systems like Windows Vista. The devices range in size from under 5 inches to over 13 inches and typically weigh 2 to 3 pounds (compared to 5 to 8 pounds for a typical laptop). They are often significantly cheaper than general purpose laptops – generally starting at $199.00 but average $350-ish. In Japan, they are giving these things away if you sign up for a wireless internet plan. I expect to see that here in the US soon.

I’ve heard some complaints from people who received bad advice from clueless sales people who have purchased these things then returned them after they discovered they weren’t a “real” notebook computer. These netbooks are designed for a specific kind of user who needs something more powerful than a smart phone but not as capable as a “real” notebook computer. You generally can’t load iTunes or other office applications on these things, for example. The most inexpensive ones come with a miniscule hard drive (4 to 16gb compared to the 160gb or more that is standard in most current laptops) and very low processing power. Most of them don’t include an optical (CD/DVD) drive and often don’t even have an Ethernet port. These things are great for transcribing lectures and accessing Facebook - but don't expect much else from them.

Consider it like a large Blackberry or iPhone. Speaking of the iPhone, rumor has it that Apple will soon release their version of a Netbook. It’s still a secret but spies say that it will essentially be similar to an iPhone but with a considerably larger screen capable of running existing App Store applications as well as a new generation of applications written for the larger-screen device. Woo hoo!

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