Notbooks and Craptops


I’ve been drafting and re-drafting this one for a while, since it kind of cuts against the grain of what most people expect to see mentioned when you write about netbooks.

After all, they’re the new darlings of personal computing, prompting inane comparisons and generating a veritable torrent of misguided expectations1 from industry pundits and consumers alike. And Intel expects them to ship in the bazillions (which is good for them, of course), so everyone must need one, right?

Well, it’s now been more than six months since I started using a netbook at home, and since I’ve now gone through not one, not two, but rather three (or more if you consider the stuff I test) the novelty effect has passed, and I can say two things for certain:

  • I have, for the first time in years, gone for weeks without needing to use a “regular” computer at home
  • Netbooks aren’t as versatile as most people would think

Allow me to expand on these (apparently contradictory) topics.

Parental Unit

First off, there is the Kid Distortion Field, one of the most powerful forces in the Universe. That, in and by itself, is more than enough for justifying my rather sparse use of a conventional computer these days (Mark Pilgrim recently wrote that kids, like gases, tend to expand to fill all available space, but I’d say that’s somewhat incomplete – it applies to time as well).

And since, besides responding to “kidcidents”, I also need to take my mind off work, I have taken to distractions I can stop and resume with ease – you can put down a book or pause live TV these days, but getting back to a sizable bit of code or even a draft of an article is next to impossible – there’s just too much effort involved in getting back to speed after an interruption.

So a small, simple, resilient machine for reading e-mail, browsing for news and drafting text is nearly good enough, and even better when it’s absolutely, stone dead quiet (which is one of the reasons I swapped my Aspire One for a 901).

The Smoother Way

There is, however, another piece of technology that does all of those things better, for a relatively higher value of “better” that essentially translates to “with much less hassle”. You may have heard of a new gadget called the iPhone (or rather, the iPod Touch I use at home so as to keep the phone off when I’m out of the office).

In my particular case, I’ve found that besides surfing the web and reading e-mail, it is also pretty useful for text input. To give you an idea of how much I have taken to it, during a workshop with Apple folk3, one of them noticed me type away on iPhone at speed and remarked that “we ought to get you to do a demo of the keyboard”.

Which is hardly surprising. I’ve composed a fair number of lenghty e-mails on the thing, as well as drafts of just about every kind. Actually, most of my linkblog entries are posted straight from it over breakfast or from the couch, and although some of them are terse (bordering on the telegraphic), that is more a consequence of my personal schedule than of any input constraints.

An Appliance By Any Other Name

But there’s two killer apps for the netbook form factor as far as I’m concerned, and the first is the one that I use the most: it makes a mean Google Reader “appliance”. I fire it up, toggle Firefox’s full screen mode, and zip through my feeds rather faster than I can do on the iPhone or iPod Touch, not because they’re slow and pokey (my netbook’s SSD makes for a much slower reaction time on some apps), but simply because the screen is bigger and I can read more with each screenful.

The second killer application is, rather predictably Flash. Yeah, that-which-shall-not-be-supported, the taboo runtime, etc., etc. Personally, I couldn’t care less if it weren’t for the fact that, for better or for worse, it has taken over video.

Video is the thing I miss the most – even with the iPhone’s YouTube integration, around 75% of the video content I want to watch on the Internet seems to be hosted on places like Vimeo or use the site’s own video player. Sure, they could get a clue and include H.264 versions of their content, but, realistically, most video sites don’t get it, and the current crop of HTML embed snippets doesn’t necessarily allow (by design and/or idiocy) for direct linking to actual video files.

Plus there’s also Slideshare and a number of print publications that have started using Flash viewers of various descriptions to render their wares online, because, you know, PDF is the enemy. Or something – the point here is that these, too, border on the clueless for not providing alternate PDF versions of their content (even if automatically generated and/or missing some formatting).

So I bookmark those on some shared service (like Instapaper or Google Reader) and go back later with a bigger screen (and an occasional grumble).

Real Work

Yeah, you can do that on a netbook. But I’ve found that it’s seldom for long, and with good reason.

Now, I’ve used my 901 for some pretty complex things. Besides coding, and putting together complex documents, I’ve used it for handling photos3, logging in to my corporate network via Citrix and even running an integral copy of this site.

But during the few times I was able to use my MacBook, I was way more productive in comparison.

A netbook might be good enough for some common tasks – but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do things overall. It will do in a pinch, during a trip or for short spells, but you keep going up against all sorts of niggles, both physical and functional.

The first stem largely from the lack of polish (chiclet tray keys, fiddly trackpads, etc.) and basic ergonomic limitations of current netbook hardware (all the former plus smaller screens), but the functional aspects (i.e., not being able to run the applications you’re used to4 or having everything perform slowly) are what drive most people crazy after a bit.

Operating systems and desktop UIs are largely to blame here. They’re simply not suited to the combination of extended portability and small form factors, and trying to hack new user shells or cut down environments (as the Linux crowd keeps trying to do) is the wrong way to go here – this is an entirely new ball game, and papering over cracks doesn’t cut it in the long run.

Plus netbooks are only going to improve, and my bet is that we’re going to see better quality hardware (and much lower prices) over the course of the next year as competition increases and manufacturers start focusing on either price or quality (as the old adage goes, “fast, good, cheap” – pick any two).

So if you’ve got some cash to spend this Xmas, I strongly suggest not spending it on a netbook. Save up for a better laptop or (if you really want something for casual surfing and reading e-mail) grab yourself an iPod Touch.

It’s er, the “funnest” iPod ever, they say, even if it’s not the, er… flashest.

1 In which I include the people who hope Apple comes out with one in January.

2 Yeah, I never mentioned it before. “Go figure”:site/Disclaimer.

3 I even, much to my chagrin, used the GIMP to do some photo editing, with the usual UI gripes.

4 I’m not going to go into software here. That would take a lifetime. Oh, wait…. Anyway, inertia is the only thing keeping Linux on my netbook right now.