Monday, August 17, 2009

Smaller & Simple Might Be Better

On occasion in this column I have discussed the propensity of engineers and designers to add power and features to various electronic appliances far in excess of what most users will ever use. We joke about it, but it is very true that the computing power in the iPhone, iPod and many mobile phones is more robust than what is found in the aging computer systems assisting air traffic controllers keeping us safe in the sky. That is another column perhaps…

There is a whole new category of computers that may reverse the trend of giving us things we don’t need, don’t want and will never learn to use. Called “netbooks,” these computers, smaller than lap tops but larger than cell phones on steroids, are designed and engineered to do very specific tasks.

While smaller than a regular lap top, the keyboard is very close to full size. The screens are somewhat smaller, but can display a page of text or email. Perhaps the biggest difference is in what they do not have. You will not find a large capacity hard drive, there is no DVD or CD drive, the processor will not compute the trajectory of a spacecraft heading for Mars.

These “netbooks” are meant to be connected to the Internet either by direct connection, i.e. a wire, built-in WiFi or a "3g" mobile network card. In other words, the power of this machine is derived from the Internet, not from its innards.

Both Google and, more recently, Microsoft have developed free word processing and spreadsheet software that you can use. Instead of the software being resident on “netbook,” it remains on the remote location and is accessed only when needed via the Internet. In so doing you don’t need all that hard drive space for large software programs.

The cost of these new scaled-down machines is comparably low starting at about $300. Of course if you want the leather seats and sun roof you can pay much more. Most of the bog box retailers have a wide selection as do Dell and HP on the web.

My advice is to make sure that you try the model you are buying. You should make sure that you like the keyboard and can live with the sometimes non-standard layout. Also, while I usually suggest not buying a service contract on electronic devices, in this case it is a good idea. By the very nature of how you are going to use this device, it is going to get knocked around.

If you want to edit video and play games on line, a “netbook” is not for you. If your computing activity is basically email, web surfing and modest word processing, a “netbook” is worth considering.

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