Friday, February 26, 2010

GADGETS: How to choose a netbook

Nerds and many other people can find a small portable computer to be extremely useful. Last Saturday, Jenny from Reed (strangely not on twitter) posted something on her facebook page seeking guidance on a netbook purchase. I leaped into action, and posted her some advice. This made me think that there might be others out there in need of netbook advice.

To your left is a picture of my netbook. It's not actually a netbook, mind you, because I bought it in 2006, for roughly 10 times what they currently cost. However, it has something no current netbook offers: a built in optical drive. Yes, I can play and burn CDs and DVDs on my netbook. Also, it has a button on it that boots it directly to CD/DVD playback mode without powering up anything else. It's good for battery power. Plus, it has a James Bond fingerprint scanner, which is pretty excellent when I'm out at a place with wifi, and I have to get up to refill my drink. My laptop is a Sony, but when I got the iPhone, I thought it would be cute to throw the sticker on it and represent. Stickers are an important addition to any laptop. When people see you in the world with your laptop, stickers help them to know you're awesome. Also present, the Evangelion sticker on the top left, my friends' band bottom left, and nerdy t-shirt headquarters, Jinx on the bottom right. I'm entertaining candidates to go diagonally in the open space. Maybe I'll find something good next time I see They Might Be Giants.

 Now, there are a few things you should know before you go to pick out your netbook. Price is a consideration, but netbooks are pretty uniform in cost these days, roughly around $300. Hard drive space is something else to think about. You're generally going to see models with either 160gb or 250gb. Unless your price tag is pinned to the sub-$300 range, it's probably worth it to splurge the extra $50 for the extra hard drive space. As far as CPU, you have two basic options right now. The Intel Atom n270 and the Atom n450. Now, without going into all of the technical details, you can break it down like this: both processors are physically around the size of a quarter, and have pretty similar speeds. The main thing the n450 brings to the table is battery life, and a tiny bit of processing speed. If you're really into using your netbook without external power, the n450 may be worth the little extra money. I personally mostly use mine plugged in unless the four tables with power outlets are all taken when I get to Panera, and when I've had to use it on a bus or train or plane, the battery power is enough to watch at least one movie.

Will it be your only computer? If the answer is yes, you should probably think about spending a little more money and getting a full fledged laptop. Netbooks don't really multi-task effectively. Sure, you can run MS Office, or Firefox, or watch a movie from the hard drive... But you can't really do more than any one of those things at a time. Also, you're definitely not going to be playing any recently released games on your netbook. Also, do you travel much, or like sitting in coffee shops? Then a netbook is a really solid decision. Another tip is don't buy your netbook online. Go to Best Buy or the consumer electronics store of your choice and handle one. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type a bit. Make sure it's comfortable for you. It's going to be strange at first, because the strike depth of the keys is incredibly shallow. But as long as there's room for your hands, and the buttons are far enough apart for you to hit one at a time, you're probably okay. Also, feel the bottom of it. Is it super hot sitting idle in Best Buy? All that heat is generated by electrons sliding through molecules of gold, and those electrons come from the battery. So if it's super hot while not doing much of anything, it may be spending too much battery power on friction. Also, hot keyboards aren't comfortable typing surfaces.

One last thing to consider is this. If the netbook is going to be your second computer, you should think about getting a small external hard drive. Mine is a MyPassport from WD. It draws power over the USB, so you only have one cord to worry about, and it will operate off your computer. As you can see, it fits in the palm of your hand, and weighs almost nothing, so if you have a messenger bag or something to tote your netbook around, the drive will easily fit in a pocket of the bag, and you won't even notice it's there. Of course, if you already have a decent sized iPod, you can just enable disk mode, and use it as your external hard drive. Either way, it will be pleasant to have an external memory device to transfer files quickly between your two computers. I also keep my entire music and photo library backed up on mine, just in case. While you're at it, if the netbook is going to be your only computer, you may want to explore an external USB-powered CD/DVD device. Otherwise, you're not going to be able to watch movies unless you download digital copies to your hard drive. Again, make sure it's USB-powered, so you only have to worry about one more cord. I will say that the only time I really use the optical drive on my netbook is when I want to watch a DVD, and sometimes I'll burn a CD for a someone. Those two uses aren't that frequent though, so think about the last time you put a disc in your computer before spending the extra cash.

If you need someone to hold your hand while you pick out a netbook or any computer hardware, I'm here for you. Just throw me a tweet, email or message on facebook, or leave me a comment here and I'll leap into action as soon as I get it. And sure, I have a super awesome desktop, with a repulsively massive amount of monitor space, and a quad core nehalem cpu, but here I am on my couch, blogging from my netbook.

Last piece of advice! This may seem like common sense, but don't put your new computer away hot. Shut it down and let it cool off before you stick it in your bag of choice. You don't want it to be hot in an enclosed space.

@nerdsherpa, purveyor of portable awesomeness.


  1. Just wanted to chime in and say that I really like my Acer Aspire netbook. I sprung for the increased battery. And definitely pick up Windows 7 if the option is available. That's my only regret with the purchase.

  2. I am definitely guilty of putting my portable into the bag without letting it chill. Hadn't really thought about it before now. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. I just noticed from the second photo I posted... My blog and my couch have the same color scheme.

  4. I dig the write up. My only other 2 cents is the native resolution. Those netbooks tend to be 1024 x 600, which cuts off a lot of the screen. A number of the newer ones are 1366 x 768 or higher, which is a bit more manageable. Also the new AMD line of netbook CPUs are really nice because they pair with the GFX chip and boosts performance significantly.