ROAD WARRIOR
The Road Warrior Looks at Netbooks

By Jeffrey Allen

The netbook represents a new phenomenon in the world of tech. Many of you have already thought about acquiring a netbook. Some of you already have one. I did not write this column to persuade you to purchase or not to purchase a netbook; this column will discuss the pros and cons of netbooks and prognosticate a bit about how we will evolve with this technology in the near term.

The primary function of the netbook, as its name suggests, is providing Internet access to the user, enabling the user to handle e-mail, interface with social networking programs, chat or video conference with friends or business associates, conduct online research, shop, and, of course, surf the web.

The price of computers has generally come down in recent times, while the power of the computer has increased dramatically. This is true of laptops as well as desktop computers. Because netbooks tend to be less expensive than other computers, many people think of any inexpensive laptop as a netbook. Although cost certainly represents one of the criteria of netbook acceptability, it does not define the category.

First things first, let’s talk about what makes a netbook. Netbooks represent a combination of small size, light weight, low cost, connectivity, and Internet functionality. Most people will recognize the class of netbooks as including inexpensive laptop computers weighing up to three pounds, generally having smaller screens and footprints (most of them falling in the 9” to 10” screen size), and, at least for the current generation, being powered by the Atom processor, generally running at 1.6 GHz. Most netbooks come with 512 MB or 1 GB of RAM. Additionally, many netbooks come equipped with built-in web-cams. Owing to the smaller screen and case size, netbooks also generally come with reduced-sized keyboards. Most netbooks have smallish hard disk drives and lack an onboard optical drive. The lack of a built-in optical drive may cause you to buy an external drive that you can plug into an available USB port. You will find it hard to avoid that acquisition as a matter of convenience, so you might want to include the cost as part of the acquisition price for the netbook. An external CD/DVD drive allows you to load software more easily on the computer and also allows you to play DVDs. By the way, if you get video that you can load into the computer’s memory, you can watch it without having to carry an external optical drive around with you when you travel. Increasingly, I find movies available in a digital format that allows you to transfer them to a computer or an iPod or similar device. You can also get software that will allow you to convert movies to a format that works with the netbook.

When netbooks first started becoming popular, as a group they offered much less power than we generally get from full-configuration laptop or desktop computers. The Atom processor, a low-power CPU, generally runs at about 1.6 GHz in a netbook. Compare that with most other laptops running at well over 2 GHz or even 3 GHz, and desktops now in the 4 GHz range. Netbooks generally run Windows XP Home, although some will also run on Linux. The netbooks do not generally have the power to run Vista. Rumor has it that Windows 7 will support netbooks. Time will tell if this rumor is true and, if so, whether Windows 7 will run on the existing netbooks or require a modified hardware configuration that will change the netbook structure somewhat.

Apple ( www.apple.com) has not released a netbook as such, although some would argue that the three-pound Mac-Book Air represents Apple’s equivalent to the smaller, lighter, less-powerful netbooks, despite the fact that it has a somewhat larger footprint, bigger keyboard, and bigger screen than most netbooks. Even if one was inclined to consider the Mac-Book Air as a netbook, its price moves it into a completely different category. Netbooks generally sell for $300 to $500. The Mac-Book Air starts at $1,499. At least for the time being, no true netbooks run the Mac OS. Rumor has it that Apple may bring out a tablet-style computer to compete with the netbooks (think iPod or iPhone with a larger screen) that supposedly will sell for $500 to $600. Remember, this is just a rumor.

Netbooks generally provide Internet connectivity through WiFi or Ethernet, but most netbooks come with USB ports allowing the use of USB modems for carry-it-with-you cellular-based wireless connectivity. Recently, Novatel ( www.novatelwireless.com) released its MiFi device, now available through Sprint or Verizon. It creates a cellular-based wireless hot spot allowing up to five connections wherever you can find a signal. This means that even a netbook with no available USB ports can have the flexibility of a mobile hot spot and wireless Internet connectivity.

Many well-known manufacturers of Windows computers have jumped into the netbook race, including Lenovo ( www.lenovo.com), HP ( www.hp.com), Samsung ( www.samsung.com), Acer ( www.acer.com), Asus ( http://usa.asus.com), Dell ( www.dell.com), and Fujitsu ( www.fujitsu.com/us). Sony ( www.sonystyle.com) has released its VAIO P series, which would qualify in most respects as a netbook but at $899.99 costs more than twice as much as most netbooks. The VAIO P weighs less than 1.5 pounds and has a smaller configuration (smaller screen, size, and keyboard) than most netbooks, but it comes with a faster processor and 2 GB of RAM. Unlike most netbooks, it comes with the Vista Home Basic operating system installed, not XP.

Because most netbooks have similar size, shape, specifications, and price, you will likely not do badly with any choice you make among the better-known manufacturers. As for me, I prefer the larger screen and keyboard of the Mac-Book Air and use it for most of my travels. I do have a true netbook, however. When I compared netbook manufacturers and models, I reached the conclusion that the Lenovo S-10 was best suited for me, so I got one. I have used it and actually have been quite pleased with it.

If you plan to buy a netbook, I do recommend that you avoid the built-in cellular connections unless you plan to use only the netbook for travel and portability for courtroom and related presentations. I strongly prefer getting my cellular broadband connectivity through a USB modem; it allows you to freely and easily move your connection from one computer to another. Even better is Novatel’s MiFi device.

Finally, when choosing between netbooks, consider how long the battery holds a charge. Length of use per charge makes a reasonable deciding factor. Sometimes you will get a choice of a smaller or larger battery. Despite the fact that the larger battery adds a bit of weight, in the long run you will probably be happier with the larger battery, as it will add to the amount of use you will get between charges.

Undoubtedly we will see more powerful computers in the netbook category over time. I find it hard to believe that we will see much in the way of a price reduction, given the current price range, but anything is possible. I predict that we will see more power in the same basic price range.

Many people get netbooks and then decide to try to get the most work they can out of them. They load their netbooks with various software programs and pretend that they have a full-scale laptop, only to end up disappointed when they discover that their netbook lacks sufficient power to do many of the things other laptops can do. In fact, it may lack the power to run some of their software at all. I had that happen with my netbook. If you know the limitations of the system, you will avoid that type of frustration either by getting and using the netbook within the scope of its capacity or by getting a more powerful computer instead of or in addition to the netbook.

If you want a computer to handle e-mail, video conferencing, basic word processing, surfing the Internet, shopping online, doing legal research online, or other basic things, a netbook will suffice, although its small size makes it less than ideal for word processing.

On the other hand:
•    If you want to do anything other than the most basic gaming, you will not find a netbook well suited for the purpose.
•    If you want to do anything with graphics other than look at pictures, you will want something more powerful.
•    If you want to do serious number crunching, you will want a more powerful computer.
•    If you want to do serious word processing, you will want a more powerful computer with a larger screen and keyboard.

Because of netbooks’ inexpensive price tag, many parents will consider getting one as a first computer for their children in school. Some parents will find it a plus that the netbook has very limited gaming capacity. (As a side note, this potential use may prove a substantial contributing factor to any decision Apple makes about getting into the netbook business. Apple’s growth strategy for a number of years included a strong effort in the education market. By making special arrangements to get Macs into the schools, Apple ensured that children would become familiar with the system, thereby enhancing its popularity for home use. I would find it surprising if Apple wished to give up that marketing advantage.)

Over the last 15 or 20 years, I have noticed that, as technology has evolved, people have expected more and accepted less from technology. For example, look at music recording. The MP3 file system allows a dramatic contraction in the size of the music file for a song. The reason that size contraction occurs is that the MP3 file drops out sounds thought to be out of the range of normal human hearing. Anyone who has taken a CD, put it into a computer and imported the music into iTunes or some other MP3 coding software, and then compared the sound of the MP3 to the sound of the original CD knows the fallacy of that assumption. The simple fact of the matter is that the MP3 does not sound as full, as rich, or as good as the CD. On the other hand, it lets us take a massive quantity of music, put it on a computer or in our pockets in a small MP3 player, and enjoy it almost anywhere. The quality is not as good, but we accept it because it offers advantages of compactness and portability.

I think the netbook will produce a similar phenomenon. We know that netbooks lack the power of other computers, but they are small, compact, inexpensive, and highly portable. Many of us will choose to make do with them because of those features, despite their shortcomings.

The better news is that as technology continues to evolve, we will see more powerful netbooks that will handle more tasks more capably. We will likely choose to adapt to using smaller, more cramped keyboards and smallish screens and come to accept them as the norm, owing to the convenience of the portability of the more powerful netbooks.

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the small law firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California, with a general practice that, since 1973, has emphasized negotiation, structuring, and documentation of real estate acquisitions, loans, and other business transactions, receiverships, related litigation, and bankruptcy. He also works extensively as an arbitrator and a mediator. He serves as the editor of the Technology eReport and the Technology & Practice Guide issues of GPSolo magazine. He regularly presents at substantive law and technology-oriented programs for attorneys and writes for several legal trade magazines. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, Jeffrey has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix. You may contact him via e-mail at jallenlawtek@aol.com; he blogs on the intersection of law and technology at www.jallenlawtekblog.com.

Copyright 2009

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