by Agam Shah

Netbooks: Five Things You Need to Know

May 18, 2010

Better than a smartphone but worse than a laptop? Or is the netbook just a fad like the iPad?

They’re small.Netbooks are low-cost laptops characterized by screens that measure between 7 and 12 inches. The device could be practical for mobile users with light application demands, such as checking e-mail, browsing the Web and using Web-based applications. PC vendors offering netbooks include Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Sony and Lenovo. Netbooks have sold mainly to consumers, especially niche markets like students in search of something light and affordable.

They’re great on the go.Netbooks have some enterprise uses, says Jon Provisor, owner and CTO of Guidance Solutions. He finds them handy for travel and presentations and says that about 15 percent of his mobile application development team uses them. “What is most appealing is their price and keyboard-inherent portability,” Provisor says. “However, the processing power, screen size and other limitations have kept us from deploying them across our development team.”

Investing is easy.Some are available for as little as $250, making a netbook a cheap investment, says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. For example, he notes that NPR gave netbooks to reporters so they could edit audio and file stories on the fly. The reporters don’t need fancy or expensive devices, and if the netbooks break in the field, they can easily be replaced. “It’s literally a one-application device. It doesn’t matter if it breaks,” Kay says.

Battery life comes at a price.Their battery life trumps that of regular laptops, but their performance is slow, says Steve Rausch, director of information services at Gibson General Hospital in Indiana. The hospital deployed two netbooks, but got rid of both after a few weeks. “If you’re going to treat it like a laptop, you might as well buy a laptop,” Rausch says. “If you want to check your e-mail, fine, but you can with your smartphone. Why have the bulkiness of the netbook?”

Reviews are mixed, at best.Reactions to netbooks are ambivalent. Apple is one of the most vocal opponents of netbooks, with the company’s COO Tim Cook saying the device has “cramped keyboards, terrible software and junky hardware.” Apple’s answer to the netbook? The iPad tablet computer. But according to Rausch, the iPad could be another consumer fad like the netbook, with a small screen and limited functionality.