The joys of netbooks: Our shoulders like the lightweight. Our wallets like the price. And under-powered is a relative term.
But are they too small? Do they make too many sacrifices and compromises?
One way you can get a feel for netbooks’ reduced screen size is to open Firefox and enter this command in the address bar
This tells the browser to resize its window to the standard netbook resolution. Windows users will find that Internet Explorer interprets this differently, if at all.
But this only goes so far, so what follows are my observations and opinions based on using five assorted netbooks. The vast majority of computer reviews deal with new machines and their assorted features. Not this article. This is more about living with a netbook – well after the new toy high has dissipated.
Glossy vs. Matte, Keyboard
Perhaps the two most striking things about any laptop computer are the screen and keyboard. The screens on netbooks, while small, have all been great.
That said, there is a big difference between screens with a glossy and matte finish. There is no one right answer here, but if you’re buying a netbook the screen type should be a big consideration. Interestingly, I didn’t notice a difference in the underlying technologies. Most netbook screens are back-lit with LEDs, except for the Samsung NC10 which is lit by the more common (at least on full size laptops) CCFLs. All look great.
The news on the keyboard front is just the opposite – almost all bad.
Many reviews note that netbook keyboards take some getting used to, which is a nice way of saying they stink. I often switch between a normal, stand-alone keyboard, a full sized laptop and a netbook. The best thing there is to say about netbook keyboards is that the computers are small and cheap.
Asus, in particular, stands out for its decision to put the right shift key in the wrong place. They finally addressed this in their new 1000HE; beats me why it took so long.
However, the keyboard on the Samsung NC10 felt great. It was, by far, the best of all the netbooks I’ve used and should be just fine for normal work. I wouldn’t write a book on the NC10 however. The Acer Aspire One also has a good keyboard, but it’s much too small for my adult hands.
There is a huge variation in netbook keyboards, so if you’re buying one site unseen, look into the return policy. Many netbook keyboards have flat keys and reviews have been positive. I much prefer scultped keys, but this a matter of personal preference.
A pet peeve of mine is the Page Up/Down buttons. On most netbooks these are not primary keys, that is, you have to first press and hold the Function key. The Samsung NC10 and the Acer Aspire One have the Page Up/Down keys as primary.
Trackpads support a variety of features, the one on the Asus 1000HE, for example, lets you scroll using two fingers on the trackpad. This may be fine for many, but I’m an old dog and resistant to some new tricks.
Tim Higgins, over at smallnetbuilder.com has used an ultra-portable laptop for a long time and thus compares netbooks to his tried and true Fujitsu P7120 laptop. He puts a lot of emphasis on the keyboard and has returned every netbook he’s ordered. His reviews make for interesting reading because he’s a skeptic.
Check out his latest netbook review, of the HP Mini 2140.
There are links at the bottom to his reviews of the Dell Mini 12, Samsung NC10, MSI Wind U100 and Lenovo IdeaPad S10.
Another problematic area for netbooks is the metal plate that substitutes for a mouse. I’ll admit my prejudice up-front: I like the red eraser-head found on Thinkpads. No netbooks, not even those from Lenovo, yet sport an eraser-head pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard.
All netbook trackpads tend to be short, but the real problem is with the mouse buttons. The worst models have the buttons on the side of the trackpad. This may be okay for your dominant hand, but works poorly for your other hand.
But even the models with the buttons under the trackpad aren’t as easy to use as those on full size laptop computers. Some netbooks have both buttons as a single button (which takes getting used to), but even those with two buttons make them hard to distinguish just by touch. That is, there is little space around the buttons and they tend to blend into their surroundings both by feel and by sight.
A client of mine deals with this by using the Logitech V450 cordless mouse (Amazon.com sells it for $30).
The transmitter, which plugs into a USB port, is very small and fits in a storage compartment on the bottom of the mouse. It also auto-installs under Windows XP, so there’s no software to deal with. The mouse has great rubber grips on the sides, but is a bit small for my taste. Still, it’s a huge step up from a trackpad and should travel well.
Extending Netbook Battery Life
If you’re not after the cheapest, smallest netbook, you can get a model with outstanding battery life. Netbook battery life will of course vary but the best models, like the Samsung NC10 (especially the new Special Edition) and the Asus 1000HE, can get 6 or 7 hours.
Still, all netbook users should be aware of a few tricks to extend the battery life.
The screen consumes a huge percentage of the battery power and there are times when you might want to turn off the screen but leave the computer otherwise running. For example, if you’re listening to music or a podcast or if you’re going to step away for a bit or just look away from the screen for whatever reason.
One of my favorite little Windows programs is Wizmo from Steve Gibson. It’s free, small and offers a few handy features, such as turning off the monitor, while leaving the rest of the computer untouched.
Wizmo is a single file. Once it’s on your computer you interface with it using shortcuts that you create. A number of icons are included in the file so that the shortcuts for different functions can each get their own icon.
Wizmo is great for netbooks
The features are invoked by running the program with parameters built into the shortcut.For example, to turn off the monitor use the “monoff” parameter:
“C:wizmo.exe” quiet monoff
The wizmo.exe file can reside anywhere. The “quiet” option suppresses the ding noise Wizmo normally makes when it’s invoked. To restore the monitor just move the mouse. Users of the Asus 1000HE don’t need this; there is a small X button on the silver stripe above the keyboard that does the same thing.
Wizmo can also suspend the computer immediately if you’ll be away from it for a while (substitute “standby” for “monoff”). Of course your could just close the lid but Wizmo saves wear and tear on the hinges.
Also, there are times when you may want to configure the netbook to keep running when the lid is closed (more below). My main use for Wizmo has nothing to do with netbooks; I use it to turn off my computers (substitute “shutdown” for “monoff”). The red stop sign sitting just above the Start button seems very fitting.
Netbook Web Browsing
Web browsing on a netbook requires an education in vertical real estate. The 600 pixel height, combined with all the chrome on standard Windows applications, leaves very little space for content.
But there is much that can be done.
The first thing I found myself dealing with, however, was the font size. A small screen means small words on web pages; too small, very often, to read. As a netbook user your best friend is likely to be the Ctl-Plus keyboard combination, which increases the font size.
If you make it too big, Ctl-Minus steps it down. This works in both Firefox and Internet Explorer. Firefox is great about this, as it remembers the font size for each website individually.
There are many adjustments you can make in web browsers to increase the usable vertical space.
Perhaps the most obvious is to suppress the display of add-on toolbars such as those from search engines. The Asus 1000HE came with the Windows Live toolbar pre-installed in Internet Explorer. In Firefox, you’ll also want to suppress the Bookmarks toolbar. In both IE7 and Firefox 3, do View -> Toolbars.
Space can be saved at the bottom of the screen too. In both browsers do View -> Status Bar and uncheck the status bar. I like having the status bar, but after living with a mere 600 vertical pixels you may feel that it’s a luxury you can’t afford.
To use every last vertical pixel, the F11 key forces both IE7 and Firefox 3 into full screen mode. It’s a toggle: press F11 again to restore the normal layout.
A maximum-sized screen is great, for one screen. When you have multiple tabs open though, it’s time to learn some keyboard shortcuts.
I started with Ctrl+W, which closed the current tab. This let me open a group of tabs, F11 into full screen mode, read one tab at a time, close it, then read the next tab. This works in both IE7 and Firefox 3.
Next up, I wanted to bounce around the various tabs while in full screen mode. Windows users are familiar with Alt+Tab to jump between running applications. It turns out that Ctrl+Tab does the same thing for tabs within both web browsers.
If you want to go both forward and backward through the open web browser tabs, things get more difficult. Moving to the previous tab is a three finger salute Ctrl+Shift+Tab. That’s too much for me.
Firefox also supports Ctrl+Page Up/Down to move forward and backward through tabs. However, on many netbooks the Page Up/Down keys require the Function key, so you’re back to three keys.
Firefox has still more tricks up its sleeve. To see them, right click on any of the buttons and select “Customize…” to display the window shown above. If you haven’t seen this before, blame Mozilla. This should be an option off the View menu.
There are three “show” options: icons, icons and text and text.
I find that “text” is a great option on netbooks as plain text isn’t very tall. It’s also more self-explanatory than icons. If you’re an icon person, then using small icons saves some vertical pixels.
But there’s more. Jkmobile did a short video, How-to: Get most out of small screens on netbooks. Tip 1 shows how to remove the search box and move the navigation buttons onto the same horizontal row as the menu bar to really save space.
Firefox’s resize tool is useful for netbooks
Netbook Text Editing
The first time I ever left the house with a netbook was to attend a computer user group meeting where I used it to take notes. While netbooks are fine at word processing, sometimes all you need is a text editor.
For text editing, I like Notepad++.There are many fine text editors but a few things stand out about Notepad++.
One is that, just like a web browser, it supports F11 as a toggle with full screen mode. When writing, I often need to see as many lines as possible, especially on a netbook, and this is a great way to get a full screen view.
Notepad++ also can do automatic backups of your text files. Every time you save the file, a backup is written to a subfolder of the current folder called nppBackup. The file name of the backup is the same as the original file with the date/time appended on the end, followed by “.bak.”
I also like setting the background color to one that’s easy on my eyes. Notepad++ lets you set a global background color that’s used by every file. Like many text editors, Notepad++ also highlights the current line, again using a color of my choice that is consistent for all files.
Notepad++ does not include spell checking out of the box, but it wasn’t hard to add a dictionary. And it’s free.
Finally, there is a portable version of Notepad++ available at portableapps.com, so that after it’s tweaked it’s just right, it can be copied to multiple computers.
Notepad++ runs on Windows XP, Vista and 2000 as well as Windows 95/98/Me.
More Netbook Apps
Any computer you travel with may get lost or stolen. To me, the big fear is someone having access to all my files. I encrypt the most sensitive ones, but for many files that’s too much work. Then too, there’s always the chance that something sensitive doesn’t get encrypted due to a plain old oversight.
To deal with this, I’m a big fan of hard disk passwords.
Although similar to power-on passwords, hard disk passwords are more secure. They’re also more secure than any operating system password. If you forget the hard disk password, there is no easy or cheap way around it.
I’ve yet to see any netbook review that mentioned hard disk passwords.
The Acer Aspire One supports a hard disk password, but there’s a bug in the BIOS forcing you to always enter it in upper case. The MSI Wind U100 does not support hard disk passwords. The Asus 1000HE does, as does the Samsung NC10 (however I had a very hard time with it on the NC10).
Netbooks can also be useful when you’re not traveling. Their inherent limitations fall by the wayside when connected to a normal mouse, keyboard and monitor. Using a netbook as a desktop replacement is worth considering, the big drawback being the lack of an optical drive.
I recently spent a few days working with an IBM/Lenovo X series Thinkpad. It was great – far better than any netbook. The machine had a 12-inch screen, significantly larger than the 10-inch screen on netbooks. The keyboard was excellent, one that you could write a book on. The only downside is the price.
But netbooks may be moving up to larger screens and bringing their low price with them.
For example, the upcoming Acer Aspire One 751 has an 11.6 inch screen with a resolution of 1366 x 768.
The upcoming Samsung NC20 has 12.1-inch screen with a resolution of 1280 x 800.
So far, Samsung seems to be the company that gets netbooks the best. Their combination of quality, design and price seems to lead the pack. The NC20 may well change things in a big way.