Mac2Windows

In Praise of Netbooks

- 2009.04.06 - Tip Jar

For a long time, I've been looking for the sweet spot between the often contradictory demands of portability, affordability, and usability. I'd begun to believe that you could get any two of these in one device, but that I would never find something that offered all three. Among others, I've tried:

  1. Various PDAs and most recently an iPod touch. These have been relatively affordable and certainly portable. But while they've had their uses, none have really met my demands for usability. The touch comes closest, with its built-in WiFi and growing list of applications available from Apple's App Store, but in the end, I would hate to have to, for example, type this article on a touch or an iPhone. I've tried adding keyboards to PDAs, but I never wanted to stick with them over time.
  2. Apple's MacBook Air - very usable, light - though with its 13" form factor, not as portable as I might like. But its $1,800 to $2,500 price point is far from my definition of affordable. I would have to say the same about similar light Windows laptops from the likes of Toshiba, Lenovo, and, most recently, Dell.
  3. A secondhand 12" PowerBook G4: Pretty portable, pretty capable, reasonably affordable - perhaps the best combination of portability, capability, and affordability I'd found up until now.

Netbooks

The biggest growth in personal computer sales in 2008 (perhaps the only area with real growth in the past year or so) has been in netbooks - a new category of small size (typically 10" screens or smaller), low-powered (currently most sport a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU, a single-core model built for efficient battery use), and low-cost (most models are priced somewhere around the $400 [$500 Canadian], in many cases quite a bit below this price point).

Netbooks were first offered by several lesser-known brands like Asus, Acer, and MSI. More recently, better known PC manufacturers, including HP, Toshiba, and Dell, have jumped on the netbook bandwagon.

No Mac Netbook Yet

Apple, though, has remained aloof. In an October 2008 media conference call discussing Apple's 4th quarter financial statement, Steve Jobs suggested that Apple's "entrant into that category . . . is the iPhone, for browsing the Internet, and doing email and all the other things that a netbook lets you do." He added, "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that."

Mac OS X on netbook chart from Boing BoingWith Apple claiming disinterest in the netbook category, there's been a growth of interest in turning an existing netbook into the Apple-netbook-that-isn't. Popular website Boing Boing, has published a Mac OS X on Netbook compatibility chart showing the extent various models' hardware can be made to work with OS X and including links to OS X installation guides for each model.

(Reportedly, installing OS X onto non-Apple hardware is not easy. It is in violation of the OS X license agreement. So far, I haven't tried it, so please don't email me asking for how-to advice.)

Dell's Very Affordable Netbook

When I got an email from Dell offering sale pricing on its Inspiron Mini 9 netbook, I decided to give it a try. The listed model was C$349 (about US$285), which seemed affordable enough. (Unlike Apple, Dell's pricing changes seemingly randomly, with varying prices advertised online, in newspaper ads, email promotions, and more.)

The Mini 9, which is among the systems Boing Boing listed with the best OS X compatibility, has a 9" (actually 8.9") screen; Dell also has 10" and 12" models. Like most netbooks, it has a 1024 x 768 pixel screen resolution. Dell offers models with 4 GB, 8 GB, or 16 GB solid state drives (SSDs), as well as various size traditional hard drives. 

Dell Mini 9 netbookDell's Minis can be ordered with a Dell-customized version of Ubuntu 8.04 Linux or with Windows XP Home - the Ubuntu versions come with either 512 MB or 2 GB RAM, the XP version comes with 1 GB memory. (Apparently, Microsoft is offering deep discounts to netbook manufacturers to install XP Home, but the license limits the manufacturers to 1 GB of memory). Memory is very easily accessed for upgrading; the single memory slots uses readily available, inexpensive DDR2 memory and supports 2 GB.

There are 3 USB 2.0 ports, sound in and out, an SD memory card port, ethernet, and a VGA-style video out port. 802.11g WiFi is built-in; Bluetooth and various webcams are optional extras. The 4-cell battery delivers about 4 hours life. The whole thing weighs in at 2.28 lb.

Like most other netbooks (and Apple's MacBook Air), there's no built-in optical drive.

Cheaper with Windows?!?

The special I went for included a 16 GB SSD, 1 GB memory, and Windows XP Home. Ironically, Dell's sale pricing was less expensive than their model with the free Ubuntu operating system and minimalist 4 GB SSD and 512 MB memory. I passed on Dell's various added-cost options: different colour back panels, Bluetooth, webcam, antivirus, and other software. (Microsoft Works and a trial version of Norton Security Suite were included.)

While I usually recommend that laptop owners - whether Mac or other - always buy the manufacturer's extended warranty, I didn't bother on this one. If a $350 system breaks down, it's not a big loss.

Solid State Drives

A word about solid state drives compared to traditional models. Netbooks are available with traditional hard drives with sizes as large as 160 GB; I opted for a much smaller SSD. Traditional hard drives in netbooks are slower 4200 rpm models; solid state drives offer faster start up times. (There's a YouTube video clip showing a MacBook Air with a standard hard drive vs. a Dell Mini 9 with an SSD, both running OS X Leopard; the SD-equipped Dell Mini starts up much faster despite its much less powerful CPU.) Moreover, SSDs are much more robust, important since netbooks are likely to get bounced around a lot.

Do I really want to store vast amounts of pictures, music, video, and other files on a netbook? It's not intended to be a user's only (or even main) computer system. An SSD-equipped netbook makes more sense to me.

The 4 GB SSD Dell offers on its lowest-end models is too small to be practical, however. It will hold Ubuntu and a basic set of applications, but it's a tight squeeze. The 8 GB drive is better, but I prefer that the 16 GB SSD that came on my system. 32 GB SSDs are available, but they are out of stock everywhere I've looked. (Note that SSDs don't seem to be standardized; an SSD for, for instance, an Asus netbook isn't compatible with the Dell Mini.)

The SD memory card slot makes a handy way to expand storage; I got a 16 GB SD card ($40 on sale) and have loaded it up with music, video, and e-book files.

Going Ubuntu

I also installed Ubuntu; at first, I set the system to dual-boot between the preinstalled XP Home and Ubuntu - the 16 GB drive had enough room for both operating systems, but there wasn't much free space. After a week, wanting to test out the just-released Ubuntu 9.04 beta, I erased the whole thing and devoted all the space to that new Ubuntu version. It's not Mac OS X, but I like it a lot.

(How to install a new operating system on a computer with no optical drive? Ubuntu has a nice USB Startup Disc Creator option, which will take let you create a bootable USB memory stick from an ISO disc image file.)

Very Happy with It

I've been using this netbook as my primary computer for the past couple of weeks and have been pretty happy with it. With an 88% of full-size keyboard, typing is more awkward than on a full-sized keyboard, especially since Dell has chosen nonstandard locations for several keys, such as the apostrophe/quotation mark key. However, it's far and away superior to trying to type on a Blackberry or iPhone - I'm using it for this 1,000+ word article, for instance, something that I dare anyone to try on a smartphone.

The 1024 x 600 screen is less deep than is common and cuts off the bottom of some Ubuntu dialogue boxes. It requires a bit more scrolling to read long web pages and other documents. Turning off toolbars (etc.) helps some.

With the addition of the SD card, it has more storage than my iPod touch, and it is arguably as usable as a media player and e-book reader (though admittedly it won't fit in a pocket). No built-in GPS, but neither does my 1G iPod touch. (And it cost about as much as the touch!) Ubuntu has more applications - and more useful applications - than the touch or iPhone, though probably fewer games.

Not a 'Piece of Junk'

In his October 2008 phone conference, Steve Jobs implied that all $500 netbooks were "pieces of junk"; certainly, my US$285 Dell Mini 9 is not as slick a piece of hardware as a MacBook Air - it lacks that model's sculpted aluminum solidity and ultra-thin profile. On the other hand, its styling is reasonably clean and straightforward, it's much smaller and more easily toted around than the Air, and includes built-in wired networking, multiple USB ports, video out, and an SD card slot - all missing from the Air.

I could buy a bunch of them for the price of the base MacBook Air.

Recently, Dell released a new laptop model, Adamo, designed to be a stylish competitor to the MacBook Air - and priced to match. I suspect, given the tight economy, that it won't be a brisk seller. While Apple won't be losing any sleep over the Adamo, they ought to be taking a close look at the Dell Minis and other netbooks. These show that it is possible to make a sub-$500 computer that isn't a piece of junk. (And with some effort, it apparently will even run OS X.) The Ubuntu-powered Dell Mini 9 is the best combination of portability, affordability, and usability I've found to date - it easily meets 80% of my computing needs.

Maybe my next low-end Mac will be a Dell netbook! LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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