'Book Value

Netbooks Tempting, Cry Out for Mac OS X

Charles Moore - 2008.11.24 - Tip Jar

I continue to be intrigued and enticed by PC netbooks marketed by Asus, MSI, Lenovo, and even Dell. I wish Apple could be persuaded to enter this field with a competitive and non-connectivity and upgradability-crippled entry.

I'm probably fantasizing in futility, but it doesn't hurt to dream.

It's even got me musing about getting a netbook and running Linux on it, although an article late last week on ecmarchitect.com pours a bit of reality-check cold water on that idea. This all does underscore, however, that for me at least, the primary reason I am a Mac user is the Mac OS and not the hardware, as nice as the latter can be.

Not Alone

I'm not alone in my netbook frustration. A fellow Mac columnist, who shall remain anonymous, says:

"Call me stupid, but I may get one. Only because I'm stupid. No. I actually think I need a Windows machine. You can't beat that price. And I can hide it quickly if someone comes in. 'Was that a PC I just saw you using?' I can say 'No, what are you talking about?' . . . Apple HAS to do something about their pricing or they will never command the market in the way they want to." . . . I know it's not allowed, but OS X on that little MSI would be cool."

MacBook nanoSome folks are already doing that.

eWeek's Joe Wilcox reported recently that some people so badly want an Apple-branded netbook that they're willing to make their own, referencing a MacRumors post about an apparently home-built "unofficial" MacBook nano with a link to a Flickr gallery.

"It's hard to believe that this isn't a real Apple-branded netbook, because the workmanship is so good. A second gallery shows the transformation: From MSI netbook to MacBook nano."

"The transformation is quite amazing to see. Removal of the MSI logo, replaced with Apple logo and swapping out some keys for those found on Apple laptops."

I saw the photo on MacRumors too and drooled a bit. If Apple built a machine like this (including the hacked mockup's generous 320 GB hard drive and generous array of I/O ports), and offered it in the $600 to $800 range that high-end PC netbooks sell for, I would find it hard to resist.

I should note here that Apple could have pre-empted a lot of my pining for a Mac netbook if they'd properly equipped the new Unibody MacBook with FireWire and the range of other I/O ports and slots that are routinely found on PC netbooks.

While the price of PC netbooks appeals to my parsimonious streak, and the miniaturization appeals to me aesthetically, from a functional and actual need perspective, laptop size is not a crucial factor for me. I got along quite happily for three years using a 12" iBook as my primary workhorse, but then switched to a 17" PowerBook, whose size is not a drawback for most of what I do with it, although the iBook was obviously a more convenient rig on the road.

However, Joe Wilcox observes that netbooks are hot right now, so maybe Apple should take this enthusiast's handiwork as a cue to get moving on making an official Mac netbook. I couldn't agree more. However, I draw the line at doing an unauthorized OS X install on a PC laptop.

The Netbook Market

PCMag's Dan Costa asks and answers the rhetorical question "Netbooks are cheap and easy to tote, but will they replace notebooks?" by hitting the road with a HP Mini 1000 netbook in tow, noting that the netbook doesn't get you online any easier than a notebook, it just does it less expensively. It's also much easier to slip into a carryon bag. On the other hand, he found the Mini 1000's Intel Atom processor suitable only for light-medium duty computing tasks, the battery life unimpressive, and the the 10" screen is a bit limiting. Still, he concludes, while the traditional-sized notebook is here to stay, it's more likely to stay behind, docked and loaded with its high-end features, while the netbook takes over road warrioring tasks.

CameraHacker.com's Chieh Cheng observes that "Netbooks are photographers' and cinematographers' dream. For four hundred dollars, you can get one with a decent processor, lots of memory, 60 GB of hard drive space, memory card reader, USB ports, and WiFi. You can get all these in a Netbook less then three pounds, such as the Acer Aspire One. For photographers and cinematographers who like to travel lightly, it is highly desirable to travel with this kind of notebook computer.

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208ULenovo IdeaPad

He also notes that one critical element missing most netbooks is a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, but that the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208U netbook, which he found available at TigerDirect.com for all of $399.99 (also available from J&R Computer World in black, white, or red for the same price), does have an ExpressCard slot.

Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208UThe Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208U weighs 2.76 lb. including battery, is about 1" thick, has the usual 1.6 GHz Intel Atom Processor, an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950, an 80 GB hard drive, 512 GB of memory (upgradable to 1.5 GB), a 4-in-1 media reader, 802.11 b/g wireless, a 10.2" screen with 1024 x 600 resolution, 2 USB ports, an ExpressCard 34 Slot, a VGA video port, audio in and out jacks, and an integrated webcam, plus a swappable battery and easy access to the battery bay and RAM slot.

ports on Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208UWhy can't Apple make a small notebook like this?

Asus Eee PC

A couple of months ago, I wrote here about Asustek's stylish new Eee PC S101 model, an upmarket netbook available in three attractive colors - brown, champagne, and graphite - in a package weighing just 1 kg (2.4 lb.) and 18-25 cm (0.7-1.0") thick. Asus touts the S101 as the "pinnacle of netbook computing." And while it comes at a higher price - $699 - than the regular Eee PC, it's lighter, nearly as thin, and a lot cheaper than a MacBook Air. In my opinion, it looks nicer and has a much more practical and real-world useful specification.

Asus Eee PC S101To recap, the S101 trounces the Air in most aspects and features (although neither has FireWire or an ExpressCard slot) supporting not only WiFi 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity, but also including a VGA port (D-sub 15-pin for external monitor), 3 USB 2.0 ports (to the MacBook Air's overworked single USB port), a real RJ-45 ethernet port, analog headphone and mic-in jacks, a 0.3 megapixel (MP) camera, a 4-in-1 card reader (MMC, SD, Memory Stick, and MS-PRO flash card), built-in stereo speakers, and a digital array mic. Its 36 W/hr; 2S2P (2450 mAh/cell) Polymer battery is slide-in replaceable (you can change the battery yourself without undoing 19 screws) and offers a claimed "up to five hours" of continuous use.

Asus Eee PC S101The Asus machine comes with Solid State Drive (SSD) storage in capacities of up to 64 GB (16 GB for the Windows version, 32 GB or 64 GB available with the Linux version), 1 GB of RAM, and a 10.2" active matrix LED-backlit 1024 x 600 (almost 16:9) display.

Of course, what the Eee PC S101 doesn't have is the Mac OS, being available with either Microsoft Genuine Windows XP Home or GNU Linux, and it gets along with a relatively poky 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor and and two-generations-ago Intel 945 Express (GMA 950) integrated graphics, as opposed to the latest MacBook Air's full-fledged Core 2 Duo CPU, 120 GB hard drive, and much faster Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics.

Asus Eee PC S101The MacBook Air's strong points competitively are the Mac OS, a larger display (13.3" 1280 x 800 resolution), a Core 2 Duo processor, the much better graphics support, and a full-sized keyboard, but you could buy two S101s for the price of one MacBook Air. Apple also made too many compromises with connectivity, expandability, and practicality in their quest to make the MacBook Air fit comfortably inside a manila envelope, resulting in a machine that I wouldn't even consider owning (unless I became unexpectedly flush with disposable income and could afford one as an engaging toy), while the much-cheaper Asus S101 is a real computer that I could conceive of using for the same sort of production work that I do now with my old Pismo PowerBooks.

Last week The Register's Will Head posted a thorough review of the S101, where he notes that it really is a serious computer, observing that "everything about it looks fantastic - from even the carefully designed box to its shiny gloss finish" (plus an included plush slip case and handy polishing cloth). He reports that the keys are a bit on the small side, especially if you have large fingers, but with a little practice not that difficult to type on, and you do get a real keyboard with a full complement of function keys along the top, as well as a two-button trackpad that is surprisingly large for such a small machine.

Even better perhaps was the revelation that hard drive performance was astonishingly good, with it coming in at almost twice as fast as the closest contender, and battery life was also pretty impressive, lasting 178 minutes playing The Reg's standard-definition test video full screen on repeat, and 208 minutes - three and three-quarter hours - with the processor throttled down to 800 MHz. Head estimates a good five or six hours battery life under more typical netbook usage.

Access to the wireless card and memory slots is one screw away, underneath a user accessible hatch, and the memory is upgradable, unlike the MacBook Air's.

If Only....

If the S101 was (legally) supported by Mac OS X, I would definitely have trouble resisting, but the little Lenovo IdeaPad S10-1208U has me thinking more.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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