I greatly enjoyed Clive Thompson's recent Wired article on netbooks. For years laptop manufacturers have been giving us more and more powerful computers: bigger hard drives, more memory, faster processing chips, etc. What netbooks have shown, however, is that many laptop users actually need less, not more. When 95% of laptop use is for things like e-mail, instant messaging, basic office productivity software, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, people don't need a super workhorse computer. Instead, a less-capable computer works just fine and other concerns such as portability (size and weight) and cost become more important.
I recently purchased my second netbook, a HP Mini, to go along with my Dell Mini 9. I have used these netbooks for a full day of presenting which usually includes showing very large PowerPoint presentations with embedded videos, Web surfing, and using Microsoft Office without a hiccup. I tote along in a small bag my 2.4 pound netbook, wireless broadband dongle, portable external hard drive, and presentation remote and I'm all set. Throw in my cell phone, iPod or iPod Touch and headphones, a paperback book, and a Moleskine pad and pen and my road warrior status is downright bearable (shhh - don't tell my wife!).
For many schools, I think netbooks can make a lot of sense. At $300 to $450 per computer, the price is low enough for many districts to start thinking about a 1:1 deployment for students for the very first time, either for entire schools or for smaller grade- or class-level pilot projects. Scatter a few more-powerful machines around the school building for students who need to do heavier-duty work (e.g., photo or video editing) and this becomes a workable solution for a number of school organizations. Of course full-fledged laptops still have their place and many schools may find that the more-traditional approach works better for their 1:1 needs.
Schools that are considering purchasing netbooks should do a careful job of comparison shopping. For example, I wouldn't recommend either of my netbooks for schools. The keyboard for the Dell Mini 9 is just too small for me and my right pinky finger is always looking for the dang apostrophe key (which Dell moved to the bottom row). In contrast, the keyboard for the HP Mini is wonderful (it's 92% of the size of a full keyboard) but HP in its infinite wisdom decided to use a proprietary VGA port, necessitating the purchase of a separate converter cable to connect to a projector (which has resulted in a lot of angry customers). Schools may find that other models such as the Acer Inspire One, Lenovo Ideapad S10, or Asus Eee PC 1000HE are more workable solutions. Since the technical specifications of netbooks are all basically the same right now, design issues such as the keyboard layout often are the distinguishing factors. I strongly recommend a hands-on test drive of a particular netbook model before you make any kind of large-scale purchase.
I really like my HP netbook a lot. Like others, I have been quite surprised to find how useful this less-capable laptop has been to me. Because of its small size, I take it places I never would consider taking my Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet and indeed am gravitating more and more to using it as my primary computer whenever I travel anywhere. What's really exciting to me is to think about what these small laptops will look like just a year or two from now. I'm guessing that they will have much larger solid-state hard drives and include much of the capability that currently give larger laptops a performance advantage. A netbook that can do what today's laptops do, in just a couple of years? That's a winning combo!
Photo credit: HP Mini