Netbooks: a new portable computing solution?

By Jason Griffey |

At my place of work, we are considering circulating so-called netbooks to our students. This would be done initially alongside traditional laptops, but with the possibility of moving the majority of our portable computers to netbooks. In thinking about moving this direction, I've been looking at a lot of these machines, and realizing that there may be a good number of libraries that haven't been watching the rise of this new platform. So I thought I'd take just a few paragraphs to try and explain why these machines are popular and what options are available.

The very term "netbook" is currently under some scrutiny, but it has come to refer to a class of small, portable computers with certain characteristics. These machines have a smaller-than-notebook screen, normally 10-11 inches or under (most notebooks come in a set of standard sizes; 13, 15, or 17 inches). Netbooks tend to use specific types of processors designed for low cost and efficient performance, not for pure speed and efficient processing like the processors you find in standard notebooks. They also tend to have minimal amounts of memory and disk space, often with 1 megabyte gigabyte of less of RAM. Many of them ship with solid state hard drives that only have 4 or 8 gigabytes of space. The good news about this is that, thanks to Moore's Law, even older, slower, cheaper processors are almost always capable of handling most common computer tasks these days.

The model that launched the current craze for the netbook is the Asus Eee-PC, but most companies that make computers these days have a netbook model; Dell with the Mini 9, HP has their Mini 1000, MSI makes the Wind, and many others. The one major manufacturer that hasn't yet come out with a low-cost netbook is Apple.

The other very interesting thing about these systems are that they normally come with a choice of operating system. The first generation of these netbooks came with an open source operating system, with almost all of them initially shipping with some flavor of linux. A few netbooks now give you the option of running Windows XP, but none of them currently run Vista.

So what's the benefit if you're giving up speed and power and memory? Netbooks are half the price or less of most notebooks, with prices recently dropping as low as $200 for some models. Most models cost well under $400. $400 for a computer that will surf the web, allow you use a word processing program, check email and weighs less than 4 pounds. In other words, $400 (or less) for a computer that will do 99% of what students need.

With computing and data moving more and more into the cloud, netbooks make a lot of sense for anyone who is interesting in having a computing device that is light and portable. And in times of economic adversity, being able to purchase and circulate sub-$400 computers when your current crop of laptops is dying sounds like a heck of a deal. Next time your looking for portable computers or are just getting into circulating laptops, take a look at netbooks and see if they meet your needs.