Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2009

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

A Netbook is a small, portable laptop that’s designed for wireless communication and access to the Internet at a fraction of the cost of a standard laptop. Netbooks are known for their built-in webcams, long battery life and attractive price tag of about $250 – $500 on average. The ultra-small, ultra-cheap laptops account for about one in every 10 notebooks sold.

Primarily designed for web-browsing and e-mailing, Netbooks help you stay informed and connected wherever you go. Some of the things Netbooks are great at: accessing e-mail, video conferencing, instant messaging, browsing the Internet, getting directions, checking flight schedules, listening to music, playing Internet games and watching online videos.

Some of their most distinguishing features include: 7” – 12” screens, small keyboards ranging from 80 percent to 93 percent of a full-size keyboard, 1.33 GHz – 1.6GHz processors, 1 GB ram, 8 – 40 GB Hard Drives.

What’s Missing?

For one thing, there is no optical drive. CDs and DVDs had to be thrown overboard to reduce both the size and cost. Netbooks also have trouble running demanding software like games and photo-editing programs, though free online equivalents like www.fotoflexer.com will get you through in a pinch. Some other sacrifices in the name of space-saving are weirdly-placed shift keys and too-small trackpads.

Where Did They Come From?

The One Laptop per Child program was planning to create an inexpensive computer for children in developing countries. It would have Wi-Fi, a color screen, and a full keyboard for about $100. It was hoped that at that price Third-World governments could buy millions to hand out to rural villages. They had to be small, incredibly rugged, and able to run on minimal power. They hired the Taiwanese firm Quanta to build the new mini laptop.

In fall 2007, it was Quanta’s rival Asustek who launched their version of the mini laptop, the Eee PC, which sold out its entire 350,000-unit inventory in just a few months. They weren’t bought by people in poor countries but by middle-class consumers in western Europe and the U.S., people who wanted a second laptop to carry in a handbag for surfing YouTube or Facebook wherever they were. Soon, major PC brands like Dell and HP were scrambling to catch up, and by fall 2008, most U.S. computer makers were offering a $400 Netbook.

Microsoft Doesn’t Like Them

They love the Netbook, but only as a low-powered companion, accessory PC. More and more people are buying Netbooks, each loaded with the Windows operating system. This is good, right? Well, no. The version suitable for the smaller systems, Windows XP Home, is the lowest-priced version of Windows. Every Netbook sold is a lost sale of a “premium” edition of Windows. They would much rather have you buy a fancy, full-sized laptop.

Intel Doesn’t Like Them

Most of these devices are powered with their new Atom processor chip that handles some PC chores well and uses a lot less power (so batteries are smaller and last longer). Intel would prefer to see Netbooks as devices for people who can’t afford normal laptops, or as second devices. But it’s clear that a lot of people are buying them instead of normal dual-core machines, despite their limitations.

That means every Netbook sold is one less dual-core that Intel can sell at a higher price and higher profit margin. This is probably the reason Intel has been publicly criticizing the performance of the machines.

Intel also wants to keep Netbooks at 10 inches or less, even though there is no performance loss with a 12-inch screen versus a smaller screen (other than power usage). A 12-inch Netbook is just as fast or as slow as a 10-inch one; the only difference is that the user is even less likely to buy a low-end laptop with a dual-core.

Are They Good Enough?

Depends on what you what to use them for. If you are used to your desktop workstation or a beefy laptop, get ready for a big adjustment. New Netbooks are beginning to tackle some concerns about screen and keyboard size, scrolling options for web-surfers and the lack of horsepower under the hood, but in the end, it is the nature of the beast and the realization that they were never really made to compete with the big boys. They do a few things, and do them well.

If you think you might be ready to buy, www.LifeHacker.com has developed their Top-Five list based on owner reviews. For all the details, visit their site at www.lifehacker.com/5273096/five-best-netbooks.

On the Horizon

The new breed of Netbooks about to come out will be built on cellphone innards. Cellphone chips consume far less power than Atom chips, and they combine many functions onto a single piece of silicon. At around $20, they cost computer makers less than an Atom chip with its associated components.

The downside is that the chips cannot run the major versions of Windows. Because of this, Netbook-makers have turned to Linux, an open-source operating system that costs $3 instead of the $25 that Microsoft typically charges for Windows XP. This combination would make the Netbooks even cheaper and work just fine for handling e-mail, Facebook, streaming video from sites like YouTube and Hulu, and web-based documents.

Smartbooks: The Next Big Thing?

Marketed as companions to smartphones and true laptops, the Smartbook contains a 1GHz CPU, a battery good for eight to ten hours of use, WWAN, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, built-in GPS, HD video-encoding capabilities and impressive screen resolution. The processor also promises pretty awesome 3-D graphics considering the low power draw. For more about the Smartbook, visit www.qualcomm.com/products_services/consumer_electronics/smartbooks.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: June 2009

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