Monday, December 22, 2008

My netbook purchase thought process

I try to keep this blog relative to System Administration, but once in a while, I should be allowed to stray. It's the holidays after all, right?

My Acer Aspire One arrived on Friday. I've used it a little bit, and I wanted to give anyone interested my initial thoughts and opinions. There's quite a bit of hype about these "low cost" netbooks. For those considering a netbook, this was my criteria and rationale for buying one. Just a side note about about my link to this netbook. When I bought it, it was available directly through It appears they are now selling them through other online merchants. If you buy through that link, your mileage may vary.

First of all, I wanted something small and mobile to use for casual to light web access. I used to use my Compaq laptop to surf the Internet, check email, and do other lightweight computing tasks from the living room couch or on trips. Unfortunately, it's having power problems and I was looking for a replacement for this device. We also have a desktop computer that we use for storage or to do heftier computer tasks.

Second, the replacement gadget had to be intuitive and useful enough for general users. I would not be the only user, and I try to avoid being a system admin or operating a "helpdesk" when I'm not at work. Don't get me wrong; I like helping people, but I don't want to create unnecessary issues for myself. I was sure that my wife, or other guests, would want to use this device; and potentially when I was not around to help them use it.

My third "want" was a device that had good battery life. I didn't want to be dependent on the accessibility of an electrical outlet within an hour or two of usage. I can depend on an outlet when I'm at home, but if I'm traveling or visiting, this becomes more cumbersome and intrusive.

After thinking about what I really wanted and needed for a replacement portable device, I thought about what I already owned, and if I really needed to replace my laptop. I already own an iPhone. It's small, portable, decent battery life, supports Wi-Fi for Internet access, and all-around I really like it. However, it's also my cell phone, which means I take it everywhere with me. It's also a very "personal" device for me, and I'm hesitant to allow other people to use it (maybe I'm just strange). These two reasons make it difficult for being a shared device for around the house. Someone suggested buying an iPod Touch for my wife, but she has an iPod Nano that she got last Christmas. Plus, if we had guest users of our Wi-Fi device, not everyone is going to know how to use a Touch, and I'd have to spend a few minutes here and there helping them operate it. I do think the Touch is nifty device, but in my opinion, not practical enough in this case.

"So you think you want to buy a netbook..." As mentioned in my PXE live distro post, I looked at Acer, ASUS, Dell, and HP's offerings. For the prices and features, I concentrated on Acer and ASUS.
  • Which Operating System should I use? - The geek inside me wanted Linux. My wife could probably learn how to use Linux also, but there would be a slight learning curve. I had intended to use our desktop, which runs Windows XP, for permanent storage of important files, such as photos or other documents. Having the device run Windows XP would make network drive setup and usage much easier. Plus, she's already familiar with Windows. I chose Windows XP.
  • What kind of local storage should I get? - Another tough decision. Solid stage drives (SDD) seem geekier. Without much investigation, I thought they could be potentially faster, use less electricity, and be more durable if the netbook was accidentally dropped. However, knowing how bloated XP can be and the other programs I wanted to run, I wanted more storage than what could be offered on a USB stick. I could only find netbooks in my price point with about 8GB of SDD. If I could have purchased a 32GB SDD model, I would've bought that. It was overkill, but I ended up with the 100+ GB standard hard drive.
  • What size battery do I want? - I read people complaining that the 6 cell batteries made the netbook "too heavy and bulky." However, I liked the fact that they could last about 5 hours, as opposed to the standard 3 cell that gave about 2.5 hours. It would be rare for me to have to have 5 hours of battery life, but I didn't think it was that bad of a trade off. In the end, it only added about an inch to the back of the netbook, and it wasn't that much heavier. Yes, the 6 cell battery, please.
As for the other available options, such as the integrated webcam and SD slots, they are nice but not totally necessary. Of course, Wi-Fi is a must, but all of them have that integrated. I don't have a need for Bluetooth at this time, so that didn't need to be integrated. If I do need Bluetooth, I can get a USB adapter that should be compatible with Windows XP.

I've only played with my netbook a couple of days, and I like it so far. I already had the expectations that the screen and keyboard would be small. For those that touch-type, I find the reviews of the smallness of the keyboard slightly exaggerated. I do sometimes strike wrong keys, but it is still faster than typing on a smartphone. The layout of the left and right click buttons for the touchpad makes dragging/dropping and windows resizing more difficult than a full sized laptop, but I knew I was going to be sacrificing some functionality when I bought something this small. Overall, the smallness is noticeable, but does not take away from its functionality. Once I get some more hours in, I'll post other opinions and findings.

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