Monday, November 22, 2010

Jumping on the Netbook Bandwagon

How can you resist not being at least a little attracted to the cute little netbooks that are everywhere these days? They are like the puppy-in-the-window of computers.

Only problem is, I've never really had a good excuse for buying one. And besides, like any computer purchase, it's so easy to decide to get just a little fancier model, and before you know it you're paying $500 for the $200 netbook you were planning on buying.

Well, I've managed to solve both problems.

First, the reason for "needing one." Frequently, when I travel, I find myself having an internal dialog about whether or not I should bring a laptop along with me. For family oriented trips, I probably won't have time to even crack it open. And it's a pain to schlep through security. And what if it gets lost or broken, what a hassle that would be. But, on the other hand, in my business, issues can pop up any time. And having a laptop means being able to fix them in a hurry. Also, being a blogger, I really like the simplicity of being able to post photos and content through a laptop, rather than depending on my phone for all my posts.

I figured a netbook would provide a smaller footprint for traveling, yet still leave me prepared to handle emergencies. And, I should be able to use it as a simple blogging tool. OK, that was enough of a manufactured excuse. Now onto the price part.

The problem with finding a good deal on a netbook isn't find one - it's figuring out which are the ones that are actually worth my time. Between local stores, eBay, Amazon and dozens of other options, it became clear that picking a model and finding a good deal was going to be a pain. And then it hit me - with netbooks being so cute, and also being so underpowered, certainly there must be people in my local area who bought one and aren't happy with the result. Where would they sell theirs? Why, craigslist, or course.

A quick search for netbooks in DC turned up all sorts of options. I set myself a max price of $200 and waited. Within a few days, I came across this short ad for a Samsung Netbook N150. The small screen, 1Gig of memory and relatively large hard drive (250Gig) all seemed like a perfect fit.

I contacted the seller, and 6 hours later, met him a Starbucks to pick up my brand new netbook.

Samsung N150 First Impressions

I've now spent a single day working on the netbook, including: setting it up, debugging a couple of websites for work, talking with Mom on Skype, listening to Pandora, watching a daily show episode, editing Google Docs and writing this blog entry. Surprisingly, for all these activities, the laptop totally works. However, it only works because I've taken fairly ruthless approach to the device: don't expect it to multitask (so yes, Pandora works well - but only if that's all you're using the laptop for), install the minimal amount of software, and expect it to be slow. With my expectations low (heck, this thing cost $200 - dirt cheap for a laptop even these days), it all works.

A few features I like about the Samsung:

  • One of the USB ports can charge your device even when the computer isn't running - this should be handy for traveling. You need to configure this in the BIOS.
  • Using the VGA port and a USB ports I was able to plugin my desktop setup including a large monitor as well as keyboard and mouse. The netbook doesn't support extending the desktop (only showing the same screen on the netbook and external display), and the resolution is way high for my large monitor - but again, it does all work. External monitor support could be useful for hooking up to a projector.
  • The keyboard has taken some getting used to, but after a day of use, it seems totally adequate. And good gosh this screen is tiny. But again, surprisingly usable.

The list of software I installed is is below. Again, I tried to whittle it down to just the absolute essentials. I've been quite pleased with how my dev tools act on the netbook. Cygwin, emacs, subversion, etc. all play quite well in this constrained environment.

Live the Disaster Plan

One of the best strategies I've put in place in my business is that I have two laptops on hand at all time, and every week I switch which one I use as my primary one. This means that if one is lost or breaks, there's another one primed an ready to go. Backups are great, but having a cloned system is even better.

Going through the exercise of setting up and using a netbook to get work done has been another example of active disaster planning. Rather than waiting for a crisis to strike, today, I proved that without either of my existing laptops, I can pull everything I need in from the cloud to be effective.

This exercise alone is worth the $200 I spent on the netbook.

I'm thinking I'll fold the netbook into my multi-laptop strategy by using it as my primary computer on the weekend. That way, I'll continue to demonstrate that I'm prepared for some kind of massive outage.

Bottom Line

So far, I'm pleased with the netbook. It's definitely an underpowered machine and requires a totally different mindset than my usual systems. But, with that mindset in place, it just may be worth it. I'll really know after my next travel adventure, so stay tuned for more feedback.

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