So, I did it. Wired announced last month that this is now the Netbook Age. Since my laptop is slowly releasing its hold on this life, I thought I'd check out a netbook as a possible replacement.
After a bunch of online research, I toddled down to Best Buy to try out what they had. Because I like to see and touch something like this before I make a decision, I needed to go somewhere that would allow me to do that.
Not that Best Buy is a terrific place to do that--netbooks are so small that they have to be extra-secured or I guess they walk off. So not so easy to just try one out to check the size of the keyboard, the processing speed, etc. However, I lucked out as a demo of the very machine I was looking for arrived from "the back" and they let me play with it before they reattached its leashes.
It's amazingly little and cute. At 10.2", it comes with a nearly full sized keyboard, so all time I spent learning to touch type hasn't been lost entirely. The keys are flat and square, encouraging a light touch and easy to adjust to. The screen is almost twice as wide as it is high, giving it a widescreen effect. In fact, the compactness of this netbook makes the laptop seem unreasonably heavy and large.
With its solid state memory, it runs much more quietly, and doesn't heat up like the laptop does. The touchpad is good sized, although I'm not overly fond of the keys' location on either side of the touchpad, rather than below it, which I'm much more used to. The working of one of the mouse keys is a bit sticky, which may be idiosyncratic to this particular machine. I have a little auxiliary mouse that I can use instead.
Internet surfing is fine, although the screen isn't quite large enough, especially if you keep any sidebars open. I have had to adjust the screen to deal with sidebar ads on some sites, but on the whole it does well for internet reading.
Officially, the HP Mini weighs in at under 3 pounds, although when you add the cord, a mouse, and a sleeve to keep it from getting banged around, it totals up a bit higher. If you drop it into your shoulder bag, for example, you will notice the additional weight, but it's negligible compared to a regular laptop. Or to my regular laptop, that is. It works out to be like a large hardcover book--so if you carry around The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example, you can swap that out for the Mini with almost no noticeable difference in weight. I think the Mini might actually be slightly smaller.
There is a speaker that runs across the top of the keyboard on the hinge to the screen, and its sound is at least as good as my laptop's speakers. The on/off switch is on the front, and works like a cover latch would--there is no cover latch, the screen just rests on the base. Personally, I find the on switch to be a little hard to operate--it has to be held to the side for a full second or so, and I find that it often slips out from under my fingertip before the computer actually starts up. I find myself hooking a fingernail behind the slider and wedging the button into place, which is fine unless one has brittle nails.
The HP Mini came preloaded with Windows XP, which is what the home computers use as well. I have read a lot of reviews that claim that Vista is too big and slow for a netbook's limited memory, but I haven't had to deal with that problem. I was willing to investigate Ubuntu as a replacement if I had to replace Vista, but I'm finding that Windows XP is fine and since it's compatible with what I use on my other machines, I'm very happy to keep it.
The battery is promised to last 6-8 hours, and I admit I haven't really tested or timed that. I do notice that the AC power plug doesn't fit securely onto the DC jack, and I need to have that looked at as well. I have spent the purchase price of this machine on getting the DC jack re-soldered on my laptop, so it's an issue I am sensitive to. I had a Toshiba that also had a DC jack problem, and it is not acceptable to have one on a machine that is less than a week old.
It's a darling little machine, and I could easily fall in love with it if I traveled regularly, or did my writing in cafes and coffee shops, as it is easy to carry around and easy to type on. This particular post is being written on the netbook at a lunch place, and it's remarkably convenient. I suspect that this is also about the size of a tray table on an airplane, which would be a huge improvement, especially when the person in the seat in front of you insists on reclining. You wouldn't need to tilt the whole thing at 45 degrees and type with your wrists up at your ear lobes like you do with a full sized lap top.
I haven't investigated all the outlets, but I have used the single USB port, which is located on the right--convenient for a mouse. There are other ports, and a web-cam built in that reportedly requires a well lit room to work, but that's not why I bought this, so I haven't used it yet.
Why did I buy this? One part as a replacement for my dying laptop, one part as an experiment to be in front of the technology curve. What do I use my laptop for, primarily? Writing and web, which is what the netbook is designed for. It is not, however, a complete replacement for what I use a laptop for.
For one thing, I use my laptop to download and store my music and a lot of audiobooks. I don't believe that this machine could serve that function without an external hard drive. Same with photos. I'm not a huge photographer, but I do keep some pictures, and they are not part of the Mini's portfolio.
I have a few web based Shockwave games I have tried on this machine, and it is noticeably unequal to those demands. Playing online solitaire demonstrates significant lag times, as well as as the limits of the small screen. It is not always possible to adjust the image via slider bar, and parts of some games remain unseen.
So, what it comes down to, is this: do I value the portability , or do I prefer to be self-contained? The Mini could meet all my interests with a external hard-drive, and external CD/DVD drive, and an external monitor, in addition to the auxiliary mouse and a printer connection. But all of that both overwhelms the little machine, as well as interfers with the portability. Part of the symptoms of senility my laptop is displaying is that the CD/DVD drive doesn't work, and so I'm already using an external one. Have I improved anything with a Mini?
What is obviously happening is the ongoing trend of computers and smart phones are merging. There is very little that this Mini can do that my iPod Touch can't do, although it's much easier to type on the Mini. If I added an air card and broadband access, I'd have the equivalent of a very large Blackberry, without the phone pad. My laptop, for the most part, has taken over the role otherwise played by the household desktop. If I use the desktop as a core of my computing, rather than my laptop, maybe the Mini would make more sense.
I have not yet resolved whether this is the right machine for me at this time. It's causing me to examine my computing habits. Capt. Sweetie and I have spent quite a few happy evenings with our laptops in front of the fireplace this winter, and I'm not convinced I want to limit myself to a desktop or this Mini. On the other hand, this does give me mobility that I haven't had before, and I find I am enjoying the freedom of tucking it in my bag as I head out.
Of course, the easy solution is to keep the Mini AND buy a new laptop when the old one finally goes. Sure. And I should repair my old 80G iPod so I always have tunes for in the car, and keep the iTouch (which I bought to replace the mortally wounded 80G) for bopping around.
A girl can dream, Nobby. A girl can dream.