A netbook in your life?

When travelling, I rely on my BlackBerry for keeping in touch, or my laptop computer for a more powerful version of keeping in touch and for regular work – writing, spreadsheets and the like.

Faced with an upcoming holiday with my wife, I knew the laptop would go down like a lead balloon, so I wondered about getting hold of some kind of small ‘webtop’ device. I figured that the operating system was less important than my ability to reach all my favourite online services easily and quickly. Plus, of course, the ability to write, use spreadsheets, look at images and read pdf files, were I to be awake when she was asleep.

It had to be quiet, reliable and inexpensive (she offered to pay for it as a birthday present). After a fair bit of research, I alighted on the Asus Eee 701 PC. I’d had a lot of experience with Asus motherboards and was more than happy with their reliability and build quality. All the reviews I read were complementary. We ended up paying an astonishingly low £162 for one.

(I could have got one for £150 had PC World in Tottenham Court Road kept accurate stock records. But it would have had 1GB of storage instead of the 4GB I ended up with.) I bought by mail order from another company I’d had good experiences with, Expansys.

To say I’m delighted would be an understatement. Its Thunderbird mail manager lets me handle my three email accounts, including the official hosted Outlook one. The web browsing – mainly Google, Twitter, the BBC and local stuff when travelling – were all fine. The small screen doesn’t seem to be a problem because the resolution is quite high. If something doesn’t fit on the screen, it’s easy enough to slide the display around and extend it. You can also plug directly to an external monitor. I did this when setting the machine up prior to my travels.

There’s no disk drive, so I just kept the machine in a padded envelope inside my shoulder bag. And I bought a bunch of spare 2GB SD memory cards in case I needed some more memory. Not necessary as it turned out, but they’ll come in handy – they work in my wife’s camera and in our laptop computers too, making data transfer very easy. In fact, reviewing the holiday snaps in the Asus was just a matter of slipping the camera card in. Very handy for our old eyes.

The Eee comes with a whole bunch of applications and games. Importantly for me, it contains Skype, which I use for instant messaging, although it does have a microphone and speakers, so I guess I could make phone calls as well.

After years of using Windows, it’s barely noticeable that this (for I am writing on it now) is a Linux machine. In fact, if I’m honest, some aspects seem easier than Windows. Communications is a doddle. Click on Refresh to see what wifi’s in reach, then click on the one you want. Bingo, All done. Unless it’s a secured network, in whch case just add the password. It has an Ethernet port as well for a cable connection. I suspect that installing new programs is a lot more complicated than Windows. But I didn’t buy the machine with expansion in mind.

It’s just an unobtrusive and functional device that doesn’t frighten the natives if you whip it out in public.

Turns out that these devices and others like them – they’re called netbooks – are the fastest growing segment of the computer business at the moment. (According to today’s FT.com, they are expected to capture 11-12 percent of the entire laptop market in 2009.) If you’re fed up with lugging a laptop to do essentially mundane tasks, why not consider one for yourself? The newer ones are a bit larger and more pricy but they’re also worth a look.

Me? No, not interested. I looked at the others but like what I’ve got.

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