The Next Revolution: Netbook Computers

May 2009

Of course I enjoy the iPhone envy when I’m with friends and acquaintances and, on the spur of the moment, answer some question that has come up by connecting to the Internet. And I’m often surprised by their questions: How are you able to connect to the Internet? Is there a wireless router nearby?

I explain that no wireless router is needed. Because I have a data plan as part of my cell phone plan (all gratis from AT&T, thanks to the fact that I’m a technology writer), I can connect to the Internet wherever I have a cell phone signal.

I love that. And am, of course, addicted to it — addicted to being able to check my e-mail anytime, anyplace, addicted to being able to read the latest news as I stand in line or wait for someone. All Internet, all the time.

And the cell phone companies love it. They get to charge you not only for your voice minutes but also for data access, with unlimited data plans now common for phones with robust Internet capability.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your laptop computer could have the same sort of ubiquitous access to the Internet that a smarthphone has? Well, the phone companies now offer that. It’s increasingly common that for an additional fee you can use your cell phone for “tethering” — that is, connecting it to your laptop so that you can get the Internet on your laptop via your cell phone.

This is sweet. You’re no longer limited to wireless hotspots but can access the Internet with your laptop wherever you can get a cell phone signal. In addition to tethering, some carriers also devices that you connect to your computer to let it access the cell phone data network.

Of course, the phone companies love this too, often charging an additional monthly fee for tethering or wireless data access via a computer. And they’re rapidly rolling out their 3G and 4G networks, so that you have fast DSL-like speeds everywhere.

In fact, the phone companies and computer manufacturers see this as a major new market. As I’m writing this in early April, AT&T has just announced that they’re test marketing “netbook” computers for as little as $50 for those who sign up for a two-year contract that includes a data plan.

I want one. Netbooks are a cross between a smartphone and a laptop. They’re typically light, around 2 lbs, and cheap. You can use them for basic functions such as e-mail, Internet, and note taking.

Netbooks are cheaper in part because they use less powerful and less expensive chips and because they often don’t use a resource-intensive operating system such as Windows Vista. Rather, they save money by using Linux, which is also better suited to the less powerful processors. Or the older Windows XP, which also is less resource-intensive and which Microsoft now sells more cheaply. And because they use low-power chips, the netbook has a longer battery life than a typical laptop.

So that’s the tradeoff: cheaper, longer battery life, but not enough computing power to run, for example, Photoshop. But if you’re out and about, what you want most is usually a light weight, long battery life, and basic functions such as e-mail and web. Plus, there are now web-based versions of most types of applications, such as photo editing, word processing, and spreadsheets, so web access is itself sufficient for most everything. And if you can get all that in a computer that costs $200 (or $50 with a contract), then so much the better.

You can read more about AT&T’s offering at www.attminilaptops.com, which gives the prices for five different models and rate plans. The cheapest, at $50 after a mail-in rebate and a two-year contract for AT&T’s Internet @ Home and On the Go Plan, is the Acer Aspire One. It’s 2 ½ lbs, has an 8.9-inch display, 1.6GHz processor, 1GB RAM, and a 160GB hard drive. All five come with Microsoft Office and Windows XP. The Internet @ Home and On the Go Plan starts at $60 per month.

One of the first netbooks was the ASUS Eee PC, introduced in late 2007 at $250. Other manufacturers jumped on board, including the Dell Inspiron Mini Series, which was introduced last fall for $350. And HP has introduced the Mini 1000, which costs $279. By late last year netbooks had started to take market share away from laptops.

Combine netbooks with the ability to sync info via cloud computing, and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. Soon I’ll be enjoying netbook envy.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen