What are netbooks like after serious use? Is the 10" screen a workable size? Here is my experience of using a netbook to write books, develop Web sites, edit photographs, and to upload photographs from remote mountain regions.
The 10 inch display is wide enough for almost everything I do. It is a widescreen format and the vertical height is tiny compared to the width. Applications waste a lot of space at the top and bottom of the screen. I need more vertical height.
A 13" regular format screen would provide exactly the same width with a significant increase in vertical height, enough to do almost everything easily. A 13" widescreen display is too short.
All current 14" notebooks are widescreen and provide just enough vertical height to get through the typical day. Unfortunately they are heavy to lug around because of their huge width.
15" notebooks are the only size where you get a choice of regular and widescreen formats but both are too heavy for full time use on the road.
Windows and Linux let me place the operating system menu down the side of the screen instead of across the top. I already use that option on most screens below 24". The Ubuntu Linux Gnome user interface still has some problems with vertical menus and the problems are slowly disappearing.
Some applications let you switch off their toolbars. Some let you remove unwanted icons and combine the remaining toolbars. None of my day to day applications let me move the toolbars to the side of the screen. If the applications had the same flexibility as the operating system, a 13" widescreen would work.
I tested some applications to see how they work on small screens. None move the top bars to the side. Firefox has the best alternative. The Firefox approach works when I spend a lot of time in one tab of one application for a long time.
Firefox is probably the world's most widely used free and open application. Firefox has a standard mode and a full screen mode. Use F11 to switch back and forth. In full screen mode, the top toolbars disappear until you put your mouse near the top of the screen then disappear when the mouse is anywhere else. This works well if the only application you use is Firefox and you do not jump between tabs very often.
There is an add-on module to make the toolbars disappear when you are not in full screen mode. The add-on is a better choice when you mix Firefox with other applications and need an easy way to jump between applications.
Abiword is the office equivalent of Bluefish, free, open, efficient, effective, fast loading, and the best single focus application for word processing. Abiword has a full screen mode switchable with F11. Abiword chooses to leave one menu bar visible. The consistent use of F11 is good. The lack of the automatically disappearing menu bar, as used in Firefox, is a limitation on smaller screens. The Abiword approach would be excellent on a 13" screen instead of my 10" screen.
The screen outdoors
Modern netbooks and notebooks have glossy screens that are painful outdoors. The manufacturers need to use hard finished screens with non reflective coatings of the type used on camera lenses. The extra $20 in price would make my netbook twice as good outdoors.
When OLED screens replace LCD, we will be able to wear polarised sunglasses while using a computer outdoors. Until then we need non reflective screens.
Netbook or notebook?
The dividing line between netbook and notebook appears to be the inclusion of a DVD drive. I rarely need a DVD drive on the road. Disks are big enough to preload everything. DVDs and single sided Blu-ray disks fit easily on SDHC cards. External USB DVD drives are so cheap you can buy one for home, one for the office, and a spare to leave in the car. You never have to carry one in your notebook or backpack.
Netbooks run up to 13.5" and notebooks start at 12". The different models in the overlap area are confusing. The small notebooks appear to be thick and heavy to provide extra power for playing games. If you do not play realtime games, the netbooks are just as good and half the weight.
The bigger batteries of the notebooks are chewed up by the bigger chips. The practical battery life of notebooks is not much different from netbooks. You still need a power supply for long days. Brand name power supplies are expensive. Netbook power supplies are lighter and easier to carry. Either way, I still prefer to buy one for home, a second one for the office, a third for the car, and not carry one when walking around. When you are on assignment at a customer's office, take one power supply there and leave it there for the life of the project.
Notebooks used to have more communications options. Today everything is built into your basic set of support chips. The only real change today is USB 3 and USB 3 is equally rare across both netbooks and notebooks. USB supplies power to peripherals. Many netbooks will not have the battery capacity to supply the maximum power defined for USB 3. If you have a big set of backup disks and DVD drives to connect into your netbook, you will have to use a powered USB3 hub to drive the USB 3 disks and DVD drives. Buy one hub for home and another for work so you do not have to lug the hub when you travel.
Notebooks have both VGA and HDMI connections for use with projectors and televisions. Netbooks usually have only one connection and that is usually VGA for use with a projector. My 10" netbook has a VGA connector and has plenty of room for a HDMI connector.
3 cell or 6 cell battery
My netbook is sold in two similar models, one with a
3 cell battery and the other with a
6 cell battery. The battery life is not limited by the number of cells, it is limited by the total size of the cells and the type of cell. In the netbook range containing my netbook, the 6 cell battery provides longer life than the 3 cell but not double the life, indicating the individual cells in the 6 cell battery are smaller than the cells in the 3 cell model.
Either way, the 6 cell is only just big enough for my use. The 6 cell battery lasts most of the day with the wireless switched off and the display set to medium brightness, something I can do when writing articles indoors. Outdoors I need the display on maximum brightness and that cuts a noticeable time off the battery life. The obvious long term solution is to switch from LCD to an AMOLED display as soon as Samsung begin mass producing AMOLED at their new factory.
When the wireless connection is active, chop another hour off the battery life. I need the wireless connection about half the time I use the netbook. Switching the wireless on and off is easy. A better approach would be an extra hour in the battery so I can leave the wireless connected all the time.
Authors work two to four hours a day then need a break. The battery lasts that long. The screen is big enough to write novels but not to present text for editing and not for composing diagrams for how-to style books. I am happy to write an initial draft on my netbook then edit on something bigger, much bigger, say 24" where you can have two pages side by side.
Develop Web sites
You can write code and content on a netbook. Editing images for insertion into content is too painful. Revising code is also painful. You need a big screen to compare two chucks of code and to edit full resolution images. I do use the netbook for the occasional screen capture where I need only a small section of the original screen.
Reviewing and editing full resolution images is painful. The netbook screen is slightly bigger than the screen on the back of your camera and is useful for an initial quality check. You can delete and reshoot the obviously bad images. When you eventually show the images on a decent size screen, you will realise more shots as faulty. use the zoom feature of your image viewer to check critical images.
Upload photographs from remote mountain regions
My netbook has an SDHC slot and can connect to Wifi at the local Internet cafe. Out in the hills I have a Wifi hub for connecting a few computers. I can buy a USB connected extra sensitive wireless connection for remote areas and connect an external antenna. The netbook is fast enough to read from the fastest SDHC cards at full speed and to upload images at the fastest upload speed.
Uploads via FTP can be really fast when connected on cable but wireless and ADSL tend to have slow upload speeds. I suspect almost any netbook could run faster than wireless uploads.
If you can get reception, you can backup your images direct to a server. When the reception fails, you can backup your SD cards to the hard disk in the netbook. A large SD card copies in 10 minutes and your battery should last long enough to backup 30 SD cards if the only thing you do is backup.
You could fit a small solar cell to your backpack to charge the netbook when walking. I have not found a kit with the right voltage and current for my netboook.