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These days most of the wait time experienced by PC users is caused by slow Internet connections or Web servers, not by slow client machines. As an experiment, I hooked up a Lenovo S10e to a 19-inch monitor and watched “The Man Trap,” one of the original Star Trek episodes, streamed from the CBS website. It took a good 30 seconds for the Flash-based player to download over my pathetic DSL connection, but as soon as the playback started, it was flawless.

So not only are netbooks cheap, but they are powerful enough for ordinary computing. The main reason the engineers and professionals I’ve spoken with have purchased them, though, is the combination of cost, weight, and battery life. That’s the beauty of the netbook: these criteria are mutually supporting.

Netbooks also do a fine job running traditional productivity applications such as Microsoft Office. Every netbook running Windows XP that I examined for this article came with a complete copy of Office 2007 installed and ready to go.

Just because a $300 netbook will run Microsoft Office, however, doesn’t mean that it should. That preinstalled copy is just a 60-day trial; to use it longer requires buying an activation key from Microsoft’s online store for between $240 and $400. I find it hard to justify spending more on Office than on the netbook itself–particularly when the free alternatives, Open Office and Google Docs, keep getting better. The netbook’s low, low price can’t be good for sales of Microsoft Office–or for sales of Windows.

Another software vendor bound to be troubled by the netbook’s price is Apple. Over the past few months, more than a dozen websites have popped up offering instructions on how to get Apple’s Leopard operating system to run on these low-cost laptops. Apple is not pleased; it even forced to take down a video showing how to install OSX on an MSI Wind netbook.

The problem here is that even though Apple sells Leopard in shrink-wrapped boxes for a little more than $100, the software is licensed for use only on Apple hardware. Some feel that Apple has no business controlling its software in this way, for the same reason that booksellers in the United States are not allowed to use “license agreements” that prohibit their customers from lending or reselling used books–a principle technically known as the “first sale” doctrine. Ultimately, questions about the application of this doctrine to software will be resolved in court–probably several courts.

I didn’t care about this issue when Apple’s laptops cost only $200 more than the competition’s. But when the MSI Wind can be had for almost $1,500 less than the Macbook Air, it becomes upsetting. Many people want to run MacOS but don’t want to pay the premium for Apple hardware. Now they have a choice, albeit one of questionable legality.

Trouble in a Minor Key
The netbooks’ small size and light weight make them much more portable than traditional laptops. I often don’t carry my 15-inch MacBook Pro, simply because it weighs seven pounds, including power supply and spare battery. But I walked around with the Acer Aspire One in my backpack for three days without even realizing it: I’d loaded up the machine, gone off to a coffee shop, and then simply forgotten that it was in there.

But what about usability? I decided to take a rough survey. Not surprisingly, the main complaint concerned netbooks’ cramped keyboards and nonstandard key positions. I’ve had a hard time with the placement of the shift key on the Lenovo–I keep pressing the up arrow by accident. And keyboard complaints dominate the negative comments I’ve seen in online forums. Similarly, the netbook users I’ve accosted with queries at coffee shops and conferences agree that the keyboards are annoying. Yet most users insist that they adjusted to the size and layout after only a few hours.

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Credit: The Heads of State

Tagged: Computing

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