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Those who demand a large keyboard should take a serious look at the HP Mini 1000. This machine has bigger keys arranged in a more traditional layout than the other netbooks: I could type on the 1000 with my eyes closed and not make an error.

Since most netbook vendors also have successful lines of full-size laptops, I suspect that they may have purposely kept their netbook keyboards small and cramped in an effort to differentiate the netbooks from their ultralight laptops in the $900-to-$2,000 range. But such efforts at market segmentation won’t last, as the Eee PC 1000 and Mini 1000 demonstrate. I expect larger keyboards to show up on these netbooks over the next year, since adding an inch to a keyboard adds little to the cost while making the system much more usable.

My loose survey did bring one surprise: a lack of complaints about the netbooks’ small screens. It’s true that a screen just 600 pixels high is quickly consumed by the menu and button bars of most Microsoft applications. On the other hand, most applications can be reconfigured to make more judicious use of the vertical real estate. The netbooks’ limited height is not a problem with websites, since netbooks scroll fast.

Finally, since netbooks have USB inputs and standard video outputs, small keyboards and screens are really an issue only when you’re on the road. At home you can use an external keyboard, mouse, and display. Netbooks are bound to make dockable laptops much more appealing to home users than they have been until now.

Disposable and Disruptive
Netbooks are so cheap it’s not far-fetched to imagine that a person might want to buy a new one each year.

Indeed, the netbook’s price poses yet another, albeit indirect, danger to Microsoft. Aware of such a low-cost alternative, Windows users will find it hard to justify spending hours downloading software, installing applications, and customizing preferences every time they buy a new machine. For that reason, expect netbooks to live up to their name and accelerate the trend of cloud computing, whereby software and services are accessed over the Web. Lenovo even offers a Linux-based quick-starting shell that lets you get on the Internet less than 10 seconds after turning on the machine.

Netbooks might expand the U.S. laptop market to people who could never before afford one. But they are sure also to cannibalize today’s laptop market, slashing profits for both hardware and software makers. These machines are probably bad for Microsoft, Intel, and Apple. But they’re going to be great for Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Simson Garfinkel is a Technology Review ­contributing editor.

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Credit: The Heads of State

Tagged: Computing

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