Netbooks Are A More Viable Alternative Than Ever

Last week, we made the case for why tablets can be a great productivity tool. However, if you want portability and need to do a lot of typing in your job, then netbooks are a better — and more affordable — option than ever before.

I last tried seriously using a netbook as my main PC back in early 2009, when I ran with an HP 2133 for a few months. That machine was highly portable, but it had a bunch of other issues, the most significant of which were that it lacked reliability and processing grunt. (About six months after I stopped using it as my main machine, it gave up the ghost altogether.) After that experience, I figured it would be a while before I’d use any netbook other than my still-kicking-along nicely original model Eee PC, which these days mostly acts as a media player in my home office.

In those 18 months, however, the netbook market has evolved somewhat. The main changes have been a shift to Windows 7 Basic as the main operating environment (my HP was running Vista, a thought which can still make my marrow run cold); an almost universal move to using SSDs rather than hard drives, which makes battery life even better; and the inexorable progress of Moore’s Law meaning that the performance of netbooks is much better than it was. Prices have also dropped, so hunting down a decent netbook for around $300 doesn’t require too much effort.

My own needs have also evolved somewhat. Back in 2009, I was still using my machine to install software from CDs and to rip music often enough to feel that an optical drive was an essential. I can’t pretend that’s the case anymore: my music buying has slowed, and I very rarely install anything from CD. For those occasions when I do need optical, I’ve still got older machines to do the job, but it’s not an essential requirement any more. I’ve also managed to reduce my dependence on Microsoft Office a little, which means that I no longer have to think of that as a licensing cost or performance-defining requirement on every machine that I use.

All of that meant that when I started thinking about getting a new machine as my on-road workhorse, a netbook looked like a sensible option. Because all my work is synced via Dropbox, I could easily swap between a netbook for taking on the road while still using my ageing Portege as my main PC for a few months longer. Mail I now handle largely on my BlackBerry Torch, and the combination of the Torch plus a netbook covers most of my needs if I’m not doing detailed spreadsheet work.

I tested out the Toshiba NB550D, which is an entertainment-centric netbook powered by AMD’s Fusion processor and selling for $499. This is a nice machine, highly portable and with built-in Harmon-Kardon speakers, which produce impressive sound. If you regularly want music on the road, this would be a better-value alternative than, say, the Jambox we looked at recently.

However, the machine I’ve settled on is an Asus 10″ netbook which I grabbed on special from Catch Of The Day. I’ve been impressed with how well my original Eee has held up, so I figured this was likely to hold up equally well. For $339 (which includes a 2-year warranty), it’s also not a majorly expensive investment.

I took this machine to Adelaide for a quick two-day visit last week, and it worked like a charm: the battery held out all day in between meetings, it didn’t take long to readjust to the keyboard, and the performance is surprisingly sprightly. Indeed, it handled last week’s batch of Windows updates a lot faster than my Portege, despite the latter having three times as much memory.

I do need to get a replacement full-featured notebook before my Portege essentially melts (it already runs dangerously hot most of the time). But if it does give up the ghost, the Asus will do nicely while I wait for a full-fledged alternative.

Do you find a netbook useful, or have you moved to other portable alternatives? Share your experience in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is not likely to become a fan of on-screen keyboards any time soon. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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