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.


  • I have a HP mini netbook, and find it great. It certainly isn’t a desktop replacement or anything, but it came with Office starter which I find enough for a few document edits on the go, I keep files synced with Dropbox , and use things like Citrix to access the office remotely. Its quite a nice little machine that I would recommend to anyone.

  • I’ve been using netbooks for the last few years – my current is a HP 5102 netbook which is at the premium end of netbooks.

    It does most things that I need on the net + MS office but atom chipsets suck at Youtube as there isn’t any flash hardware acceleration (so youtube above 480p is quite stuttery.)

    AMD’s fusion chips should fix the youtube video, but I wonder how the other apps will go with 1.0ghz CPU only?

  • I also have a HP Mini form JB Hi-Fi.

    First thing I did was gut windows and install ubuntu netbook remix. And I love it. Its just enough grunt to play music and type an essay / faceboook and whatnot.

    all in all, its a fantastic machine.

    • I got an HP Mini 110 netbook fairly cheap cos it ran on Linux and was the last in the store. Stripped out HP’s poor excuse for a Linux and installed Fedora 14. It’s truly the most useful computer I have ever owned, and with a USB-DB9 console adaptor, it has saved my networks several times. I’d recommend netbooks any day, especially the HP ones.

  • I’m tired of packing my 17inch laptop every time I travel and have been trying the iPad for the last year, but without much success. Whilst great on the train or plane for reading, it’s not good enough for writing (for me). I tried the bluetooth keyboard, but that’s only suitable in hotels, not whlst on the move.

    While not a netbook, I’m now looking at buying a MacBook Air. It’s slim and light enough and unlike most netbooks, has a full size keyboard, which is really attractive to me.

  • Angus, I am with you. I have been using an Asus Aspire One widescreen netbook that I also picked up on COTD for about $285 after cash back.

    The first thing I did was install Win 7 ultimate an man this baby runs for like 8 hours (still 18 mnths later), plays amazing video and most importantly for a mobile machine, wireless networks effortlessly (including to the mobile AP on my Samsung galaxy S).

    My 4 year old uses this machine as his day to day unless I am travelling.

    I access all my email and files via gmail / google apps and dropbox so there is no syncing required.

  • I used a MSI Wind U90 as my primary computer for 2 and a half years until i died now i have a second hand macbook. I did not really find it that difficult, i even did some photo shop on it. I found the benefits of the lightness amazing

  • I’m using my EeePC more and more over my desktop. I find I’m using my desktop only for things that require grunt, like video conversion and photo processing. Like Ryan above, I use Ubuntu netbook remix, but dual boot with windows (generally only used to remote desktop to work and the odd game now and then).

    The small form factor is great for travelling as it fits nicely in my backpack and camera bag.

  • I have my desktop at home, Aspire One netbook for when I’m away from home and to programme radios. Lastly I have a Samsung Galaxy S smart phone for IM and social media on the go.

  • Love my Dell Mini 9. SSD hard drive and quality components make for a great little machine that’s completely silent and wakes within a couple of seconds of opening the lid.

    Would have liked Dell to continue with the 9″ format as it’s noticeably smaller than the Mini 10 that replaced it.
    The keyboard on the 9 is compromised but doesn’t use the full width of the chassis. Shame the 3G version wasn’t publicly available either.

    An iPad is tempting but my Mini 9 has an SD card reader, USB ports galore and has far more applications available for it than the `pad or the `droid. Might upgrade it to 7 sometime soon as XP is getting a bit long in the tooth (and all that without having to jailbreak!).

  • I have the desktop for gaming the graphics work, my phone for “always available” internet and email… and the netbook for everthing in between. Be that couch dwelling, long trips, public transport, whatever.

    Still trying to work out where people manage to fit an iPad (or any other tablet) into their lives…. :\

    • Oops, I meant to add that my netbook is also a HP Mini (5102)…. I always thought Asus’ eeePC range was the dominant force in netbooks but going by the comments here HP Minis sold really well too.

      That, or the entire HP Mini userbase reads Lifehacker.

  • More ‘ditto’ here. We have FOUR netbooks in the house – all ASUS eeePC variants. The biggest and best is a 10″ job (from CoTD) with a decent battery. It runs XP and MS Office quite happily – and gets to wander interstate and anywhere that we need portable connectivity with minimal fuss. We’re still wedded to our desktops for most things, but on the move, the 10″ has a big enough screen and keyboard without the bulk of our older notebooks.

    The other three eeePCs are of the older 70X variety. One has XP which… runs for basic stuff. The other two have Linux variants (NOT what they came with) – Ubuntu NBR and Mint. The kids use these when they are not on their desktops and I find little eeePCs scattered all over the house. I think that I can safely assume that they are still using them!

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