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Living with a netbook

By on Nov 3, 2012 in Tech Takes | 13 comments

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I posted a version of this blog post earlier as a copy of an article I wrote for The Stag. While the tone and the content of the article was appropriate for a general audience aimed at in a university newspaper, I felt that it didn’t quite gel with the kind of posts that I want to publish on this blog. This is why I took the blog post offline soon after. I have edited now for what I feel is a better fit. In this post, I talk through how I reasoned myself into getting a netbook, fell in love with the machine, and then gave up on the whole concept of netbooks entirely because of how frustrating my experience was.

I bought an expensive Dell Studio laptop when I started with university because I wanted a computer that would last me through my time here. I was quite happy with it too, as it performed well even when doing graphics-heavy tasks such as video and effects editing that I needed to do because of my involvement in campus student television. A year into using the laptop – a week after the warranty expired, in fact – the motherboard went kaput. There wasn’t much I could do about it, except that it seemed it had happened due to a power surge. I couldn’t get it investigated further because I hadn’t bought extended warranty cover from Dell.

This was back in 2010, while I was in Singapore. I was quite disillusioned with Dell, and I didn’t want to buy anything from them again. One of my roommates used an Advent netbook (a PC World / Currys Digital own-brand) and seemed quite happy with it. I also borrowed an Asus Eee PC in the meantime from a friend – and while it sufficed as a replacement computer, I hated the keyboard on that thing. Way too cramped.

Still, I was intrigued by how lightweight the Advent and the Asus were, and that my roommate could use his for a good six hours without charging. I decided to take a look at what was on offer at Funan IT Mall. I played around with as many netbook models in display as I could, to get a good feel for their keyboard. That was my primary concern with getting a netbook. (Oh, and by the way, I also discovered that prices are so standardised across shops in Funan that there is absolutely no point shopping around for prices – unless you want to compare what freebies you get along with your purchase.)

What stood out for me was a Lenovo S10-3c – the netbook that I eventually bought. With a dual-core Intel Atom N455 processor with support for 64-bit operating systems, 1 GB of RAM, 160 GB of hard disk space it seemed value-for-money. What I liked in particular was how easy I found to touch type on the shop-floor models: it had a keyboard with isolated “chiclet-style” keys which felt less cramped than the one on Asus Eee PC. I sold my old Dell Studio for S$200 and walked away with my new Lenovo netbook.

Throughout my time in Singapore, I loved it. I customised it with a vinyl skin and called it “Froggy”. It was lightweight (including the charger, a 45W model, which can add weight when carrying your computer around for extended periods!) and it allowed me to pack light when travelling. The battery life was excellent: I could confidently take it to a full day of lectures and even with wi-fi turned on expect it to last me 7-8 hours. I mostly used it for browsing and coding, with the occasional bit of word processing here and there. Ubuntu was a beast on it for light usage, and I could even switch to Windows 7 Professional when I needed to. My only beef with it was that without a dedicated graphics card, I had to give up playing games on it. And that sometimes it took ages for software to compile / build on it. Still, I was quite happy with it overall because I did a lot of travelling during that time and it was nice to have a full-fledged “laptop-like” user experience without making too many compromises.

In hindsight, I found my netbook such a useful companion because I did not have a proper smartphone at the time (back when I had a Nokia 5630 XpressMusic) to fill in my casual browsing needs on the move. Once I did get an Android smartphone though, I found myself using my mobile phone more for what I was using my netbook for. I then went on placement year where I had a ‘proper’ work laptop issued to me – and then I really felt the pinch in processing power.

It was quite all right, at first. I don’t know whether software applications became heavier on system resources through 2011, but what I found was that even without eating up all available RAM, applications took a long time to load. Skype (on Windows) took a good ten minutes to start up, to the extent that I got in the habit of asking friends to “wait for ten minutes” whenever they wanted to chat with me. Firefox hung frequently even with less than a dozen tabs open – especially when loading websites with Flash video or sites such as The Verge which have ‘heavy’ web pages. During the period Ubuntu grew in its system requirements too, with its new Unity interface which could have lead to a system slowdown over time. Overall, by 2012, I found myself incredibly frustrated with my user experience when using my netbook to the point that I actively wanted to avoid it and use my phone instead even if it was a more cumbersome way of doing tasks.

I genuinely don’t know why my experience went so bad, but I can only conjecture that since RAM usage didn’t seem to be an issue, it was the anaemic Atom processor and / or lack of dedicated graphics to blame. The compromise wasn’t working for me any more. So when I did save up during my internship, I decided to ditch my netbook and get a full-fledged laptop again: once which could truly match up to my requirements in my final year at university (a lot more intensive coding, back to video / photo / design editing for campus media societies).

I think netbooks enjoyed their brief span of popularity a couple of years ago because smartphones weren’t as common then. These days though, smartphones fill that gap of a personal device with adequate functionality for casual browsing on-the-go while giving long enough battery life to last a day (at least). Even when I go travelling, I no longer carry my netbook as between my Kindle and my phone, I have all my usage needs covered. What I need – and what I think most people need – with a laptop-like device is something that can carry out more processor intensive tasks that aren’t possible on a phone

To be fair, the advantages of being lightweight and having a long-lasting battery are still areas where netbooks comfortably beat many pricier laptops. My advice though, especially if you have a smartphone of some sort, would be to buy a laptop – a cheap one if you have to, due to budget constraints – because the trade-offs in a smooth user experience with a netbook these days simply aren’t worth it.



13 Comments

  1. Espèra

    November 9, 2012

    Post a Reply

    Now you have ultrabooks. I saw a Rs. 57k Lenovo model that seemed to be a good deal. Ultrabooks are so much lighter than regular laptops, more compact, and are expected to have a longer battery life too. However, I haven’t used one personally so I don’t know.
    But my guess is that they should be making netbooks totally redundant now, what with tablets and smartphones that many people already have.

    This is very mysterious though, why don’t laptops have full HD screens anymore!?

    • Ankur Banerjee

      November 9, 2012

      Post a Reply

      Actually, I have an ultrabook now: a Dell XPS 14. I don’t want to rush with a review on it yet though unless I spend much more time with it.

      Why do you think “full HD screens” are such an important feature though? I just think that’s a marketing gimmick.

      • Espèra

        November 9, 2012

        Well, a friend of mine has been looking for laptops and he particularly wanted full HD because he thought plain ole HD displays aren’t good enough (I personally don’t mind either). However, I find it mysterious because everyone is going on about full HD phones, TVs etc, but suddenly they’ve removed full HD from laptops?

      • Ankur Banerjee

        November 9, 2012

        I think I didn’t explain my point well enough. “Full HD” was a term introduced in context of LCD TVs. CRT TVs often had ‘interlaced’ displays rather than ‘progressive’ scan, which were of an inferior quality – and early LCD TVs (5-6 years ago) were sometimes interlaced too. “Full HD” started off as a marketing term for these TV displays, where it means they could natively play 1080p video natively, rather than 1080i. However, that was 5-6 years ago and 3-4 years ago, most displays started supporting progressive scan displays.

        Laptop and smartphone screens have typically not used interlaced displays. So the use of “full HD” in this context is mostly just to fool users, just like how Samsung uses the term “Super AMOLED” as a gimmicky marketing term for their organic LED displays phones.

      • Espèra

        November 9, 2012

        To clarify: I personally don’t mind either full HD or just HD. I mean, I can live with plain HD, I don’t necessarily Need full HD. Makes stuff too tiny sometimes, methinks.

      • Espèra

        November 10, 2012

        I do know about this, but HD usually means 720p in a laptop, and full HD means 1080p and that is the difference.

  2. Azman

    November 9, 2012

    Post a Reply

    Ultrabooks are the future imo. Full HD screens are important if you’re doing graphics work; especially if you’re doing video editing.

    What do you feel about tablets then? I personally toyed with the idea of getting a tablet but i realised that my needs are more suited for a small, lightweight portable laptop with more power and storage. It’s the ideal setup for me for travelling where i would like to edit and store photos from my camera. A tablet just won’t cut it for me in that sense.

    • Ankur Banerjee

      November 9, 2012

      Post a Reply

      Right now, here’s what I have:

      – A Kindle Keyboard 3G. This is a great device to read books on, and 3G helps me quickly look up stuff online in a pinch when I’m travelling if I have to. Even otherwise, sometimes you cannot connect to a wi-fi network nearby, so the 3G is handy.
      – An Android smartphone. I use this most of the time as my main device on the go. I listen to music on it, rather than my iPod, and use it for a lot of casual browsing while occasionally watching videos.
      – An ultrabook with 1 GB dedicated graphics memory and a Core i7 quad-core processor, with 500 GB hard disk and a 32 GB SSD to speed up the operating system. This is a device powerful enough to let me do intensive video editing, photo editing, and design layout work. It also weighs just 2 kg and gives me 5-6 hours of battery life, so I get a good balance between portability and power.

      I don’t see where a tablet would fit in to my usage. When I’m at home, I’ll probably use my laptop, and I like the Kindle’s e-ink screen a lot more for reading. I do get sorely tempted every now and then to get a Nexus 7 since it’s so cheap, but I really don’t see what purpose it will fulfill.

      • Espèra

        November 9, 2012

        Tablets look SO tempting, but I think I’d probably not do anything on it except play games, or watch the occasional movie. Or doodle. Now that I’ve bought a Kindle too, I think buying a tablet just for the games and doodling is not economically wise.

        I’m currently in love with my Kindle. I actually find it better than a real book :P

      • Ankur Banerjee

        November 9, 2012

        I just love the Kindle screen! I find it a way more pleasant reading experience – once you get used to that page blink thing – than an actual book too.

      • Espèra

        November 10, 2012

        Yeah, the page blinking took some time to get used to.

        I like how it is sleek and light and I can hold it any which way (unlike a book, because they’d slip off and I’d be left holding onto a couple of pages sometimes)! I also like not having to touch paper because sometimes when your skin is dry, it feels awful against it. :|

      • Ankur Banerjee

        November 11, 2012

        I also like not having to touch paper because sometimes when your skin is dry, it feels awful against it.

        You’re weird.

      • Espèra

        November 11, 2012

        -.-

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