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A Close Encounter with a Netbook

As most of you know, netbooks became a fad for a while a couple of years back. With the recession in full force, folks welcomed the chance to buy a small but supposedly fully-equipped Windows note-book for a pittance. Indeed, prices often dipped below $300, although manufacturers soon piled on the features in order to increase the final transaction price.

Well, the arrival of the iPad demonstrated that a lot of people simply wanted a low-cost computing device that could get the essentials done, such as Internet access and email, and add a little pizzaz for the times you needed more. The iPad accomplished all this with an elegant interface that was simple to master. Even better, there were tens of thousands of apps available to read books, play games, and even perform some productive work.

As you might expect, sales of netbooks from such companies as Acer crashed, but it wasn’t just because the iPad arrived, since it still costs more than the cheapest netbook.

Why the netbook failed was pretty obvious when I had an up close and personal encounter with an Acer model just recently. I had visited a client to set up a new Wi-Fi router, when I was asked to set up his girl friend’s netbook to access his network.

The router, by the way, was a Cisco/Linksys E1500. You might ask why not an Apple AirPort, but the Linksys sells for less than $60 with the typical discount. The AirPort costs $179. Granted you get better performance, but not three times better, so this was a decent deal for my client. Also, the Cisco Connect app is usually fairly simple to configure, since it gives the router a unique network name, and a pretty strong password.

As to that netbook, it was black and shiny and, typical of PC note-books, laden with labels haphazardly stuck onto the device; the model number was barely visible, so I didn’t record that information. Unfortunately, the tiny trackpad had a label illustrating its extra touch features, which made it impossible to use, but the woman told me she just used a wireless mouse. And, yes, she never put the thing on her lap.

At first, I rejected the mouse, figuring the trackpad ought to be sufficient. Yes, the cursor seemed to move with reasonable fluidity, although it needed a speed up. But it’s fair to say that a typical new Mac also has a slow cursor setting be default and, with the Magic Mouse, it may never be fast enough unless you install one of those add-on utilities that provides a decent level of acceleration.

In any case, I ran into a roadblock when I tried to press the Acer’s trackpad button, and confronted an amazing amount of stiffness. You had to press real hard for it to engage, and I’ll grant that maybe that particular unit was defective. But in the PC world, you never know, and maybe that’s all you should expect from a computing gadget that costs less than $300.

Maybe Acer doesn’t care, or they expected customers to buy wireless input devices to replace the tiny trackpad and sticky button. So forget about perfect portability.

I spent a short time examining the netbook, to see if I could get a feel for it and even, had it a better trackpad button, actually find it useful. I ran Internet Explorer, and got fairly decent rendering speed on my client’s broadband connection. No mail client was installed, since owner accessed her account with Webmail.

But actually typing on the thing proved a non-starter. The keyboard was narrowed, to fit the smaller form factor, and it almost seemed as if I had to learn typing again. The keys were sticky, not fluid, so even if my fingers would become accustomed to the tinier layout, comfort went out the window.

Now in all fairness, typing flexibly on the iPad’s touchscreen is no picnic either. It’s not designed for lengthy text entries. If you want to edit a document in Pages, or type a few short sentences, fine and dandy. Otherwise, you buy an external keyboard, although that works against the iPad’s ultimate portability factor.

But you have to understand that the iPad isn’t necessarily meant to replace any personal computer, although it might do just that for many of you. Instead, it is a an auxiliary device that serves a variety of functions in super slick fashion, including that of a portable game player, and there’s where traditional gaming console makers are suffering big time.

That Acer netbook exhibited no intelligence whatever in its design.  The PC makers simply shrunk them down, used the cheapest parts possible, and to hell with usability. No wonder they failed.

Oh, and in case you wanted to know, I suggested to that netbook’s owner that she take it back to the dealer and get something that actually worked. I even suggested she consider buying a used MacBook if she couldn’t handle the cost of, say, a new MacBook Air. You can get an early version for around $600 in a good state of repair from a used dealer, and several hundred dollars less at eBay. Even the very cheapest MacBook, assuming it was fully functional and without blemishes on the case, would be a far better deal than that netbook.