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Notebook or netbook

tech-reviews Updated: Sep 05, 2009 18:10 IST

Hindustan Times
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The most mail I ever got for the fewest words published was on the two lines I wrote about the netbook on this page in May (‘Some Summer Shopping’, Star Tech). And for good reason. It sounds too good to be true.

(For the record, the most response I’ve ever got for just two words was on Twitter, to my “So What?”, in response to the news that SRK was detained at a US airport. But those were angry tweets, not email, so we’ll ignore that.) Flashback: A netbook is a small, light notebook, created in 2007.

All these years, I’ve been buying small, light (1.5kg) notebooks, for about a lakh each time. Now, suddenly, I have this new product to think of. It’s also a small and light notebook, but it costs less than Rs 25k.

So what’s the catch?
The answer was easy for the early netbooks of last year. They were lightweight performers, with slow processors, often without Windows (they would run other software). So you couldn’t expect to use your regular programs. They were also tiny, with 7-inch displays. You could fit them into a handbag, but not really work on their chiclet keys as you would on a regular PC. The netbook was supposed to fill the space between a laptop and a phone. The answer isn’t so easy now.

That’s because in the space of a year, the netbook evolved at a speed possible only in the tech world. (Heard the car analogy? If cars had kept up with PC evolution, they’d cost Rs 10,000 today and go 100 miles on a litre...) The netbook of mid-2009 packs more power, is large enough to be comfortable, beats notebooks on battery life, runs Windows, still costs under Rs 25k. And on the other hand, regular notebooks have gotten smaller, lighter, and cheaper. So the netbook-notebook divide is getting blurred.

Hey, It Works!
Most readers who wrote in asked: I need a laptop. Can I buy a netbook instead and save pots of money? So I used a netbook for a month. I picked a high-end model, a Samsung N120, well under 1.5kg and Rs 25k. It has whatever I’d expect in a notebook: a really good keyboard, a 10” display, a 160GB hard disk, wi-fi, Windows XP, even a decent 2.1-speaker sound system and built-in webcam. There’s no built-in DVD drive – most netbooks don’t have one, but nor does my expensive ThinkPad. But you can buy an external USB DVD drive for Rs 2.5k.

I installed Open Office (the free alternative to Microsoft Office), and used word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations; and, most often, Internet Explorer. It worked. It was sometimes just a bit slower than my laptop, not noticeable for most things, unless I’d opened up quite a few programs, Internet Explorer tabs, and so on at the same time. The keyboard was great, while the small and glossy display wasn’t. The highlight was the amazing battery life: six to seven hours on a charge.

It took some getting used to, as with any new laptop. Oh, and I couldn’t stick in my Reliance data card, for netbooks don’t have card slots. But nor do many laptops today. (Today, I’d buy a Reliance 3G USB modem. Or, a netbook with built-in 3G, like Dell’s Mini 9 or Nokia’s Booklet 3G.)

I did not subject the Samsung to heavy stuff, like playing video games, or Photoshop editing; it’s not meant for any of that. So as long as you’re not expecting to run heavy applications (and will stick to basic email and web access, word processing, presentations, etc) you’ll find a high-end netbook just fine, and within a Rs 25k budget.

So there you have it. Instead of spending a lakh on a small and light notebook, or even 50k on a heavier one, you can now buy a netbook for Rs 25k – and expect it to do most things you need it to. It’s great if you already have a desktop at home or office, for instance, or simply want an ultra-portable computer for a song.

I still wouldn’t use the netbook as my only PC, for I do a fair bit of heavy stuff, including working with photo albums and all kinds of software. But it’s a great option to have, a cheaper, just-about-right alternative to the traditional laptop computer.

The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest. pkr@cybermedia.co.in , twitter.com/prasanto