Love can be fickle. It didn't take long for my sputtering keyboard technique to suffer from the cramped layout.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Netbooks? They're laptops now

July 17, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

When it came time for new portable computers in our house, my wife and I skipped what might have been a tempting choice -- two new netbooks, those tiny (and cute) little laptops. Instead, we bought two portables with full-size keyboards and larger screens. You might be interested in knowing why.

Netbooks, as you might already know, are tiny laptop computers with small screens, no CD or DVD drives and small keyboards. They're called "netbooks" because their inventors -- Acer and Asus, two big Asian PC makers -- wanted to sell a device smaller than a standard laptop to people who mostly needed to do their email, communicate on Facebook and browse the Web -- people who wanted to do things on the "Net," or Internet, in other words.

Netbooks took off like rockets on the Fourth of July. I bought one as soon as I saw one in a store a few years ago. It was an Acer Aspire, cheap ($300 -- probably $200 these days), easy to carry, and running a full version of Windows XP. I quickly installed Ubuntu Linux on it for more speed (it's a more efficient operating system than Windows XP and much, much, much safer) and then, a year or so later, I put Windows 7 on it to learn how Microsoft's new OS behaved. I loved the little tyke.

But love can be fickle. It didn't take long for my sputtering keyboard technique to suffer from the cramped layout, and I was forever trying to eliminate Microsoft Word's toolbars so I had room for text on the screen. The trackpad was too small for my thumbs. Worse yet, within a few months the battery that came with the Acer fell into a coma after only 45 minutes each time I took the netbook to the library.

I found that I was using my regular laptop, a big porker that weighed more than I did, nearly all the time. My netbook stayed in its little case, all but forlorn and forgotten. As I used my netbook less and less, so did you and countless others, according to industry sales figures. As of this summer, netbook sales have dropped off 40 percent.

My regular laptop was by then about five years old . Last winter it succumbed to oldlaptop-itis, and I knew it was time for a replacement. My wife's even older laptop also needed repairs, so we decided to get a new one for each of us.

We shopped around and chose laptops that would have long battery life, good keyboards and modern displays (LED backlit, with good color). The ones we chose were Apple's new MacBook Air models -- the smaller one, with an 11.6-inch screen, for Nancy, and the larger one, with a 13-inch screen, for me.

We didn't choose them because they're slim (they'll slide under the bathroom door) or because they're trendy (no moving parts inside, which means a solid state hard drive).

We got them because they're good laptops. Nancy's isn't much bigger than my ill-fated Acer netbook, yet it has a normal keyboard and a cinema-shaped screen -- big enough to do photo editing on, and expansive enough to show multiple webpages. My screen is big enough to let me compare photos side-by-side, and large enough for dueling spreadsheets, too. And it's able to show four video-editing timelines at once.

In other words, we chose them because they're able to do the sort of stuff we use laptops for -- the sort of stuff netbooks just can't handle. The fact that our two MacBook Airs are light and skinny (and run seven hours on a single battery charge) is just a bonus.

What counts is what works, not what's trendy. If that's not progress, I'll eat my mouse.