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Doug's Mailbag: Netbooks, Macs, More

Doug asked readers this week for their thoughts on netbooks -- if they own one, and if they (like Microsoft) see them becoming more than minimally featured PCs:

You asked, "Do you have a netbook, and can you see a day when one serves all your PC needs?" I don't. But I did, long before they were called netbooks. I had a Zeos PPC. Did everything I needed at the time, but chewed through its little coin-sized backup cells faster than a teeny-bopper chews through Chicklets. Replaced it with a Grid Pen Convertible running MS Win 3.1 for Pen Computing. That had the size of a netbook, but twice the weight and a 4-bit gray-scale screen. But it also let you see 8-bit color on an attached external monitor. It had parallel and serial ports, an early version of PCMCIA slot and a 14.4 fax/data modem. It had all the external connectivity its day called for.

Today's netbooks, on the other hand, may have ethernet, Wi-Fi and USB connectors, but no fax/modem, no RS-232 serial port, no parallel port, no SCSI HA, no FireWire, no PCMCIA -- not even half the connectivity options I'd need. And touchpads come nowhere near a pen for productive "mouse" control (even if the Grid's pen chewed up its batteries almost as fast as the Zeos PPC drained its). Will I use a netbook? Sure, once one is available that meets all my needs.

I bought a netbook when they were called "ultra mobile PCs." I love it for its role -- e-books, webinars when I can't do them from the office, e-mail when I'm waiting for my wife, maps when I'm traveling, etc. I'll probably upgrade within a year because I use it so much.

But to use it for everything? I can't imagine doing photo editing, document editing, Visual Studio, etc. on a netbook. Screens are too small and the keyboard size would wreck my hands. These might become a main machine for some people, but I doubt there will be that many. Someone that has only a notebook and no desktop will mostly opt for a notebook with more room to work. As far as I can tell, only physically small people with not terribly demanding video needs would be logical candidates for netbook-only.

I just had the latest Asus Eee 1008HA delivered -- 10" by 7" by 1" and at around 2.5 pounds with the newer atom N280 chip set. It really is a small laptop, or whatever you want to call it. I have not used it just yet, but the primary use is minimal: Internet, e-mail and some other basic uses (sounds like typical computer use). We got it for personal travel, but who knows what else? I sure beats a heavy laptop.

I was considering purchasing a netbook due to its small form factor and cost. As much as I would enjoy it for the ability to browse and read e-mail, the one thing stopping me is poor graphics/video, even with Internet video, and lack of an optical drive. I am cheap and still check out a lot of my entertainment from the library. Sure, you could get some of this from the Web but even if you have a subscription to ATT or Verizon, the decent costing plans are limiting you to 5GB, which will be chewed up rapidly with entertainment.

The irony is that I realized that I already have something better than the netbook in a form factor which is where I see netbooks eventually going: my old Sony TR1, which is still working fine! It weighs only 3.14 pounds, has a 10.1" screen, 92 percent keyboard, 1GB of RAM, 60GB HD and (most importantly) a DVD/CD-R player! It runs full XP Pro and Office and has a resolution of 1,200 x 768, which is better than the netbooks. I realize that at the time of purchase, it was $2,000 but with today's latest technology and miniaturization, I don't see why something like this can't be made for a much lower cost. Perhaps this is what Microsoft was talking about.

As an IT administrator and freelance computer consultant, I use a netbook very often. Due to the fact that the netbook is small, light and therefore very portable, it's easy for me to take it along on jobs away from work and home. I have found it to be so convenient that I have stopped dragging my laptop (MacBook) back and forth from work to home; I now leave my laptop at work and use the netbook at home. The main thing I need the netbook for is e-mail, remote connectivity and some browsing. Whereas I have moved all of my support documentation over to Google Docs, I have immediate access to them regardless of on which computer I am working. Oh! And I should note that I am using Ubuntu 9.03.

I think netbooks do have a future, but I am not so certain that they will be that popular for the general public. For those often on the run who need a computer for work and studies, I think netbooks will have an audience. But one final note: I don't agree with netbooks only being good for online content. I have created and edited documents and spreadsheets using OpenOffice (I could theoretically do graphics work, but I just don't do that). I will be taking it on trips in the future and can use it as a temporary silo for photos. I have watched movies on it, listened to music -- even to music on a server at home. Netbooks are full-fledged computers, so there's no reason why they can't do everything one expects a computer to do.

Doug's been having trouble figuring out the new interface on Office 2007 (he finally had to reconfigure it so the basic commands would be visible). Turns out, he's not alone:

I sympathize. Two remarks, and a question: First, remember all the old Office Alt+whathaveyou keystroke sequences that the mouse-averse learned on earlier Office versions? The good news is they pretty much all still work! Second, notice the cute, round, little graphic at the top left of the Word (or other Office 2007 app) window? That's the app's own very well-disguised 'Start' button, clicking which sort of brings up the File menu, and a few more.

And for my question: You mean you CAN configure it so commands are exposed? Please, puhleeze, tell me how!

I had to laugh when I read that you, too, had trouble finding even the most basic Word operations: open, close and save files. It was so clever of Microsoft to hide these operations in what appears to be the Office logo. I bought Office 2007 for my new Vista laptop, but I never use it. Instead, I downloaded OpenOffice 3.0 and use that. On my desktop computer I still use Office 2003, and I intend to do so until it dies. At work, we are still using Office 2003 and have no plans to change for at least two years; the prospect of retraining our staff to use Office 2007 is too daunting. It also looks like the temporary loss of productivity will be very costly.

It is easy to resent Microsoft for making this dramatic change in the user interface for the Office applications. We only hope they see the mistake and that the next version of Office goes back to a more familiar look or has it as a compatibility option. I fear that is too much to hope for and we will just have to bite the bullet or shift to OpenOffice.

I read that in 2010, MS will have a new version of almost every product they sell. Does this mean the ribbon bar will replace menus and toolbars in SQL Server and Visual Studio? I hope not, but it seems inevitable. The ribbon is bad ergonomics, especially after 20-plus years of muscle learning. It is why I avoid upgrading from Office 2003.

Reader Dave this week suggested that it's often need, not price, that people consider when deciding to buy (or not buy) Macs. A couple of you disagree:

A response to Dave on the topic of Mac prices: My children went to public school. They used a Mac when they worked on projects/homework at school. When they came home they used a PC, price being one of the more critical issues associated with Macs, but in addition to that there is a severe limitation on the number of applications available compared to a PC, and if there is a similar app for the Mac the cost is more. My wife works for the school district. She supports Macs but uses a PC at home. I don't have a problem with the Mac, just with the price. Cost is a critical criterion.

By the way, both my children graduated at or near the top of their class, maybe because they can use both a Mac and a PC. They are both in college and by far the most prevalent platform is a PC.

My daughter is three years from going to college, and if she was required to have a Mac to "matriculate" through a certain college, then she, and my money, would not be going there. If she wants a Mac because she likes it, then I would consider getting it for her, but to use an example like Dave did is ridiculous.

And here's one vote for least favorite comedic actor:

Mike Meyer (or whatever his name is). "Wayne's World," "Austin Powers"...stupidity at a fifth-grade level rather than funny. Sad that the American public is so dumbed down even in their comedy.

More letters coming on Monday! Share your own thoughts by writing a comment below or sending an e-mail to [email protected]

Posted by Doug Barney on 06/12/2009 at 1:16 PM


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