Recession Ready Tech: The Netbook


Question: What do we spend 95% of our time sitting at our computers doing?
Answer: Browsing the web (read: looking at silly videos of cats).

So these days, when saving every dollar counts, why do we still need to own $800 to $1,000 laptops, when most of the processing power and features are never used?

The good news is, you don't. The netbook revolution is upon us, and the savings could be more than $750 for a machine that does not sacrifice any features you're likely to use.

A new wave of mini portable laptops that go for $240 to $400, known as netbooks, from manufacturers such as Dell (Stock Quote: DELL), Acer, HP (Stock Quote: HPQ), and Asus look like a great buy as a secondary computer or as a replacement for your old laptop.

The idea of owning a simple and compact netbook, rather than a full-size laptop, has been piquing the curiosity of tech-savvy individuals for some time. A netbook's upside includes a simple, less cluttered operating system, a budget-friendly price and increased portability. The latest models are the size of a standard hardcover book and weigh only two or three pounds. You can pop it in your handbag or backpack with ease and be able to check e-mail, read a blog or shop online while you are on the go.

In a recent Wired magazine feature on netbooks, columnist Clive Thompson offered the analogy that these new mini models are to standard laptops as small fuel-efficient electric cars are to their oversized, gas-guzzling SUV predecessors. You don’t need all that power for what amounts to a simple "commute" to Firefox or Internet Explorer. Just as consumers realize they won’t be doing much off-roading with that garage-bound 4x4 when gas prices are high, they should also come to terms with the fact they won’t be doing much high-intensity video-editing or graphics-draining gaming while on their laptops.

What is the netbook's secret? Most of the innovation in creating this new wave of tiny netbooks has come with the incorporation of solid state or flash memory. This is similar to the type of technology used to save pictures on your digital camera or pocket flash drive. The netbook can be incredibly fast at a fraction of the size because it does not contain a traditional hard or optical disc drive which runs, and often tends to fail, in your desktop and laptop.

According to Peter Holt, an IT professional from New Jersey, netbooks offer everything an average consumer would need at a quarter of the size and cost of a traditional laptop. “They also have the added benefit of the manufacturer usually taking the time to make a very user-friendly interface that anyone can use,” he says.

Something Lost, Something Gained
Netbooks do have their limitations though. With reduced power and memory space, be prepared for the loss of Microsoft Office (Stock Quote: MSFT) and memory-sucking programs like Word and Excel. But fear not, there are dozens of options for open source word processing programs you can download for free and use on your netbook, like OpenOffice.

One particularly popular alternative is to use Google Documents to type up, save, and share your work. You also won’t want to use graphics-intensive programs like Adobe Photoshop to edit your photos or create images (Stock Quote: ADBE). However, with the abundance of free web applications available online, programs like Foto Flexer and Sumo Paint can now handle all your basic needs quickly and at no cost.

Another downside with netbooks is the problem of physical discomfort over time. As is often the case with portable technology, sitting and typing away at a netbook for hours can be uncomfortable due to the smaller screen and compact keyboard. For these reasons, many reviewers have said they don’t feel the netbook can completely replace the laptop yet. Just as you wouldn’t be satisfied writing your entire dissertation on your iPhone (Stock Quote: AAPL) or BlackBerry (Stock Quote: RIMM) device, you probably wouldn’t last long in one sitting with a netbook.

Netbooks should continue to improve over time. (Think faster models with more advanced features while improving ergonomic design.) Let’s just hope the prices stay this affordable.

MainStreet's Top 5 Netbooks Right Now

1. Acer Aspire One Runs Windows XP, comes with a built-in web cam, can be upgraded to include a DVD player all for the lowest price we’ve seen anywhere. It’s no surprise this is one of the best selling netbooks on the market today.
Price tag: $240

2. HP Mini 1000 Comes with the same Windows XP Home edition, web cam and a more comfortable keyboard.
Price tag: $299

3. Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Includes a simple Linux user interface and a 4 GB solid state drive.
Price tag: $249

4. Asus Eee PC Very basic specifications from the brand that pioneered this product before the big guys got involved.
Price tag: $269

5. HP 2140 Comes with an 80 GB solid state drive and up to 5 hours of battery life all while weighing in at 2.62 lbs.
Price tag: $499

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