Notes From a Long-Term Netbook User

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Little did I know that I have been using a netbook for the last five years. Turns out that the traveling laptops I have been using would now fit into the “netbook” category – Back to the Future.

The laptops/netbooks are from Sharp, the MV12W and the diminutive PC-A280/A290.

PC-A280/290 Key Features:

  • PII 366 MHz Mobile Processor
  • 11.3″ SVGA Active Matrix LCD, 1024 x 768 (290 LCD; 280 has 800 x 600)
  • 64MB SDRAM and 8.1GB Hard Drive
  • 56Kbps Data/Fax Modem, Ethernet IEEE 802.11b port
  • Weight 3 pounds

Sharp MV12W Key Features:

  • Intel PIII-M, 1.13 GHz
  • 12.1″ TFT active matrix LCD, 1024 x 768 native resolution
  • 512 MB SDRAM 133, add up to RAM 768 MB
  • 40 GB HD
  • Windows XP Pro
  • CD-RW 24 24 10, DVD 8x, Plug-in module
  • Sharp’s estimated battery life: 3 hours
  • 56 Kbps ITU V.90 modem
  • Ethernet, IEEE 802.11b, Fast Ethernet
  • 9.4″ x 11.1″ x 1.1″
  • 4.2 lbs with CD

The PC-A290 was definitely a lot closer to early netbooks than the MV12W. The smaller laptop/netbook does mount a larger LCD than the 8-9″ netbooks, but it does look like 10″ screens will be more the standard now than the smaller sizes; it also is emerging that screens about 12″ will be making their way onto some netbook platforms, although apparently there is only one LCD maker in this size and that may inhibit more wide-scale use.

In use I did manage to mount Windows XP Pro as the OS – not all that snappy if you tried to open more than one app (remember – 64 MB RAM), but on the road I used Word and PhotoShop with no real issues, as long as I did not push it too far. Using the internet was no problem – hooked up with an ethernet cable, the little guy performed flawlessly. You could get wireless with a dongle but I never found it necessary.

The one factor that could be limiting was the keyboard – it was not bad, but it was on the smallish side. I wrote about keyboard ergonomics HERE and my experience with the PA-A280/290 bears out my feelings that no matter what you think about how you will use a netbook, the keyboard will be the single most important issue you’ll have with whatever you buy.

Interestingly enough power was not all that much of an issue with this PC. I could do just about anything I needed for on the road use, including PhotoShop, recognizing that you can’t push it too far. Nevertheless, it never limited me.

Overall, Sharp’s PC-A280/290 filled the bill for me, as I concluded then:

“For casual road use to check emails, do some writing and picture editing, I found that this five year old laptop delivers enough power to meet my needs. If you have “laptop sticker shock”, do some homework and cruise around Ebay or check some of the major brands for refurbs – you might be surprised at what’s available for what I think are reasonable price/performance values.

Besides – a three pound laptop has it all over a 7 pounder when it’s on your shoulder.”

Seeking a bit more power, I bought the MV12W about four years ago and used this one as my primary laptop for some time. I used the smaller Sharp when traveling, then I happened on an ASUS as my primary stay-at-home laptop (a 6 pounder) and used the MV12W on the road. Although a bit heavier, I could lighten it up to a little more than 3 pounds by removing the CD.

Aside from more power, the MV2W sported a 12″ LCD and the keyboard was full size – perfect for extended writing. From what I read about the Atom 270, the 1.1 GHz PIII in this machine is roughly equivalent. Also the screen size is much more comfortable for extended use than the smaller 10″ screen; frankly I find it hard to believe anything less than 10″ is going to be comfortable, but I have older eyes to deal with.

After using both these machines for some time, I have to say that anyone contemplating a netbook purchase must think long and hard about intended use. The current crop of 10″ LCDs and under is OK for “casual” on the road use – don’t expect more than that. For a more inclusive experience, a netbook sporting at least a 10″ LCD, preferably 12″, is much to be preferred, More important is the keyboard – anything less than full size will drive you bats.

Look for netbooks to sport more powerful Atom CPUs by year end – Intel just announced the Z550, a 2 GHz 3 watt Atom CPU that will be all the rage by year end. I still think we’ll see a dual core Atom netbook by year end, but that’s pure speculation on my part. Grit your teeth and hold out for a 2 GHz Atom netbook with at least a 10″ LCD – you won’t be sorry.

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