Netbooks – a.k.a. "Tablets with keyboards"

Laptops definitely don’t last forever

Having been responsible for laptop support as an IT manager, I heard many complaints and saw many broken laptops. One thing that impressed me was that aside from failing batteries, physical damage was much more common than internal failure. These included broken hinges, cracked screens, snapped connectors, and missing keys. One unit mostly worked, but had sand inside the case; another was actually bent – which prevented the DVD from opening. As computers, Dell made their laptops pretty reliable, but they just weren’t armor plated. Not that armor plating wasn’t available... Field engineers had Itronix laptops that were both durable and waterproof (when closed). However, these military-grade units cost about 5 times as much as Dells and were as heavy as bricks. Ultimately, I had to find a replacement for the aging laptops used by sales, marketing, field support, and other mobile workers.

How I discovered Netbooks

By mid 2008, I found that a single standard would not make every laptop user happy. People who occasionally took their work home wanted a desktop-replacement that was just easy to pick up. True road-warriors wanted something that was easy to carry - continuously. The home workers were easy to satisfy with a standard, midsize (15") Dell or HP - which were among the lowest priced units available. The truly mobile staff was more of a problem. At the time, laptops had an almost inverted price structure; the smaller the size, the higher the price. This meant that the most portable, lightweight laptops were the most expensive - and, due to constant travel, were most likely to be damaged or lost. That was a problem; so I started looking beyond the “business” machines offered by major computer manufacturers.

What I found was the ASUS EEE PC 1000, a new netbook intended for students and not considered powerful enough for business users. I, however, disagreed with that. The EEE’s 1.6 Ghz Atom processor, was not very different from the Pentium M processors in the old Dell laptops. Since we had no plans to change our application suite, I expected them to perform the same. By opting for Solid State Drives and 2GB of memory, the netbooks were actually faster. They were also lighter, smaller, and cheaper than almost any other laptop. Their batteries also lasted longer.

What I learned

In spite of their advantages, Netbooks were not the perfect answer. Some people needed a larger display and were able to justify the added cost and/or weight. Other people just didn’t want a laptop that looked like a “toy” to them – which was understandable, given the netbook’s intended market. Still, people who actually worked with a netbook had no usability problems. With a volume-licensed copy of XP Pro and the same software found on everyone’s desktop, the ASUS product was a good corporate laptop.  Of course, almost 10 years later, Netbooks have largely been replaced by tablets as the "student friendly" device.  But, the bright side is that the market now has cheap, business-oriented laptops.  For example, a Lenovo Ideapad 110s costs $170, has an 11-inch screen, and includes a year of Office 365.  For the rest of this essay, however, I'll continue to call these ultra-cheap laptops "Netbooks".

Generalizing the lesson

In addition to recalling my own experience, I have tried to consider what a typical mobile worker needs. I have also looked at the modern features promoted by laptop manufacturers. The result of this exercise confirmed my decision to use netbooks in a business environment. While there are many “nice to haves” features available, laptops have the same fundamental constraints as always: a tradeoff between speed, display size, and battery life on one side - weight, bulk, and cost on the other. While netbooks sacrifice speed and screen size, I believe the only significant tradeoff is screen size. However, on the other side, weight, bulk, and cost are all at an absolute minimum. In the following sections, I will explain this by reviewing what a mobile worker typically needs for business and what they don’t.

What a road-warrior needs for business:


MS Office - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Project, Visio
Communications - browser, e-mail, chat, soft-phone, remote control
Security apps - firewall, anti-malware, VPN client
Other - PDF viewer, media player, CRM software, custom database apps


Multi-media - VGA, HDMI, audio
Communications - 10/100 Ethernet, WiFi
Peripheral - USB, flash device reader

While there are Office documents, spreadsheets, and databases that can stress multi-core desktops, that is exceptional rather than typical. Likewise, hosting a group video chat would be more unusual than a person-to-person call. The listed interfaces should be available on any laptop for connecting external devices and communication.

What they don’t always need:

This is where most laptops distinguish themselves from netbooks; by including features that business users don’t need. While some might be considered “perks” for the employee, those features are usually not essential. Basically, any machine that is great for entertainment is probably wasting a company's money – unless entertainment is their business.

Dolby 5.1 - Nice to have, but it won’t suddenly make a bad presentation good.
Gb Ethernet - 10/100 is more than enough for Internet use – and still quite acceptable at the office.
Fast processor - Except for some really obnoxious firewalls, most business apps won’t even stress the dual-core processor on the slowest machines. Games, on the other hand...
Disk space - You can’t buy a disk small enough to match the data you probably carry around for work. Even the entire US phone directory is less than 4 GB.
Blue-Ray disc - If you need this for work, then everything else about a netbook is wrong too.
Windows - OK, you probably do need Windows, but businesses and governments have definitely saved money by switching to open-source desktops.  If document editing, presentations, web access, and communications are all you need, a Chromebook might be the answer.


Of course there are specific business uses where a netbook is completely inappropriate. While these should be obvious, I’ll briefly list them here:

Multi-media editing - Everything needs to be bigger.
Processor intensive apps - Software like PhotoShop and AutoCAD also need bigger screens.
Game design and testing - See “Multi-media editing.”
Desktop presentations - Even a 17-inch laptop is barely big enough.
Desktop replacement - The display should be large and the external video port should allow for an independent, second monitor. (see my Paper & Pixels essay)

The tradeoffs

As previously acknowledged, there are definitely some trade-offs to using an ultra-portable netbook. However, these have to be considered in context - along with some ways to mitigate them.

Small screen - This is the primary tradeoff for a netbook’s small size, weight, and cost. However, for a regular traveler, asking about the TV before booking a hotel is a good way to ensure a nice, big monitor at night. Most new flat-screen TV’s have HDMI inputs; some still have both VGA inputs too.
Dual Core CPU - While dual-core is the low-end for CPUs, that's probably good enough for all the things you would do on your desktop PC, just not all at once.  With an efficient malware scanner, and limited non-work applications, CPU loading should not be a problem.
No CD/DVD drive - Aren’t these pretty much obsolete for anything but entertainment and OS installation? USB flash drives are a definitely a much easier way to move data around. If you really need one though, an external USB-powered DVDRW drive costs less than $30.
Tiny keyboard - Although Dell and ASUS claimed “92% full-size keyboards”, they're still not the same as your desktop. If you want a full 104-key keyboard, you might try a rollup keyboard or just add a numeric keypad.

Too much space in the laptop bag?

Or, too much money left in the budget after deploying cheap netbooks? I recommend a portable printer. Aside from compensating for the netbook’s small screen, there are times when data on paper is important; for instance: sales quotes, directions, handouts, reservations, receipts, how-to instructions, and diagrams to name a few. If you’re not near a Staples or the hotel’s business center, it’s really nice to be self sufficient.