a nerd and his netbook

This column is coming to you courtesy of my new Asus Eee PC 1000HA netbook.

This column is coming to you courtesy of my new Asus Eee PC 1000HA netbook.

A netbook, for the technologically innocent among you, is essentially a small, lightweight, stripped-down laptop computer designed for optimal portability and internet functionality.

Being very much a geek-on-the-go, I have had a yen on for one of these devices for some time, now.

My duties at the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre involve a substantial amount of local running around (meetings with clients, business meetings and the like) and a certain amount of out of territory travel, too (mostly to technology conferences).

Over the past three years, I have accomplished this rambling with about 4.5 kilograms of nominally “portable” computer equipment hanging off of my right shoulder.

As any computer geek can tell you, the terms “portable” or “laptop” computer are actually misnomers.

While “laptop” computers have indeed become smaller and lighter over time, the fact remains that they remain more packable than portable, and usually run way too hot to be use comfortably on your lap.

My Yukon-College-standard issue Dell Inspiron, for instance, weighs in at around three kilos (about 6.5 pounds).

Add in the weight of the tote bag, the mouse, power cord, and other bits and pieces, it is pretty easy to accumulate a good four kilos (say nine pounds) worth of stuff.

It’s like walking around carrying around a 10-pound sack of potatoes all day—not hard to do, but not very pleasant, either.

The Eee PC is one instance of a new class of computers looking to address that problem, and a technology that is only now really starting to come into its own.

Early versions of netbook computers really did not have much to offer aside from small size and light weight.

They tended to have limited storage capacity, slow processing speeds, and short operating times.

These days, though, most of those problems are solved, or nearly so.

My Eee PC, for instance, weighs about 1.5 kilos, has 1 GB of RAM, a 160 GB hard drive, and can run on battery power for up to nine hours.

Mercifully, it qualifies as being too under-powered to run Microsoft’s execrable Vista operating system, so I got it with a complementary installation of trusty old XP.

The machine boots quickly, and actually quite snappy when it comes to cruising the web.

This is not to say I have not seen some problems and minor irritations.

The first, and most important irritation I came across as I was setting up the machine was with the Internet Explorer program, which kept going into “not responding” mode—not exactly a good thing, for a computer whose major function is to be an internet access device.

On one of the rare occasions when it actually worked, I used it to download Mozilla Firefox, which proved much more stable and also measurably quicker.

The production software provided is another problem: You don’t get Microsoft Office, only Microsoft Works.

That is fine for most simple tasks, but I have always found the Works suite to be clumsy and under-powered.

Not a big deal, though; all you have to do is download OpenOffice free from the internet.

With 160 GB of storage, you have lots of space for it on your hard drive, and with 1 GB of RAM, you have all the crunching power you need to make the program hum along.

A problem not so easily addressed is with the keyboard.

It is to acclimatize myself to this keyboard, in fact, that I am writing this column on it—and having some troubles doing so.

In fairness, this Eec PC, like most netbooks, was never intended to be anyone primary word processing computer.

Certain key-size and configuration compromises have to be made in the cause of keeping the device small.

Where the Asus people have made their most serious mistaken compromise, however, is with the right hand shift key.

Both the left and right hand shift keys are actually too small—they are the same size as the normal letter keys—but the right hand one has an additional problem of being positioned right beside the up-arrow key.

That means you keep skipping back up the lines of your paragraph when you are trying to type a capital letter with your left hand.

Still, the keyboard is better than twiddling around with your two thumbs on the minuscule little keys of a Blackberry.

As a compromise between a PDA and a computer, the device is a reasonable success, and, at just under $400, reasonably priced, too.

There may be better machines out there for a similar price, so you might want to shop around.

But if you, like me, are a geek-on-the-go, you probably do need a device like this.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.