Notebooks, Netbooks & Tablets…Oh,My!

This post is inspired by the recent release of the HP Mini 5103. I’ve been carrying its predecessor since April, and meaning to share my recent experience with netbooks, especially in the light of the coming onslaught of tablets.

There are aspects of my working life that lands me squarely in the category of “Road Warrior.” Business has me visiting customers locations all over North America, and occasionally locations overseas. This very fact of my routine travel has dictated that I carry a laptop. Remember that my employers business is broadcast graphics equipment, so our laptops are on the more capable side of things…meaning more powerful, bigger & heavier. Recently our staff have started carrying “mobile workstations.”

My current laptop is older, so not a mobile workstation. For almost the last three years I’ve carried an HP8510p, which is hope will be replaced some time this fall. It’s a 15″ model that was very capable when new. As a practical matter it’s simple too large to use when on an airplane, at least in coach class.

From around December 2008 I began to look at a netbook as something that might enhance my road warrior armament.  In particular I was looking for something that would help me make productive use of time spent on airplanes, most especially when I’m wedged into a coach class middle seat between a pair of Samoans. Yes, it actually happened!

As an aside, I do find it curious that with all the size options in laptops currently available, the 15″ models still command the largest share of the marketplace. Why anyone would lug around a 17″ model is simply beyond me….although I knew several people who own such hardware for use around their homes.

My desire for a netbook was fueled be the coming of a project that would have me essentially commuting to & from San Francisco every week for several months. I would spending enough time on aircraft that the small computer would aid in my productivity.

I researched a lot, but by far the best insight I was able to glean was from following the experience of  Tim Higgins of Small Net Builder. Tim was trying model after model of netbook, returning each for refund until he found one that met his criteria. While he didn’t actually buy one, he seemed very enthused about the HP Mini 2140 so that became my first netbook candidate.

I had to wait a couple of months for the 2140 to begin shipping. While it finally started shipping I found that HP had delayed the optional high-resolution display. The default display was 1024 x 576 pixels while the optional “HD” display was 1366 x 768 pixels.

I waited some more as I felt that the HD display would be important to me, but when it was delayed a third time I broke down and ordered one of their “Smart Buy” configurations with the stock display. My project was already underway and I truly could use the hardware. I could wait no longer.

In truth the HP Mini 2140 served me well. It saw heavy use and a lot of travel. The all metal construction proved durable, and pleasure to use. The keyboard was a bit on the small side, but not too annoying. Battery life was outstanding (6 hours!) given that I ordered the optional six cell battery.

Even though the Mini 2140 basically met my needs I always found that the display was too small. There is a substantial difference between 1024 x 576 and 1024 by 600 pixels, which was becoming the more common screen resolution. Those 24 pixels don’t seem like much, but the 2140 simply didn’t show enough vertically to be comfortable. As a result I was always using F11 to toggle Firefox in & out of full-screen mode.

After a year with the Mini 2140 I read the Engadget review of its replacement, the Mini 5102, which stated:

“…the Mini 5102 makes the rest of netbooks we’ve reviewed look like big sissies.”

I found that I could not resist the temptation to upgrade to the Mini 5102. Sure, it was a lot more money, but It offered almost everything I was after in a netbook from the start. In fact, I ordered a custom configuration ensuring that I got exactly what I wanted.

  • 10.1″ 1366 x 768 pixel HD display
  • 2 GB memory
  • Windows 7 Pro

Heck, I even ordered the custom red finish! I would have liked the capacitive touch screen option, but it was not offered on the HD display. Given a choice I was going to have the HD display that I had been missing in the 2140.

I also decided against the upgraded Broadcom Crystal video decoder. It’s purpose is primarily involved in playing back video full-screen as it includes hardware acceleration of H.264 playback. I don’t often watch TV or movies on my PCs so I thought that this was unnecessary. However, I have since learned that I could add it as an after-market option for a modest $50.

I ordered the Mini 5102 on the very weekend that Apple started selling the iPad. In fact, my Mini cost a little more than an iPad. I thought long and hard about my use case and decided that I needed a real keyboard. I intended to do some writing. The iPad’s strength lay in content consumption, and I intended to embark upon some content creation.

I remain very pleased with the Mini 5102. The keyboard, at 94% of full size, is a pleasure to use. The magnesium alloy case as  incredibly rigid and just feels like a quality device. Best of all, the HD display means that I don’t feel cramped looking at most web sites. As the photo above shows,  there’s a lot more screen real estate to be enjoyed while using Google documents, or even using Photoshop.

Yes, I’ve loaded some pretty heavyweight apps on this wee netbook. Photoshop CS2 and Outlook 2003 are the biggies. It handles them with ease. In fact, while on vacation in July I installed the VMWare player and a put an instance of TKL-WP on this little netbook! I was able to put a virtual Linux server running WordPress in a VM on my netbook, then use it for offline web development.

I’ve actually been meaning to describe my experience with the Mini Twins for quite some time. The issue that finally pushed me to get on with it was the release of the newer HP Mini 5103. Lilliputing has a great review of this little system. It’s basically the same as the 5102, but has a dual core N550 Atom CPU clocked at 1.5 GHz and they finally offer the touchscreen display at HD resolution. I’d love to upgrade…but the funding is just not there.

The upside of the release of the 5103 is that the 5102 should become plentiful at the HP SMB Outlet. Just six weeks after I received my custom configured Mini I started to see similar systems offered at the outlet for around $400. That’s a far more appropriate price for a netbook.

Running VMware on a netbook is pretty cool. It’s certainly not something that I’d consider with an iPad. That said, I’ve come to appreciate the use case for a tablet in the home. There are times when I’m just lounging around and the netbook is less than ideal. For these times of pure content consumption a tablet would be more ideal.

But the iPad itself is also problematic. My boss bought one along with the Bluetooth keyboard. He say that the iPad is very handy and he uses it for email quite a lot. However, when he was traveling he found the iPad and the Bluetooth keyboard were not really workable in a coach class airplane seat. If he’s flying coach you know that I’m waaayyy in the back of the bus!

He accidentally left the keyboard on the airplane wedged into the seat pocket. Luckily, he was able to get it back, but that’s just the sort of thing that I would likely do. This sort of thing makes the netbook a better traveling companion for me. A tablet would likely stay around the house.

That said,we are eagerly awaiting the HP whatever-they-finally-call-it tablet. I actually held one in my hands when I was seated next to the product manager on a flight back in February. We’re not Apple users, and don’t see any reason to start down that path. It could be interesting to try the Slate (?) running Android or WebOS. Possibly a competitive tablet might emerge as preferable.

What all of this has really emphasized to me is the fact that there are different use cases for everything. My netbooks have not replaced my laptop. Nor would they replace a tablet. Each is ideal in its own way, its own place & time. Those who declare that the iPad is killing netbook sales, or netbooks killing laptop sales are missing the point. There will be a increasing diversity of devices as computing becomes more completely and transparently integrated into our lives. It’s more a case of having the right tool for the situation at hand.