Small wonders Staff 07/14/2010 @ 11:00pm

The biggest advantage to netbooks remains their cheap price - about $300 for many models and even less on sale. But a machine designed for easy Web browsing at wireless hot spots has limitations in rural areas.

Still, experts in technology who work in agriculture see some potential uses for netbooks on farms.

They have advantages over the handheld devices many producers use for keeping records, says Terry Brase, assistant professor of agriculture technology at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"The fact they've got USB ports and larger memory could make them very valuable for precision agriculture," he says.

They have more than enough power and memory to run a spreadsheet, says Stephen Martin, an Extension computer specialist at the University of Missouri's ag economics department.

Another advantage, if you opt to pay more, is solid-state drive (SSD).

"There are benefits to a solid-state drive," Martin says. "They typically are faster, and they're shock resistant since there are no moving parts." They also enhance battery life. When Martin bought his Asus Eee 1000, he paid an extra $60 for SSD, bringing the total price to $390. He boosted the SSD data storage with a secure digital high-capacity card.

"I actually keep all of my program data on an SD card," he says. SD cards are used in digital cameras. Most netbooks have an SD card slot but no compact disc reader.

Solid-state drive means you can put a netbook on the pickup seat and not worry about it. Still, that's where it will probably stay when you get out of the pickup, which is why smartphones may remain more popular to some users, says Dietrich Kastens, the technology person on his family's farm near Atwood, Kansas.

Kastens does like the larger screens on netbooks, typically 10 inches measured diagonally. "There's only so much you can do on a 2½ inch screen on a smartphone," he says. Yet, while Kastens is considering buying a netbook, he hasn't yet. Nor does he know many producers who have.

A few of us who make a living by typing on computers have. Successful Farming magazine's tech-savvy multimedia editor Jeff Caldwell owns a Gateway netbook and likes it.

Last September I bought an HP Mini 110 at Office Depot for about $270 plus $50 for antivirus software. It's the black computer on this page, nestled in the larger MacBook Pro that the magazine recently provided staff, after years on a MacBook G4.

Why two laptops? The Mini 110 is more than adequate for filing stories to the Web site from meetings and hotels with wireless Internet. And it's a lot easier to lug through airport security. I just put it in its neoprene case and toss it into my duffel bag. (It has a 14 GB SSD.) I also wanted to have my own laptop at home when my wife, who is a teacher, checks her e-mail in the evening on our Acer desktop. We have a wireless router for our cable modem, so I can kick back in the recliner and boot up at the same time.

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