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Small wonders

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.

So how does the Mini 110 work?

With 1 GB RAM, it runs more slowly than my MacBook Pro, which has 4 GB RAM or our Acer with 2 GB RAM. The biggest delay is at bootup, affected by microprocessor speed and other factors. Once I'm online, I can check local weather, news, or my company's Web-based e-mail. The speed is bearable and much faster than the old computers that used dial-up modems. The Mini 110 is just about as powerful as a Dell desktop my wife and I replaced with the Acer a year earlier. When I've used the Mini 110 for typing, I can't discern any difference in the keyboard, which is 92% as big as a normal laptop.

As the University of Missouri's Martin explains, the specs for most netbooks are the equivalent of a new desktop purchased in 2001 at a fourth of the cost.

"Any program or anything you were doing in 2001, you should be able to do on a netbook."

You might wonder why laptop makers don't cram newer technology into netbooks. Netbooks grew from a project by the Taiwanese firm Quanta to make a $100 laptop for students in poor countries. Its rival in Taiwan, Asustek, introduced its own cheap laptop, the Asus Eee PC, in 2007. Europeans and Americans, not third-world nations, snapped them up, launching the netbook craze.

It's not a lucrative market for Microsoft, which extended its seven-year-old Windows XP Home operating system for use in netbooks. But it was on the condition that they have no more than 1 GB RAM and certain restrictions on storage capacity and screen size.

"That's why the specifications are basically the same," says Martin. "They're licensing it cheaply, but Microsoft is dictating what that platform can be."

As you can see in the chart on the following page (a sampling of newer models), specs are virtually the same, except for the Sony, which comes with 2 GB RAM and a newer operating system. But at its price, you can buy larger, less portable laptops that are more powerful. Nokia's netbook has 3G wireless connectivity for cell phone networks, which makes it more expensive. Not all netbooks have 3G wireless.

Some, but not all, netbooks can be upgraded to 2 GB RAM, although you may void some manufacturers' warranties. If that's your plan, check before you buy your netbook. (You can find plenty of 2GB memory cards online.)

That's what Martin did with his netbook. "Thirty dollars got me a 2 GB memory card," he says. His manual even had instructions for switching cards. "Be sure the computer is off and the battery is out before you do it," he advises.

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.

Maker

Model

Specs/Comments

Prices

Acer

Aspire One Model

1.2 GHz Intel Atom Z520 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP; 11.6" LED screen. One of the larger screens available in netbooks.

$290

ASUS

Eee PC 1005HA

1.66 GHz Intel Atom N280 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP; 10.1" LED screen. Asus pioneered netbooks. It has many models, including some with solid-state drive.

$360

Dell

Inspiron Mini 10v

1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP; 10.1" LCD screen. An easily customized brand. For $30 more ($330 total), you can substitute 16 GB solid-state drive.

$300

HP

Mini 311

1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP;11.6" LED screen. Note larger 11.6" screen. RAM upgradable to 2GB or 3GB. (3 GB costs $55 more.)

$400

Lenovo

 

IdeaPad 512

1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP; 12.1" LED screen. Full-size keyboard. Largest netbook screen. RAM upgradable to 2 GB.

$430

MSI

Wind U100-641US

1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP, 10" LED screen. RAM is upgradable to 2 GB.

$290

Nokia

Booklet 3G

1.6 GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor; 1 GB DDR2; 120 GB hard drive; Windows 7 Starter Edition; 10.1" LCD screen. Large, 16-cell battery gives up to 12 hours usage. Seamless connectivity. Available for $300 with two-year ATT contract of $60 per month.

$600

Samsung

 

GO N310-13GBK

1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor; 1 GB RAM; 160 GB hard drive; Windows XP; 10.1" LED screen. Good display.

$400

Sony

VAIO Lifestyle P

1.33 GHz Intel processor; 2 GB RAM; 64 GB solid-state drive; Windows Vista Home Premium; 8" LCD screen. High price doubles RAM, adds solid-state drive and portability. Small screen. Sony’s newer W series is more like other netbooks and costs about $500.

$800

Toshiba

NB205

1.66 GHz Intel Atom N280 processor, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive, Windows XP, 10.1" LED screen. Has a full-size keyboard.

$342