Saturday, December 27, 2008

A New Toy

Negligent fellow, that Santa. For a couple of weeks now I've been scouting around for a new laptop. Christmas has come and gone, yet despite food being left out for reindeer and mince pies left in the hearth, there was no joy.

I guess he's got sloppy without any competition, or maybe that 'Spitting Image' video below was a wee bit close to the bone for him. Either way, in time-honoured fashion, to get something done properly I had to do it myself. And so it was that I could be seen emerging from one of Princes Street's myriad consumer electronics emporia late this afternoon as the proud owner of a dinky little Samsung netbook.

First of all, let me blow a resounding raspberry at PC World, who are still selling this particular model at the same price in their sale as they were before, despite most retailers having cut almost £20 off the price overnight. These computers can also be obtained free if you take out a 3G mobile broadband contract at the same time. A fantastic deal for someone, which left me cursing the fact that I already have such a long-term contract in place. See being an early adopter? Harumph....

There's actually not a lot that's wrong with my old IBM laptop. I've had it for about 3 and a half years now and it's still going pretty well. Unlike flashier contemporaries, it never claimed to 'do' multimedia (it's a laptop, for crying out loud – your 'multimedia experience' is going to be through a set of headphones on a train). Instead, it came built like a tank and eschewed all but the most essential features, which is probably why IBM and now Lenovo laptops remain so popular with corporate IT departments worldwide.

Kitted out in angular, Kevlar-like black plastic in a design which never changes from year to year, they just seem to say, in the most understated way possible, that serious people doing serious work don't mess about. Now, I've got a spreadsheet to update - what was it that you were trying to get your flabby and tarnished lump of overpriced, gaudilly-coloured plastic to do again?

Anyway, thanks to the costs of replacing a dud battery holding less than 10 minutes charge (nearly £100 by the looks of things), the IBM laptop has been relegated to home duties only, where it will stay plugged into a big monitor, a full sized keyboard and, of course, the mains electricity supply. Instead, that £100 has been put towards the new netbook, which at just over 1kg and with a screen size of 10”, is a considerably smaller beast, even though it is every bit as powerful.

What tipped the balance for me was the growing realisation that despite being a portable computer, the IBM wasn't, well, very portable. Combined with the bag and the power supply, it was adding about 5kg to my luggage every time I went somewhere (that was enough for Easyjet to sting me for £25 in excess baggage once!). Humphing it around airports and railway stations when combined with a case on wheels took some doing. My mobile phone can deal with most things valiantly, but sometimes, it's a computer you need and nothing else will do. In the end, the idea of having something smaller and lighter for those occasions when I was out on the road began to take on an obvious appeal.

So, I've now got a remarkably well-spec'ed little machine, with enough USB ports to keep me going, a network port (a seriously underrated feature), a surprisingly good keyboard, a lightweight power-pack (v. important), no annoying sticky-out bits when you want to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and best of all, a battery which lasts for about 6 hours on a full charge.

There's no fancy speakers or DVD drive to weigh it down (when did you last use yours, anyway?), and while the screen is much smaller than what I'm used to, it's perfectly adequate for everything I'm likely to ever want to do on it. I've also managed to avoid the deadweight that is Microsoft Vista, getting one which runs the perfectly adequate (for a laptop) XP. Thanks to the wealth of free software there is out there, like Firefox and the superb OpenOffice suite, there isn't another piece of expensive Microsoft software on it. Cha-ching!

After all, what is it that most of us want a laptop for? If it's to download movies or do some serious filesharing (legally, of course), then you'd be better off with something else entirely. If it's to pose at your local Starbucks, then you've probably already bought a Mac or a Sony Vaio. If, on the other hand, you're like me and only want to surf the web, check your emails and do some simple word processing or number-crunching when you're out and about, then you can jettison most of the features. Just give me a good battery, a fast processor, a decent keyboard, ease of connection to the outside world and I'll be perfectly happy with that.

It's amazing what can be achieved when manufacturers stop trying to get laptops to be desktops, and just concentrate on the basic functionality which people need when they're on the move. My traveling, like my bank account, just got a little bit lighter.


Bill said...

Well done. I got two of these netbooks a couple of months back, both Asus Eee PCs, partly for their extreme portability and for their very decent battery life, but also very largely because they allowed me to escape from Vista, which is what I had on my latest laptop, quite a portable machine itself (with a 12" screen) and fairly decent battery life, but Vista was just too awful.

Anyway, my new netbooks both have 10" screens, one uses XP and has an 80GB hard drive, the other uses Linux and has a 40GB flash drive, with a further 20GB available online via the Asus 'cloud'. The flash drive means that this machine is more than usually robust and less likely to be damaged by being knocked about. With both machines I also use a 16GB SD flash card so this gives me extreme flexibility with data storage - and built-in back-up. I've lost count of the number of times I lost valuable data with my Vista machine, not to mention expensive software downloaded online which couldn't be replaced without paying again.

The screens are excellent on my Asus machines and whilst the small screen means they are not suitable for certain tasks, most ordinary uses are well catered for and they are VERY portable and the power transformer/charger is very small and light, too. I always use a USB optical mouse, as I find it awkward to use the built in mousepad on any laptop/netbook, but with a mini-mouse that adds only a few ounces of weight.

And these machines are very cheap, so if/when I need to replace one of them it will be at relatively minor cost.

Richard Thomson said...

The Asus, along with the MSI Wind, was on my list. In the end, the availability of 'there and then', alongside the high capacity battery were what swung it for the Samsung.

I did consider Linux, and actually didn't discount it at any point. My main interactions with the outside world are all using software (like OpenOffice) which is perfectly compatible with MS Office. As such, it wouldn't have been a big deal. Maybe I'll go down that route in future if it will let the machine run a little faster.

Must say, I'm loving having a PC no bigger or heavier than your average hardback book. Modern 'laptops' are a bit of a misnomer - they seem now to be home desktops for people without a physical desktop. I'll be able to fit this on an airline tray, not take up most of the table on a train or indeed care if there's a power outlet available or not.

I haven't been this keen on a gadget since I got my late, lamented Palmpilot Vx and fold-up keyboard :-)

Stuart Winton said...

I've got a bit of a compromise - an Acer with a 12" screen, but reasonably specced, thus it's very portable but I can use it as a desktop replacement - just!

I bought that almost a year ago, but now sort of wish I'd bought a very cheap normally-sized laptop or desktop and a cheap netbook.

Stephen said...

I think I spend an inordinate amount of time messing with my laptop but I do that because it's a tool I spend a great deal of my life sitting in front of.

Personally I agree with your basic requirements - I have a big desktop computer at my desk at home which manages to carry out all my media and gaming needs and, actually, having a computer that doesn't let you go out and shoot aliens stops you getting distracted while you work. I think I would rather have a slower processor and a better keyboard if I had to make the choice for a work machine. Personally, as long as it's still fast enough to draw the windows I need to type in I would forgive it not being a speed demon. I would be much slower to forgive it for having a dodgy keyboard that I have to hammer on for hours a day.

Having more than one computer immediately creates issues about keeping the data on each computer synchronised and that's a genuine headache. Personally the high capacity USB stick does for most things but it's rather unwieldy when all the systems have built in hard drives.