Don’t Buy a Netbook. Ten Reasons Why

Right now netbooks are such a hot commodity–some 10 million of them shipped last year, according to the number crunchers at IDC—that I almost expect the word to burn a hole in my flat panel display as I write it.

Sure, the petite footprint coupled with the petite price makes netbooks irresistible. And if you’re a person who never met a tech trend you didn’t like, by all means netbooks are for you.

But if you tend to agonize over your tech purchases, here are a few considerations that may give you pause before opening your wallet to buy one of these mini-laptops.

1. Price

It’s undeniable that netbooks are cheap. You can buy one for as little as $250. That’s almost an impulse purchase (Radio Shack sells them for $50 if you sign a two-year mobile broadband deal with AT&T for $60 a month).

If you already have a laptop, though, a netbook isn’t going to give you anything you don’t already have and, in most cases, it will give you considerably less. From that perspective, the choice before you is not between buying a $250 netbook or a $400 notebook, but between spending $250 or $0 by standing pat with your existing hardware.

If you don’t have a laptop, the netbook is no substitute for one. Even netbook stalwarts admit that the boxes are designed to be “secondary” computers because what they do best is work “in the cloud” and they do not have the muscle to handle robust onboard applications.

Buying a new laptop, by the way, can actually be cheaper than buying some of the high-end netbooks. For example, a Dell Inspiron 15 notebook with Windows Vista, 2.16MHz Intel Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM sells for $399. By comparison, a Samsung NC20 netbook with Windows XP Home, an 800MHz processor and 1GB of RAM sells for around $550.

2. Performance

Notebooks are designed to do heavy lifting. Netbooks are not.

Netbook vendors argue that mini-notebooks have plenty of power for what they’re designed to do–surf the Net and check Web mail. But if that’s all you want to do, it might make more sense to buy a good smartphone.

The truth is, however, that netbooks are seen as computers, not appliances. That’s one of the reasons Microsoft’s share of netbook operating systems rose from zero to 96 percent so fast. People wanted their netbooks to behave like a computer and, for better or worse, for most people that means behaving like Windows.

Moreover, when it comes to computers, there’s a rule that’s as ironclad as Moore’s Law. The longer you have a computer, the more you want to do with it. If all your computer can do well is surf the Net and check e-mail, you’re going to be disappointed when you want to do something else and can’t do it.

Nevertheless, if limiting your computing life to Web noodling sounds like a good idea to you and you own a laptop, you can get it to emulate a netbook’s instant on and off capabilities for $20 with a program like Xandros Presto.

3. Display Size

Small screens get old in a hurry. When browsing the Web, they require lots of vertical scrolling. When displaying applications, menu and tool bars can so significantly reduce screen real estate that working in the program can feel like performing calisthenics in a phone booth.

4. Keyboard

Even if you’re not a touch typist, the keyboards in many netbooks can be irritating. That’s because keys aren’t where you expect them to be. Over time, you may be able to adjust to your netbook’s quirky keyboard layout. Not so with its down-sized keyboard. If you intend to do any significant amount of typing on the device, its keyboard will cramp your style as well as your hands.

5. Breakage

Mobility is a big selling point of netbooks. Problem is, in order to keep costs down, netbooks tend to be cheaply constructed. That means they’re not built to take the shocks and knocks endemic to travel. There are those who would argue, however, that totaling a $300 computer is far less traumatic than breaking a $1,000 notebook.

6. Cuteness

Because of their compact size, netbooks have a high cute factor.

Would-be buyers are advised to suppress this emotion when buying any computer. The appeal of cuteness fades fast when a computer doesn’t do what you want it to do when you want to do it.

7. Obsolescence

Netbooks aren’t even out of diapers yet, but there’s already talk about their disappearance as a product category by the end of the year. That’s because they’re being squeezed by smartphones at one end of the spectrum and falling notebook prices at the other end. Do you want to buy a computer that’s retro out of the box? Exercising patience, as difficult as that is when the buzz pitch reaches the levels it has with netbooks, may be in order here.

8. Confusion

Now that Microsoft has garnered the lion’s share of the netbook operating system market, the future of netbooks appears muddy.

Today you can buy a netbook that runs Windows XP, but in a few months, Windows 7, which will support netbooks, will be released. What the netbook version will look like is still uncertain. It may be a crippled release limited to running a maximum of three applications at one time.

Moreover, netbooks operating under Google’s Android operating system will begin appearing next year. With all this uncertainty surrounding the operating systems for these mini-notebooks, it might be best to see how things shake out before breaking your piggy bank for one.

9. Dark Cloud

Local applications? Who needs stinking local applications? If you think a netbook will free you from the tyranny of operating system-based programs, you may be surprised. Working in “the cloud” sounds heavenly, but the cloud lacks the consistent performance of a local application.

Network connections go down. Servers choke. And while local programs crash, you can always reboot them. You don’t have to sit in front of your screen wondering what’s going on.

10. Optical Absence

Netbooks don’t have built-in optical drives (although that may change soon). This won’t seem like much of problem to you until the first time you want to install a shrink-wrapped program, listen to a CD or watch a DVD movie on the device.

Outboard drives are available for some netbooks, but it can be aggravating lugging around an extra piece of hardware that takes up space and is something else to misplace while on the road.

John P. Mello Jr. has been writing about technology, business and gizmos for more than 20 years. You can follow his scribbling via Twitter.

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