Well, I finally got a netbook computer, after months of shopping and research. The Asus Eee 1000HE seemed like the best choice, with its 10 inch screen, latest Intel Atom CPU, Bluetooth capability, 9.5-hour rated battery, and generous ports (although it does not come with an optical drive). There is also an external monitor port, which is nice, a built-in microphone and webcam, 10 Gb of free online storage, and Skype software. So far, I am very pleased with my choice; in fact, I am using it to write this post.

The keyboard is fairly comfortable at 92% of a standard keyboard size, although I do not think I could recommend typing an appellate brief on it. The SD Card port allows me to upload photos from my camera for viewing and storage, while the headset port allows me to use it to listen to my music. I have yet to try out the Bluetooth capability with my cell phone (post to follow), but that would be great for backing up my phone data, including the pictures I take with it. The battery is holding up well and so far holding up its promise on longevity, but only time will tell.

The point here is that, although it is not a replacement for your main machine, it is a great, all-purpose workhorse for many tasks on the road, including:

  • More effective out-of-office web browsing than a smart phone (although naturally not as portable);
  • Access to music and pictures;
  • PowerPoint presentations off-site;
  • Access to files from anywhere when they are on Asus’ online storage server;
  • More effective document editing than on a handheld device (although nothing that long term or involved); and
  • Video conference calls using Skype for VoIP.

The only criticism I have so far is that it did not come with a trial version of antivirus software to keep me safe until I can download and install something else. Also, I was hoping to be able to use a USB external CD-ROM drive I have for system recovery, but the rescue disk that came with the machine was a DVD. Oh well. I can still use it to install software from CDs.

The bottom line is that a mobile lawyer can certainly use this machine to be more effective while out of the office. It does not replace a full-blown laptop, but it does act as a smartphone on steroids. Asus is a good company that makes solid products, which are certainly worth a look.

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I have been posting a lot lately about netbooks, probably because I am shopping for one (will probably get an Asus model), and have been reading quite a bit about them online.   I like the idea of going back to basics with computing and using a machine that addresses your core needs and not adding a lot of features you may never use.   This helps us to do more with less, which means greater portability, longer battery life, and thus more efficiency on the road.  The netbook has been for awhile the antithesis of the PC hardware industry.  A quote I discussed here made a point that really says it all:

“For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did.”

In effect, the hardware manufacturers have been telling us what we need, rather than the other way around, in order to increase profits.  The netbook thus creates this much-needed responsiveness, and people have been buying them in droves.  You would think, then, that the hardware industry has finally “gotten it.”   However, this post on PCWorld’s blog shows that maybe they haven’t learned their lesson.

As the article points out, the lines are getting blurred.  Screens are getting bigger, video resolution is higher end, optical drives are being added, along with standard size keyboards.  Asus is adding a DVD drive and an LCD screen that supports 720p HD video for watching movies.  The price also reflects this: $531 and $590.  Hey, I thought netbooks were supposed to be cheap!  There seems to be some “feature creep” going on here to push the traditional netbook more high end.  As the article points out, “PC makers have long been conditioned to compete by continually adding new features whenever they are available.”

This appears to be an attempt to get buyers to spend more money for more machine than they may need, all to make more of a profit in a bad economy.  Anyone shopping for a netbook should keep a sharp eye on this and, when looking at one of these “netbooks on growth hormones,” ask themselves: for these features and these prices, am I better off just buying a more traditional laptop with a larger keyboard, better screen graphics, and more hard drive storage?  Keep your eyes focused on your needs, not what a manufacturer wants you to buy.

I am currently shopping for a netbook, which has me scanning blogs and web sites for advice on hardware and software features.  In this search I ran across a great post on Laptop Magazine‘s blog that set forth some very good pointers. although I do not agree with all of them.  As to hardware, they said:

  • RAM: Go for at least 1Gb.  I agree.  Many netbooks sport 512Mb, which may be all right for Linux, but definitely not enough for XP.  Even if you do get Linux, you will be thankful for the memory overhead;
  • Screen: Get a 10″ model, not the 8.9″.  If you are over 40, this is certainly good advice, if you want good screen readability.  Much larger than 10″, however, and you are defeating the purpose of getting a netbook;
  • Battery: Get a 6-cell battery, rather than a 3- or 4-cell one.  This can result in significantly longer battery life (4-6 hours rather than 2-3 hours), which is always a boost to the portability you are going for in a netbook; and
  • Hard Drive: The post espouses hard drives rather than solid state drives (SSDs) and ones with RPMs of 5,400 rather than 4,200.  This, they state, is because hard drives offer better write performance than SSDs.  As to the capacity of the drive, I would not look to get too much; less is better.  Remember, many people use netbooks for cloud computing with Google apps or other web-based solutions that do not result in much local storage. along with web browsing and e-mail.  Again, you are using this for work, which produces documents and spreadsheets that do not take up nearly the room of photos, video, or music (which are not the recommended use of netbooks).  In short: netbooks are not intended for a lot of local data storage or huge client applications.  Get the memory you need, but do not go overboard.

Where I really disagree with the post is on the issue of the operating system you choose.  They do warn you off Vista (which is good advice), but they steer you towards XP over Linux (which is not necessarily the best advice).  They mention software compatibility as a reason, but you must ask yourself this: if you are just using the netbook for e-mail and for web-based solutions, why is XP necessarily better?  Linux does the same thing with no compatibility issues (so you might have to learn to use Firefox, Opera, or Chrome rather than IE; big deal), and runs faster on the same hardware.  For most tasks, OpenOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office when Google Docs won’t do or you don’t have access to the Internet.

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I have posted several times before about how I see Linux entering the law office market, whether through big firms or through the back office (i.e. the servers).  However, it has become apparent in the past few months that there is another inroad developing that may fast-track the OS into the legal market.  This is the introduction and rise of the netbook.

More and more laptop users (and road warrior lawyers) have been discovering that they use their portable computers mainly for e-mail and web based applications.  Thus people have been buying netbooks as secondary machines in order to have lightweight, highly portable computers for travel (here is a great post on the development of the netbook that explains this phenomenon).  These netbooks often come with 512Mb to 1Gb of RAM, slower, more energy efficient microprocessors (Intel’s Atom for the most part), which means that the OS that runs on it must be lean and mean, a term seldom, if ever, applied to a Microsoft product.  In fact, Vista, if it does run on a netbook, runs poorly, and Redmond has, as a result, made XP available to hardware companies for another two years.

Linux, on the other hand, because it can do more with fewer resources, is really the better OS candidate for netbooks.  Also, because the machines are designed (and intended) to be used with web-based applications, they are more platform-independent, and thus do not run into the problems that Linux presents on the lawyer desktop (e.g. the lack of compatible verticle market apps like case management and bankruptcy software).   The lack of cost for Linux also keeps the overall price down for netbooks and can make them more attractive.

I have been using the open source Mozilla Firefox web browser for years now and have found it easy to learn and use, which also goes for their e-mail client, Thunderbird.  Google Docs and other web-based apps are already being used by many lawyers, and even if you need an offline solution, OpoenOffice is a great alternative that is easily downloaded and installed on the netbook (at least in the Ubuntu distribution, which is what is being installed on most Linux netbooks).  The learning curve is not steep at all, and the increasing usage of Linux netbooks by lawyers may well overcome the phobia to change and encourage them at least to consider using Linux on their office systems.  We can only hope.

I have been reading a lot about netbooks in the blogosphere recently both in terms of the “next big thing” in hardware and whether Windows 7 will cure Microsoft’s woes in the market.   For those of you yet unfamiliar with the term, a “netbook” is a laptop that is typically about 3-lb in weight, with a 9-inch screen, wireless Internet connectivity, an Intel chip, running either Linux or Windows XP, and at a cost of less than $400.   A netbook, unlike a notebook, is more suited for accessing web-based applications and cloud computing, rather than running complex or resource intensive applications directly from the netbook itself.  As a portable device, it is basically a smartphone on steroids.

This type of device can be very useful for the road warrior attorney who mainly needs to check e-mail, surf the web, access web-based applications like Google Docs, and the like.  It sure beats lugging a larger, heavier laptop through an airport!  The price is also so low that it makes sense to have one as an extra machine just for travel.  This is what makes it the “next big thing,” and certainly worth looking into if you travel quite a bit.

As for  Windows 7, netbooks present a bit of a quandary for Microsoft.  As mentioned above, these machines usually run either Linux (many manufacturers are using the Ubuntu distribution) or Windows XP.  This is because of the scaled down CPU (most use the Intel Atom chip), smaller RAM allocations (many have 512Mb to 1Gb), and smaller screens.   This is because these specs do not present enough resources for Vista, and even early beta testing on Windows 7 is showing it would not be a practical option as well.  This is one reason why Microsoft is continuing to license XP on lower end machines like netbooks.  Unfortunately, Microsoft can’t extend its support for XP indefinitely; it has to come out with a newer OS that will run on this hardware.

Redmond is apparently trying to find some middle ground on this through a proposed version of Windows 7 for netbooks, Windows 7 Starter edition.  The problem with this version is that it can only run up to 3 apps simultaneously!  At least one tech blog has claimed this to be a “fatal flaw” in the OS for netbooks, and uses it as another reason why Linux may well come out on top on these devices, since it is an OS that runs much leaner and meaner than Windows.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Microsoft will offer an upgrade to the Starter version that will not have this restriction, although no price has been set yet.  Even if the full version of Windows 7 would run effectively on a netbook, the upgrade cost would take away somewhat the inexpensive nature of the netbook option.  Linux proponents argue that this makes their OS a much more logical candidate for this hardware.  It is free (thus not impacting the overall cost of the machine and, if anything, lowering it) and is far more feature-rich than a stripped down version of Windows.

My overall recommendation is that if you are thinking about a netbook as an additional PC for travel, you should seriously consider one that runs Linux rather than Windows.   Since netbooks focus on web-centric app solutions that run within browsers, software compatibility is not an issue.  At worst you would have to learn your way around an open source browser like Firefox or e-mail client like Thunderbird.  Google apps would run just as well.  You would also get a more secure, stable OS.  Having been a user of Windows for close to 20 years, I found that using Linux was not all that difficult in a GUI environment.  You can always judge for yourself by getting a LiveCD (a self-contained version of Ubuntu Linux that runs from the CD when you boot the machine from it) and giving it a test drive.   I think you will find that Linux makes more sense for these devices.