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Nokia's Booklet 3G did not capture as much of the netbook market as hoped. (nokia)
Nokia's Booklet 3G did not capture as much of the netbook market as hoped. (nokia)

Mobile tech

Netbooks find niche in business world Add to ...

Where traditional laptops have become commonplace enough to elicit yawns, a shiny new netbook can still garner covetous looks. Let's face it - they're cute. And, unlike some of their predecessors in the small-notebook realm, they're also functional.

What is a netbook? According to Intel, which popularized the term as we know it now, a netbook is a small and affordable mobile device for basic tasks such as Internet browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, online photos or streaming videos or music. A netbook is typically powered by an Intel Atom processor (although small notebook computers with other processors that otherwise match the spec are also known as netbooks), and has a screen ranging from 7 inches to 10.2 inches. It's meant to be a compact, lightweight (often less than 1.3 kg) Internet companion device to a standard PC.

"Companion" is the operative word here. In fact, only a masochist would use a netbook as a primary machine, says independent analyst Carmi Levy. Keyboards are less than full size, displays are smaller, and machines have no integrated optical drive.

To keep weight and power consumption down, many offer optional solid state drives (SSDs), which use RAM (memory chip) technology rather than spinning hard disks for storage. This is a mixed blessing, since SSDs are much faster than hard drives, but have lower capacity and are much more expensive.

How much more expensive? Here's one example: a Dell Latitude 2110 with 64-gigabyte SSD lists for $927 with 1 GB memory on the Dell Canada site; the identical machine with a standard 160 GB hard drive costs $737.

Here's another reason to regard a netbook as merely a supplementary machine: While it may be able to cope with a simple spreadsheet, complex calculations will likely proceed at the speed of glaciation.

The Atom processor's performance continues to improve - this year's models are perkier than last year's and Intel has announced even more powerful versions of the Atom that will arrive before the holiday season - but users must still be aware that these processors are not designed for heavy-duty work.

Additionally, netbooks tend to be sold with only 1 GB of memory, and can accept a maximum of 2 GB. The base is enough to run Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter Edition, the two operating systems frequently pre-installed; to run "full" Windows 7 Professional adequately, 2 GB makes more sense.

Despite these restrictions, netbooks enjoyed strong growth last year, although, according to market research company IDC Canada, sales were down by 100,000 units in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the fourth quarter of 2009. However, notes Tim Brunt, senior analyst for personal computing at IDC Canada, "The sharp decline in mini-notebook shipments in the first quarter could be an early indication of shifting trends in the consumer segment."

Netbooks haven't yet found much of a place in business, however. They tend to be difficult to manage without the "pro" versions of the operating system, says Brian Bourne, president of Toronto-based CMS Consulting. "No one wants unmanaged devices on their network."

"Netbooks also suffer from OS envy - namely they're typically not powerful enough to run the latest, full-blown version of Windows. Most netbooks run a stripped down version of Windows 7, known as Starter Edition, or the geriatric XP," he notes.

But he also points out that there is another option for the technically inclined. "A small number of netbooks are available from the factory with Linux pre-installed, and you can always download a free distribution of Linux for an existing netbook," he says, adding the caveat, "While this may work for the technically adventurous, this is hardly an option for the majority of mainstream businesses that lack the geek cred to comfortably integrate Linux-based software and training into their day-to-day operations."

Vendors eager to get into the corporate marketplace are aware of these concerns and are increasingly shipping netbooks targeting businesses with Windows XP Professional or Windows 7 Professional.

For the extremely mobile, netbooks can be invaluable. A salesperson on the road may not need the power of a full-sized laptop to perform job functions, or want to carry the weight. A small, connected device that can handle basic PC tasks such as e-mail and Web access may be all that's necessary.

"Netbooks serve a valuable and worthwhile role as inexpensive complements to existing full-powered laptops and desktops," Mr. Levy says.

Some telecom companies, such as Rogers Communications, are taking advantage of this need, installing cellular modems in netbooks and offering them at a discount (or even free) with the purchase of a three-year data plan.

Cuteness aside, netbooks aren't for everyone, but they do have a place in business, says Mr. Levy.

"Adding a few shared netbooks into the mix can give any company a collaborative boost without much impact on the budget. Buyers simply have to go into the process with their eyes open, as these are not simply cheap, small laptops."

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