Netbooks: Bring Out Your Dead!

And now for something completely geeky…

I have been jonesing for a new computer ever since I graduated from law school.  I felt a need for something, well, “cool.”  It would have to be small and light and reasoinably powerful.  Something I could just pull out of my bag when meeting with a client and start working on.  But I lacked the coin.

Then something amazing happened–I began a netbook revival project, and I couldn’t be happier.

Netbooks.  Remember netbooks?  These were small, some would say under-powered computers that were widely available nearly everywhere a couple of years ago.  WalMart.  Target.  Any office-supply store.  Some grocery stores!  Screen sizes ran from 9″ to just under 12″ (10.1 was typical), they were mostly powered by an Intel Atom CPU, and ran Windows 7 Basic.

They were wildly popular for a while–until Apple killed the netbook market by introducing the iPad.  You can still get netbooks, but they’re harder to find.

I bought a netbook in my last year of law school.  I didn’t want it for taking notes so much as for a portable LEXIS/Westlaw terminal, for checking my email, and so forth.  It worked well.  Being a geek, I upgraded it to 2GB of RAM (from the market standard 1GB) and installed Windows 7 Ultimate on it.  That latter, I didn’t need to do but, hey, I had a license.  I also installed full-up Office 2010.  I had a spare license, OK?

It turned out I used that little machine quite a lot.  One of its most appealing features was an LED backlit screen, which was very bright and clear.  Its battery life was amazing.    And it was quiet, the fan running very seldom and the hard drive accounting for most of the noise.

Sidenote:  The first computer I bought, a Kaypro (see elsewhere) didn’t have a fan.  For years, whenever I was in a place that sold computers, you would see me checking the back of the boxes to see how loud the fans were.  I bought an expensive power supply once from a place called PC Power & Cooling because it was quiet.  When I’m working, I don’t really want a jet enginge in front of me.

Oh, and it was small and light.  Not quite there with the MacBook Air, but pretty good. And it cost about 25% of the MBA Apple Tax.

Lots of people felt the same way–netbooks (most of which were made by Acer, including mine) showed up as the note-taking devices of choice in my last year.

But.  I couldn’t justify to myself having two portable computers (especially since I hardly ever ported them anymore), and so after I graduated, and my 17-year-old son managed to kill his computer by dropping it off his bed (it was an older Dell he had bought cheap; he liked to cruise the web before falling asleep) I gave him my little Acer as a replacement.  Last fall, he took it off to college in Chicago.  And it served him well.

Then, sometime just before finals week, he did the same thing to the netbook that he had done with his previous machine.  He killed it by flipping it off his bed.  He called in a panic, explaining that it just wouldn’t boot anymore and that he was going to buy a replacement computer immediately since finals were coming up and exams and papers were due and he could try to grab his work off the school network email account and he could get a really good machine and…

So he did.  And the little machine returned to me, since I figured at worst I could strip some parts out of it and sell them, or maybe only the disk drive was bad.  So when it arrived last week, I pulled it out of the USPS package, and turned it on–expecting to hear an awful grinding sound from the HDD.  It was silent as it sat on the table…the Acer start screen came up, and then, wonder of wonders, Windows loaded.  It worked.

My clue as to what went wrong was when I tried to enter a passord–the keyboard felt crunchy (it was then I recalled that he had spilled a can of soda into the keyboard some time before).  I think that when he tried to revive it after its gravity experience, he must have somehow stuck down numerous keys, and that these prevented the machine from getting past the bias screen.  Shipping unstuck them.  Aside from that, the machine was whole and functional.

So, crunchy keyboard and all, it’s what I’m using to write this posting.  And you know what?  It’s a pretty damned good little machine.  I’ve ordered a replacement keyboard (one thing you can say for Acer, the parts are cheap and easy to get) and a 64GB solid-state drive.  And this is going to be my main machine.

Sidenote:  When I was in grad school in the mid-’80s, I belonged to a Kaypro user group at the University of Chicago.  One evening, a guest brought a most impressive machine.  It was a CP/M computer  built for speed and reliability.  Built into a small box (most CP/M machines of the period used external terminals) was 128K of RAM, enough to run CP/M 2.2 or 3.0 or (as I recall was the case with this machine)  ZCPR3.  But in addition to the RAM, and a fast (8 Mhz) 8-bit processor, the box contained something like 1MB of hugely expensive SRAM.  This was its disk drive, and allowed that little computer to instantly access user files.  We were all drooling.  We knew about hard drives, but most of us were still condemned to floppies.  And this thing smoked hard drives.

That machine has never faded from my memory.  Someday, I knew, hard drives–those odd mechanical devices with an ever-spinning platter–would yield to solid state.  And now, they have.  Except that the solid state drive this little machine will have will be something like 64,000 times the size of the one in that CP/M box.

It’s still no tablet, but in many ways, it’s much better.  It has a full keyboard.  It can run just about any Windows program out there.   I can read books on it, thanks to the Kindle App.  And it can talk to the cloud, where I’m storing most everything these days.  It truly will be a “Net” book.

So, just as every time the price of gas goes up, I urge people to go find that bike they’ve had stored in their garage, I’m urging people now to go and find that netbook.  It’s probably somewhere near the video game systems and cordless house phones in that box of shame at the back of the closet.  Revive that netbook, and turn it into the ultimate small and light computer.  You may be glad you did.

PS:  I never did get around to publishing this…so here’s an update.  Both parts arrived on Saturday, but I had neglected to order the SSD with a data transfer kit, so…I had to mess around.  A lot.  With EaseUS partition manager, a SATA->USB drive enclosure that was currently occupied, and making a Win7 system restore USB Key at the last minute.  It was all a pain.  Let me emphasize the utility of having that Windows Restore USB key (or CD, if your machine has a CDROM drive).  Without it, I’d still be booting off a hard disk.

But the SSD and keyboard are both installed, the machine runs fine, and I’m happy with the world.  Perhaps a little surprisingly, the SSD doesn’t show a huge increase in the Windows “benchmark” score available in My Computer.  So it goes.  But the machine does seem snappier, and now absolutely the only sound it makes is from the fan.

I think the big thing for me is going to be portability without fear that the hard drive is getting ruined.  I know, I really know, that hard drives can take a lot of abuse, but deep in my heart I’m still thinking of them in terms of 1985 and the fragility they exhibited then.

Well, it’s done, and so is this post (at last)!

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