Netbooks that are worth lusting after
Several years ago, an intern at my former workplace had an impressive bulge in his pants. When he stuck his hand into his pocket to whip it out, I had to know: “Is that a Jornada 720?”
When it came on the market in 2000, this pint-size laptop from Hewlett-Packard was worth lusting after. But the US$999 price tag dampened my enthusiasm.
The Jornada was one of the first netbooks available, although at the time they weren’t marketed as such. These mini notebooks were overrun by the PalmPilot, Compaq’s iPaq, and the Sony Clié during an era when the personal digital assistant ruled and the average laptop weighed 10 pounds.
Although the Jornada was discontinued after a few years, some fanatics still have them and yearn for ways to modify them with USB drives. The Jornada was a remarkable mini computer, but it failed the market test because it was too bulky to be a personal organizer and too small to replace a laptop.
At the time, most users weren’t into laptops that were small and compact. But that’s changed, and the biggest trend in computing hardware over the last year or two has been smaller and smaller laptops.
The shift actually began in Asia years earlier. According to Paul Ip, owner of New Type Computer Workshop in Yaletown, Toshiba and Sony have long sold compact laptops to buyers in Asia. Western consumers have been slower to jump on the bandwagon. Now, even though sales of notebooks have fallen since the economic downturn began, netbook sales are rising.
A consumer survey published in January by PriceGrabber.com gave one reason for this. Most buyers of netbooks see them as a complement to their desktop and laptop computers, a new niche in computer sales.
Today’s netbooks typically cost less than larger notebooks. According to the professional-services firm Deloitte, a netbook is a lightweight laptop with a screen no wider than 10 inches, a low-powered processor, and built-in wireless connectivity.
Ip said the first buyers of netbooks were parents. “They were buying them as second computers for their kids because they were worried about infecting their main computer [with viruses],” he said. “What you get is a good word processor with Internet capability.” You can forget about netbooks if you need a computer for graphics, gaming, or programming.
In 2008, the Asus Eee PC became one of the first netbooks to be mass-marketed in North America, followed by the Acer Aspire One. Both are available for under $400, and are light and inexpensive enough to cart around. I tried both and found them to be fairly functional and fast enough for surfing. But they felt cheap and flimsy.
Opting to spend about $100 more, I purchased an HP 2133 Mini-Note PC about six months ago. The sturdy HP hasn’t replaced the Sony Vaio PCG-4E3P notebook I’ve had for two years and use as my main personal computer, but it is fun to use.
I’ve also had a Sony Vaio UX 280 Micro PC for two-and-a-half years, (I bought it used off Craigslist, like my PCG-4E3P). The UX 280 is a tablet PC that has the full functionality of a laptop but is meant to be held in your hands while you use it. The cursor is controlled by your right thumb and you type on the slide-out keyboard with your thumbs. It sold for over $2,000 when it appeared a few years ago, but despite the hype, such ultramobile PCs never found a broad audience; Sony Canada no longer sells the model.
Sony is shifting its focus in the compact-notebook market to its Vaio P Series Pocket-Style PC, which became available in January. At $999.99, a P Series computer is not a netbook, insists Sony Canada spokesperson Candice Hayman, and it’s not cheap, either. The P Series, weighing in at 1.5 pounds and about as thick as a BlackBerry, is being marketed to women, according to Hayman.
The bearable lightness of the P Series makes it very attractive. It is nearly half the weight of the HP 2133 and just a fraction heavier than the 1.2-pound UX 280. The stylish computers are available in four colours.
Jacky Cheung, a physics student at UBC, had an Asus Eee PC but sold it to buy a P Series instead. At more than twice the price, he said, the Sony outperformed the Asus and came with a longer-lasting battery and a better screen and keyboard.
“The price tag of the P Series is quite high, and when I think about it, it defeats the purpose of having a cheap laptop to bring with you everywhere so you don’t have to worry about losing it or anything,” Cheung said. “But it looks great, and there’s a cool factor about such a tiny machine. Anyone who loves technology always thinks about the day when you can fit a computer into your pocket.”