Why I keep using my ‘obsolete’ netbook

Going digital these days: Netbook, Nook, laptop. The smartphone is being used to take the picture. There's still no room for an iPad here.

I love my electronic toys, so it stands to reason I’d be running over people in line to get an iPad or one of those tablet-type computers.

While this may change at some point (witness my heavy smartphone use after I’d decided I wasn’t interested in one), right now I’d have to say I can’t be bothered.

What’s not to love about tablet computers? They’re small, weigh next to nothing, and you can do many of the things that you can do on a real computer.

A few days ago a friend of mine, a musician, picked up a refurbished iPad for little bit of nothing. This is an aftermarket unit, about one or two versions behind the latest/greatest/what’s-hot-now. So far he likes it, but for him it’s a one-purpose device. He got it so he could download .pdf music charts for onstage use.

For me, though, a pad isn’t on my shopping list. I think I’ll stick with my netbook.

My what? Netbooks? Those things still exist? Aren’t those kind of … well, last decade?

For those who forgot, netbooks were a hot computer toy from a few years back. Basically, they’re a mini-laptop with a tiny screen, temperamental touchpad, a keyboard not designed for human hands, and barely enough power to defend themselves. They were cute, but extremely limited. Microsoft wasn’t really sure what to do with them — keep XP alive or release a crippled mini version of Windows 7 just for those devices. Linux became a go-to operating system for many of these netbooks because Microsoft wasn’t quite on top of the game there.

To listen to the trend-watchers, netbooks were merely a transitional piece of equipment. They held the mini-computer spot just long enough for The Next Big Thing to evolve. If you believe what you read, the iPad killed the netbook.

Here’s a catch, though. Tablet computers are great at consuming Web content. As far as producing it, though, they’re not in the ballpark yet. Shoot, they’re not even in the city where the ballpark is.

With a pad, you can surf all your favorite sites and maybe compose a few lines of text — enough for a tweet or a Facebook status update. But if you wish to kick out your daily 1,500 words you might as well stick to your desktop or laptop.

Or netbook.

Have you tried typing on a pad yet? I mean extended typing, like a few thousand words at a stretch? I haven’t, and I’m not really looking to try.

My experience with pad-type devices is limited to my Android phone, which doesn’t count. It does have the default on-screen keyboard, but let’s extend that a little bit. An iPad onscreen keyboard is bigger than a smartphone keyboard, but still much smaller than the one on a netbook. And what’s this typing-on-glass thing?

I like to feel something move when I type. I don’t bother to look at the keys half the time, so on a pad I’m never sure if I hit the right virtual key until I see the results on the screen. Sure, you can set the keyboard to vibrate under your fingers when you hit the virtual keys, but that’s not the same thing. Not even close. Plus, I’ve discovered I hate a grubby screen. There’s just something about it that bugs me, and I’d feel the need to wipe it off every few keystrokes. Ych!

When I picked up my smartphone, I made sure it was one with a slide-out keyboard. It’s small, but the keys move and I can feel when I’m on an actual key. I’m OK when it comes to thumb typing, though I’ll never be as fast or accurate as when I’m using a real keyboard with the keys that go up and down.

To me, typing on a screen is akin to the story of jazz pianist Bud Powell drawing a full-sized keyboard on a wall with chalk when he was incarcerated and practicing on that. You’d need a really fertile imagination — the kind that only comes from long periods of isolation — to make that work.

A netbook keyboard is almost too small if you touch-type, and it’s still a lot bigger than an iPad or Android pad keyboard. It took me a while to get used to it, and when I move to my desktop keyboard later it still takes me a couple minutes of adjustment. I really can’t see using a printed keyboard with adult-sized hands.

I’ve checked all over Android’s tools and have yet to find a decent text editor for writing. There are a couple that are OK; Jota+ is probably my favorite of the bunch. But when you’re used to an industrial-strength text editor (Vim or emacs) or a heavy-duty word processor, it’s a rather poor imitation.

I reckon I can plug a real keyboard into a smartphone or tablet, or use Bluetooth to link the devices. But somehow the idea of toting around both a ‘pad and keyboard seems self-defeating when you’re on the go. Might as well stick with the netbook than do that.

So the whole thing works like this: If you’re a passive receptor of Internet goodies, a pad is great. If you’re an active creator, a netbook or laptop is much better.

A friend of mine recently picked up a netbook with an Android system loaded in, and she loves it. The unit is about the same size as my Acer Aspire One, and it has both a touch screen and keyboard. It’s not as portable as a tablet computer, but it has a keyboard. Shoot, it’s got everything an Android pad has, and you can actually write on the durned thing.

But there’s no reason you can’t make your netbook into a hybrid of sorts. There’s a version of Android that you can allegedly run on your netbook, and I tried it out the other day. It works, kinda sorta, but the user interface is all phone. You can use the mouse to mimic the touchscreen aspects, but it doesn’t always translate very well. The display also has this tendency to flip over sideways for no particular reason. With some functions it keeps asking for a memory card, completely forgetting there’s a whole hard drive right there. It’s a nice toy, but you’re better off taking a lightweight Linux distribution (Puppy Linux, Bodhi, or a stripped-down Debian) and going with that on your netbook.

Especially if you want to actually create something.

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