On netbooks, TouchBook, Mac tablet, Macbook Mini, and a Mac user switching to Windows (for the netbook only)

Apple has a large gap in their hardware line-up. Between the iPhone and Macbook is a massive hole that they may or may not decide to fill with a tablet/netbook/ultra-portable. There are many reasons, theories, and opinions on whether they should or shouldn’t attempt to fill the void. More on this later.

With today’s economy, more and more people are turning toward the use of ‘netbooks’ – ultra-portable, generally slower, more economical laptops. Even without the economy in shambles, many people (myself included) are interested in using them simply for battery life and portability.

And coincidentally, for work-related reasons, I’ve found myself needing to gain more experience in the Windows world once again. From 1994-2004 I primarily was a Windows user. However, as I’ve mentioned in many posts, I’ve grown much more fond of the Mac platform for a variety of reasons that I won’t ramble on about in this post. I realize BootCamp and Parallels are two excellent options for using Windows on a Mac, but that still doesn’t resolve the portability and battery life factor.

I use MacBook Pro as my primary home computer, Novita has a MacBook, and I use an iMac at work. Obviously, it’s a tough transition to move back to Windows, even for only a portion of my work life. I’m seeking as many open-source, multi-platform apps as possible to make this less painful and to maintain productivity.

After thorough research into netbooks/ultra-portable notebooks, I settled on the 10″ screen form factor. 7″-8.9″ seemed just too small, if not for the screen, then because of the keyboard. I have larger hands and the smaller netbooks that I tried were just too cramped. I found 10″ to be portable and with great battery life in general. The 12″ were still quite nice, but were already moving up into the realm of Macbook territory in regard to less portability. I did, however, settle on a few 10″ netbooks.

My initial choices (in order of interest):

Some of the other netbooks had only 3 cell batteries – 2 or 3 hour battery life isn’t acceptable for a netbook’s purpose in my opinion. I was shooting for 4 hours minimum under reasonable usage. These four all had decent reviews, all were acceptable in design, weight, and features. In fact, at this level, there’s not really many striking differences amongst them. Most have:

  • 10″ LCD
  • 6-9 cell battery
  • 1.6GHz Atom processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 160GB hard drive
  • Windows XP

There are some slight differences, including a claimed 9 hours battery life with the Asus!? I toyed with the idea of throwing OSX on one of these little guys, and tinkered with thoughts of the Dell Mini 9 for that purpose. However, at the end of the day, it’s not a priority at this time. I’m still waiting (hoping!) to see what Apple comes out with before the end of the year.

Once I started playing with these models hands-on, I was drawn much more to a model not on my list – the ASUS N10J. It has similar specs to the others, and yet manages to trump them with a 256MB nVidia discrete graphics chip, an express card, and HDMI. A surprising feature is the onboard integrated graphics that allows you to switch between the GPU or integrated graphics for extra battery life. Gaming on a netbook? Impressive!

While not as sleek as a MacBook Air, I found the design to be less toy-like compared to some of the others I checked out. It’s definitely not as slim or lightweight as some, but the overall design is still quite compact and lightweight. I immediately threw in another gig of RAM to bring the total to a more comfortable 2GB. With Xp already locked and loaded, it was ready to go after slapping down my credit card to the tune of $650.

Now, I won’t lie – I love OSX and it’s not easy to pick up a netbook with XP and get to work like I can with my Mac. However, I’ve found that for basic tasks, email, web, and movies, it fits the bill quite well. The 5-7 hour battery life certainly doesn’t hurt either. It picks up wireless signals stronger than my MBP, and with the express card slot – can be mobile with 3G in no time. All in all, it’s proving to quite the little machine.


Jumping back to the Mac side of the conversation. I love my iPhone 3G. It’s far and away the best phone I’ve owned. All the hype is real – I don’t care about any of the elitist, status, etc side of things one bit – it’s about the actual usage and productivity that the iPhone allows. If I could get by with just that as a netbook, I would. Unfortunately, as it stands, I can’t fully get by without a proper keyboard and the memory limitations for work purposes – need to output to a projector, etc. It’s perfect for 60% of what I need to do on the go, and yet, I’d gladly shell out $799 for something that bridges that gap and allows me to be completely mobile, productive, and get through the day without a charge.

Hence the rant on Apple’s netbook gap. There exists a large hole for users (such as myself) that need the portability and lightweight practicality of the iPhone, and yet don’t wish to carry around a Macbook – or perhaps don’t need the power and cost of one for something on the go. I don’t enjoy carrying around a $2000+ Macbook Pro when all I need to do is some light work, emailing, and document creation. I want something I can toss in a bag and forget; something that will get 6+ hours of battery life, and yet will come in at under a grand. Taking the computer with you all the time dramatically increases the risk of damage and theft. I’d rather lose $800 than $2300.

Coincidentally, as I was creating this post, news broke of “Apple orders 10-inch touchscreens for mystery product” Apple has notoriously denied the netbook form factor as being of interest.

From AppleInsider:

“Asked about the sub-$500 netbook market, Cook answered, “We’re watching that space, but right now from our point of view, the products in there are principally based on hardware that’s much less powerful than we think customers want, software technology that is not good, cramped keyboards, small displays.”

Cook added, “We don’t think people will be pleased with those products. It’s a category we watch, we’ve got some ideas here, but right now we think the products are inferior and will not provide an experience to customers they’re happy with.”

However, historically, they did the same thing with the iPhone and iPod Touch, and look where we are today. “Steve Jobs says it again: no video iPod”

My guess?

I think they’ll do some sort of tablet design that will completely turn the industry on its head.  Think of something blurring the lines between an iPhone and Macbook. Something that may not use the traditional dock like OSX, but rather a combination of the iPhone navigation and Leopard (or Snow Leopard).  A device that does not cannibalize sales of either the iPhone nor the Macbook. Something that will interact with the hugely popular App Store. Something that may give the Kindle a run for its money.

One of the main problems with netbooks is the very small profit margin companies receive. Apple surely won’t try to compete with the $350-500 price range. They’ll offer something that is quite different from the rest, and the price will reflect that. I wouldn’t expect it to come in at under $600. I’d assume it would come in at around $799, give or take $100.

While people may think, “Why would Apple attempt to charge such prices in a category that offers products for half that cost – especially in a recession!?” Have you seen Apple stores recently? Most that I’ve frequented are constantly brimming with customers.

So, are we finally seeing the development of some sort of tablet, netbook, ‘Touchbook’, ‘Macbook Mini’…. or is it yet another round of speculation by Apple fanboys? Time will tell…

Until then, I’ll be dancing on both sides of the line.