The Netbook Experiment

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This week I had the opportunity to spend a few days driving a Dell Mini 9 OS X enabled netbook. For the uninitiated, Netbooks are those tiny computers you see people pull out of their pockets in airports and places that sale lots of expensive coffee. Like the MacBook Air, these computers give up power for portability. Unlike the MacBook Air, these computers focus on small footprint over the Air's emphasis on thin.

Anyway, although you are not supposed to be able to run OS X on one, hackers have been doing it for awhile. There are plenty of online tutorials explaining how to do this and some enterprising folks are selling them online. So I was loaned a Dell Mini 9 and gave it a try. I really did.

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The netbook phenomena is all about compromises. That starts with computing power. Most of them are based on the single core Intel Atom processor. This is fine for web browsing, e-mail, and word processing, but that is about it.

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Additionally the footprint is so small that the manufacturers are required to scrunch the keyboard together. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, the keyboard is quite small. Typing on it, I experienced a noticeable slow down in typing speed and accuracy hit. More importantly, after using it for 45 minutes, I felt my hands cramping. There is a reason the only person pictured typing on one of these at Dell's site looks to be about ten years old.

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The screen was equally inadequate. The backlight was nothing close to the LED screen on my MacBook Air. Likewise the screen resolution of 1024 x 600 runs out of pixels very quickly.

The build quality was also unsatisfactory. The plastic case was hardly rigid and the battery actually wiggled when I carried it.

Of course there were some good points about the Dell. It was my first experience with loading an OS from an SSD drive and I liked it. The read speeds were faster than my existing hard drive while the write speeds were a bit slower. The battery life was excellent and the variety of ports and connectors was nice.

This post ignores the question of whether it is legal to run OS X on non-Apple hardware. Apple certainly doesn't think so. Either way, I wouldn't be surprised if you found upgrading these OS X netbooks to include additional steps and headaches.

Steve Jobs explained that Apple hasn't entered the netbook space because it refuses to make a computer that is "a piece of junk." Honestly, that was my impression of the Dell Mini 9. The small keyboard and screen got in the way of any productive computing. It isn't that much more money to just buy the low end MacBook or, if your budget is tight, a used MacBook. If you've already got a nice MacBook, I'd suggest that rather than buying an inadequate netbook, getting a theft and damage insurance policy on your existing Mac so you aren't so afraid to carry it around. I have one on my MacBook Air that costs me $100 a year and gets me a full replacement in the event of a catastrphe.

For the record, I get the point of netbooks. I understand they are not supposed to be the best computers. They are just supposed to be cheap and small and (for lack of a better term) disposable. I also get that it is entirely unfair to compare a Dell Mini 9 to an Apple laptop that is (at least) twice the cost. I know several Mac geeks and road warrior types who love their netbooks but in the end, I want no part of it. I think Apple will eventually get into the space but from an entirely different angle. Hopefully a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard. We'll see.