Netbooks Need A Little More Work
I wanted to like the netbooks I tried out for today's column, I really did. But even if I'm spending "just" $300 or $400, I don't want to feel obligated to discard touch-typing habits I learned in high school just because a laptop designer wouldn't follow lessons that the rest of the world learned 25 years ago.
Or, to put this in another way, you can fix a bad software bundle, but you can't do anything about a bad keyboard unless you're really good with a soldering iron.
So I found myself recommending Acer's Aspire One netbook, even though other netbooks offered more expansion options and a wider choice of software. At least I could use this out of the box.
I had thought at first that Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 would get a thumbs-up instead. It runs Ubuntu Linux -- easily the best consumer version of that open-source operating system -- it looks sharp and it comes at a reasonable starting price. But I just can't get around that awful keyboard. It bothers me that Dell put such a flawed layout into production, and that it made the problem worse by leaving this keyboard surrounded by half an inch of plastic on either side (the company should have followed the example of the Acer or HP's otherwise flawed Mini-Note and let the keyboard span the full width of the computer).
Equally perplexing: Lenovo's botched keyboard on the S10. Shouldn't the people behind the ThinkPad series know how to do that kind of thing right?
The other netbooks had less surprising failings. The Asus Eee PC 900 showed few signs that the company learned much from the model I tried out in January -- if anything, the company has gone downhill since then, shipping a perplexing variety of Eee models while adding new flaws to its Linux interface (like, for instance, the "Eee Download" software site that doesn't actually provide software downloads that work on the Eee). And the MSI Wind had a bizarrely misconfigured copy of Windows XP (though at least its keyboard wasn't atrocious like everybody else's!).
All these obvious design flaws (to add yet another to the list, Acer, Lenovo and MSI need to explain why their power bricks, at 10 ozs., 11.5 ozs. and 11.75 ozs., weigh almost twice as much as the Dell's 6.6-oz. AC adapter) did at least solve of one complication of this review. That was the two radically different audiences for netbooks: those who use them as their sole computer for nothing but Web access, and those who employ them as a third or fourth computer for a variety of uses. I couldn't recommend most of these netbooks for either scenario.
Should I have tried out a different netbook? Or have you found that adapting to the flaws of one of those five I reviewed was worth the trouble? Let me know in the comments -- or in my Web chat today, starting at 2 p.m.
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