When I left Microsoft I switched to a Macbook Pro and didn’t look back. I never thought that I would use a Windows machine regularly again. Then I got an Asus Eee PC 1000h (10.2 in screen, 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 Processor, upgraded to 2GB RAM; I judge it to be on the larger end of a netbook). For three weeks it was my sole computer. It runs XP and that is just fine for what I expect from a netbook.
How is the netbook different? It is a secondary machine that knows its place. It is not as powerful as my Macbook nor is the workspace as big; I am definitely less efficient on it. I got it for its size and price. The 10 inch screen (1024×600 resolution) is fine for most work. The weight (3.2 lbs) is a relief for a traveller. And ringing in under $350 (with discounts and Live Cashback) it is an affordable luxury. In fact the price makes it almost disposable. Not disposable in a throw-away fashion, but in a if it gets stolen, lost or ruined while I am on the road it will not be the end of the world or a costly item to replace. It’s a machine that I can throw in my backpack when I go out for the day and not worry too much.
During my three week of travels I used the machine primarily for browsing the web, answering email, managing photos and watching video. It has a tiny screen, but I sought software that left as much room as possible in the workspace. Chrome, for example, takes up very little screen space with toolbars. I switched from the clunky Zimbra Desktop client to Windows Live Mail (a really well-designed mail client if you can overlook the lack of smart folders and a couple of quirks).
My other major criteria for software was the ability to sync off the machine. Other than when managing media I tried to never save directly to the file-system and only to the web. The netbook will never be my main machine and I do not want to “forget” a file on it. I relied on Evernote to record my notes and save them to the cloud.
This is not to say that I didn’t find the computer limiting. I was unable to install Valve’s Portal (most likely due to the integrated graphics card) and video occasionally stuttered on the machine. I try to keep a minimum number of apps open to prevent the machine from slowing down.
Instead of XP I could run a Linux variety or Mac OS X. I do dual-boot with Ubuntu-eee, but it is not my primary OS. As you can see in the screesnhot it is very icon heavy and does a good job of being user-friendly. However, the OS lacks the client software that I need (no Chrome or Evernote client). Soon there will be another Ubuntu designed specifically for netbooks. According to Techcrunch Tariq Krim is developing Jolicloud, but without more information I am not certain how it is different from Ubuntu-eee – based on screenshots they look very similar.
I ultimately chose XP because it stays out of the way, it has the software I want and it lets me get the job done. I am not sure that it will keep me. Chrome will be coming out on Linux. Evernote (and other clients) could opt to develop across all platforms. New netbook-oriented OSs are going to be designed with a netbook’s characteristics in mind.
(It’s being reported that Dell will start penalizing users for selecting XP over Vista to the tune of an extra $150. It’s interesting to note that Dell does not offer Vista as an option for the Dell Mini, its netbook offering.)
(Ubuntu-eee screenshot courtesy of ubuntu-eee.com)
Update: In the comments Corey Burger provided some interesting information on Ubuntu-eee:
The icon-heavy launcher is built by Canonical and is called the netbook-remix-launcher or ubuntu-mobile-edition launcher, depending. Ubuntu-eee is basically just that plus a few tweaks. Coming with Ubuntu 9.04 will be official images/isos for all sorts of netbooks.