When I first came to college, I had an old, but usable desktop computer (It
was a 2.8Ghz Pentium 4 running Windows XP). In contrast with most students,
who buy a whole new computer (usually a shiny new laptop), I decided I would
just buy a bigger hard drive, a new LCD monitor (I had a CRT at the time) and
that I would get a netbook. I figured that I could stand the small screen if I
were just typing notes and emails, and reading slides. I have since come to
the conclusion that I was initially wrong about netbooks.
For reference, my first netbook was one of the first to come out. It was an
Asus Eee 701. It had a 900Mhz processor that was under-clocked to around
600Mhz to save battery life. It has a 7" 800x600 screen and 512MB of RAM. The
problem with my it was that it did not have a lot of memory and it had a very
low screen resolution. So low, in fact, that it did not render most web pages
correctly. They were too big to fit on the screen without scrolling
horizontally. For some, it was obvious that the creator did not test it at
such a low resolution. Additionally, it only had a 2GB SSD in it, so I could
not install most operating systems on it. I put up with it for about a year
before I came across a good deal on a newer, Atom based netbook.
This new netbook is a Dell Inspiron Mini 9. It has a 1.6Ghz Atom processor,
2GB of RAM (upgraded from 1GB for $20), a 9" 1024x600 screen, and an 8GB SSD.
This computer turned out to be much more useful to me and I am still using it
into my senior year in college. It's drive is big enough to fit an OS and some
installed programs and it has an SD card slot where I can put a large card for
user data. While it may have enough to be useful, there are definitely a lot
of things that one can do to optimize a netbook. I have picked up quite a few
tricks while using it these past 3 years.
Why get a Netbook?
I will be among the first to admit that the implementation of netbooks that we
currently have is a little outdated now, particularly with the things that
smartphones can do now. Gizmodo wrote a post about why
netbooks are on their way out and I agree with them mostly. You
can buy a 11" or 13" computer for not much more money, so why would you want
to get a netbook? Well, if I were to buy a laptop now, it would not be a
netbook, but back when I first bought one, the cost difference was enough. I
guess the point is, there are a (albeit small) set of people for whom a
netbook is an appropriate computing device. These people need a way to
optimize the resources that are available to them.
So why get a netbook? Netbooks excel in a couple regards-- they are cheap,
light, and small. All of the ones that I have owned have also had exceptional
battery life. There are, of course, trade offs made for these features--
screen size, keyboard size and sometimes arrangement, processing power. The
tips in this post will focus on minimizing the negatives of a netbook.
The hardware on the Mini 9 is not amazing, which is the point, but there are
some things that you can do to the hardware to make the experience better. The
first thing I did after I ordered mine was to order a 2GB stick of RAM for it.
This was the maximum amount that the computer supported and definitely helps
if you plan on using more than your web browser (and sometimes even just
that). The upgrade cost me $20 and was entirely worth it. If you are unsure
about how to isntall more ram in your computer, it is probably pretty easy.
installing it on my netbook took less than five minutes and required only a
Reading on some forums related to the Mini 9, I noticed that a lot of people
were replacing the SSDs that were in theirs with ones that were significantly
larger and faster (the stock Dell one is rather slow by SSD standards). I
opted not to do this to mine. The extra speed would be nice, but since I am
not going to be mvoing around large files on the device, it is not worth the
extra money (It would have increased the cost of mine by about 40%). Instead,
I would just by a large (16-32GB) SD card of the fatest speed class available
(Class 6 when I ordered mine). They can also be gotten for cheap and can be
reused after the netbook is no longer usable.
My netbook came with Windows XP on it, but since Windows 7 had just come out
at the time that I bought it, I figured I would install that. Unfortunately,
the drive for it does not quite fit Windows 7, so I had to cut down the
installation quite a bit. I used a program called vLite to do so. It was
easy to use and let me cut out 3GB of install. What was really nice about
using Windows 7 was that it had new features to treat SSDs nicely and it
played nicely with my desktop, which was also running Windows 7.
Unfortunately, it used a lot of RAM, and did not optimize programs for small
screens very well. My experience is mirrored by Whitson Gordon of
I bought my netbook hoping it would be the perfect portable companion for
those quick jobs when I'm out and about —- like updating one of my posts, or
touching base with my boss without using my phone. The problem is, those
"quick" jobs seemed to take ages on the netbook. Starting up Firefox in
Windows seemed to take forever, and forget about opening multiple tabs. Even
on Ubuntu, everything moved a little more sluggish than I'd like. Sure,
netbooks are always going to be a little bit slower, but when they move at
the speed of molasses, it seems to defeat the entire purpose of having one.
After trying several other OSes in the interim (including Chromium
OS), I have finally settled on using Linux Mint LXDE
edition. This version of Mint uses the Lightweight X11 Desktop
Environment, which is very light weight and responsive on lower end
hardware. This version of Mint is a compromise between a higher end desktop
version and a piecemeal Linux distribution like Archlinux. It still allows
me to install things from the Ubuntu repositories, but is very minimal to
start out. Using LXDE, I am able to run chrome with tens of tabs, including
Google Music, several text editors, have several PDFs open, and the computer
is still responsive to input.
Mitigate Small Screen Space
Because of the small screen size of my netbook, I needed to figure out a way
to easily see more information on screen. There are a couple ways that I have
found to do this:
- Multiple Virtual Desktops
This is a feature that comes standard in OS X and in most linux distros. I am
not sure why Windows does not have it by default as it would be very useful.
In any case, have multiple desktops enables you to quickly switch between
programs and contexts in a predictable manner. I have one desktop for a
browser, one for chat applications (IRC and Pidgin), one for my text editor,
and one for my terminal (for version control and compilation, normally).
- Running Apps in Fullscreen
When you only have 600 pixels of vertical space, all of the chrome and
toolbars for the apps that you are using really gets in the way. For that
reason, I have memorized the full screen shortcuts for my browser, text
editor, and PDF viewer, among others. I have done similarly for web apps like
Google Reader and have installed scripts to do so for Google Calendar and
Gmail. Additionally, if you know keyboard shortcuts for the commonly used
commands in an application, there is no need for menus anyway.
- Docking Stations
Often times, I find myself using my laptop for work just so that I have a
consistent workspace. Because I am a student, I have a somewhat unique
situation in that there are a number of computer labs near where I have
classes. When I needed to do work while away from home, I hooked my netbook up
to the keyboard, mouse, and monitor and was able to benefit from having two
monitors (one being a normal size) while also getting a full sized keyboard
and a real mouse.
Dealing with Low Computing Power
The low amount of computing resources available to you mean that if you want
to run a lot of applications at the same time, then you need applications that
either do not use a lot of memory or do not use a lot of storage.
- Use Web Applications
Web applications fix one of the problems above in that they do not take up any
space on your computer and remove sync problems. I use these for most things--
email, calendar, RSS Feeds, document reading and editing (when not using
LaTeX), among others.
- Remote Desktop/SSH
By using remote desktop or ssh, you can utilize another computer's resources
rather than your netbook's. When I was using Windows on both of my computers,
I regularly did this since my desktop was very capable. As well, it allowed me
to keep open any applications that I wanted to run. Now that I am running
Linux on my netbook, I use SSH and tmux in a similar way. If you want to
use GUI applications via ssh, you should look into X Session
- Terminal Applications
Terminal applications, with a few exceptions, are built to use fewer resources
than their GUI counterparts. I use a CLI email client called Mutt for
my personal email and I use vim for a lot of my editing.
- Use a file syncing service
Since a netbook is not my primary computer, I found it necessary to find
someway to have my files accessible on both of my computers and be updated.
The most common way to do this is with Dropbox, but Dropbox does not allow you
to keep the folder on an external drive (such as an SD card). For this
reason, I found it hard to use Dropbox on my netbook when I had Windows on it.
Instead, I used a service called Syncplicity, which at the time was a
better deal than Dropbox (1GB/referral, max 3GB extra) and also allowed the
folders that you wanted synced to be located anywhere on either computer.
Since then, Dropbox has gotten better and I started using Linux on my netbook.
Dropbox now offers more space for free (16GB as of this post) and doubles the
reward for referrals for students. The location problem is also easily solved
in Linux using symlinks, so I can now use it without any problems. I also use
Git and GitHub extensively for code repositories so that they are
synchronized between all of my computers.