Geoffrey Long
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The nebulous case for a netbook/notebook.

For the past week-and-some-change my old brother-in-arms Nick Bastin has been hanging out at our place, taking an extended vacation here in Boston. In between marathon sessions of Rock Band, Lego Rock Band and Beatles Rock Band (see a trend emerging here?) Nick and I have been debating the issue of netbooks. For the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend, a number of vendors have been slashing their prices on netbooks, bringing them down into impulse-buy range. The one that I was eyeballing, Dell's Mini 9, is the same beastie that another old brother-in-arms, David Seitzinger, had some luck hacking into a usable 9" Mac netbook, and although he had a few cautionary words on the experience, I was all set to pull the trigger and order one of those beasties to use as a small word processor when the damn thing sold out. Rats.

Still, it's just as well – since Apple is apparently doing their best to crush the of-questionable-legality practice of installing Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware, I should probably wait until Apple does release a similar piece of hardware. I could also just use Linux or Windows, but really what I want is something smaller and lighter then my MacBook Pro (or a 12" MacBook, for that matter) and yet more feature-rich than my iPhone that I can carry around with me and take some of the strain off of my back. For the last few weeks I've been limping around due to a pinched nerve of some kind in my leg, and one of the underlying causes for sciatic nerve pain is something wrong with one's back. This is making me reconsider the wisdom of my shoulder bag – and what it is that I really need.

A Portable Toolkit

For the longest time, I lugged around an absolutely ridiculous amount of hardware. The general idea was that my bag contained a mobile media studio – camera, videocamera, audio recorder, some video game equipment, art supplies, laptop, etc. As I've gotten older, I've traded portability for power: my digital SLR camera largely sits unused, replaced by a tiny digital Elph; I usually use my laptop more than either desktop machine (and, in fact, my desktop machine at home hasn't been functional in months); and my portable game devices are getting more use than the ones hooked up in my living room. Unfortunately, I think my back is paying for it.

That's why I've started eyeballing the netbooks. For the next little while, the major thing I need a machine for will be word processing. I'm not using Photoshop anywhere near as much as I used to, and I'm not even using Microsoft Word so much as I am using BBEdit or Scrivener. What I'm considering is using a netbook as a simple portable typewriter, and I'd like to have something super lightweight and super tiny that I could still use my preferred workflow setup on – hence the desire for a Mac netbook, to run BBEdit and Scrivener.

What I really, really want to do is store my documents in the cloud and then access those files from anywhere with a small, yet fully-featured, device. If I could hook a keyboard up to my iPhone and run a Scrivener or BBEdit client on that, I would – but we're not there yet.

The Best Is Yet To Come?

It's entirely possible that the best thing for me simply doesn't exist yet. I'm still absolutely enthralled by the Microsoft Courier prototype tablet that's been making the rounds. What I love about it is that this monster is essentially a digital Moleskine, replicating the functions of a pocket notebook (note taking, scrapbooking, mindmapping and/or to-do list management) while slotting neatly in between the phone and the primary computer. Although there's no evidence to support it yet, my suspicion is that the device can be turned sideways and one of the screens becomes an iPhone-esque virtual keyboard. Even if it doesn't, though, I'd still love to get my hands on one and discover how ti fits into my workflow.

Another experiment I've been considering is what kind of a computer could fit into a camera bag. I've considered building such a device ever since being squeezed behind a big fat guy on the gruesomely-long plane ride back from Singapore, using either a netbook or a phone of some sort as the CPU and hooking it up to a rollable keyboard and a set of goggles for the visual interface. I'm not sure I'm ready to get all Johnny Mnemonic in public yet, but it would be a neat thing to try out.


Another thing I've considered is hauling one of my dead laptops out of storage and attempting to Frankenstein something out of that – I have an old PowerBook 1400c that's begging to be put to some use, and a Lombard that I still consider to be the prettiest chassis Apple's made in decades – but none of these satisfy the 'smaller and lighter' requirement. There's some real appeal to using something really antiquated and figuring out how to make it suit my needs, but the weight thing is a deal killer. Even a MacBook Air isn't quite what I've got in mind yet.

Something's Gotta Give

I suppose Apple will have something to announce in 2010, since they've got to be feeling the recessionary hurt in their computer division if not the iPod and iPhone divisions, but we'll see. As I was saying to Nick this week, we're in the middle of another hardware lull, which is bad timing for the industry. Although nobody's buying a lot of hardware right now, I suspect I'm not the only one who would find the money to spend if there was something obviously worth spending it on.

Until something gives, though, this is likely to remain just a thought experiment. The problem is a pain but not enough of one yet to warrant spending a ton of money or time to fix it; in another 6-8 months, hopefully something will come a little more clearly into focus. Perhaps the Courier will finally reach the market, or perhaps Apple's long-brewing entry into this field will be another game changer. In the meantime, I'm keeping an eye on the super sales.

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