By Gerald Haigh
My first computer, in 1986, was an Amstrad PCW 256 (256k of memory) with a single 3-inch floppy drive and a dedicated dot-matrix printer. I had it for about three years and, to tell you the truth, it would still pretty well fulfil my computing needs, virtually all of which are around the production of acres of text.
Except, of course, that it wouldn’t have the internet, nor would I be able to carry it around. Both of these – portability and connectivity – are now essential. Connectivity because I need to research, share and transmit my writing, as well as being available online; portability because of the way I work.
That latter requirement needs a bit of explanation. I spend quite a lot of time interviewing people, and the way I like to do this is by typing up notes as the interview goes along. It works well, because I’m a good enough touch typist to be able to keep eye contact with the person I’m interviewing, while getting down an almost verbatim record of the interview in Microsoft Word. Then, later, when I write the article or case study that I’m interviewing for, I can cut and paste the quotes.
All this means, of course, carrying a laptop around, and I’ve been doing that for some years now. The advent of the ultra-mobile PC – netbook, call it what you will – started me thinking, though, that maybe I could go about almost completely unencumbered, apart from something like a natty man-bag.
Which device though? With no idea of a starting point, I needed a benchmark against which to measure needs, preferences and trade-offs, and that arrived in the form of an Eee PC 1005HA netbook, appropriately enough from Asus, the company that invented the whole concept.
Sitting beside the trusty Mac iBook, which is what I usually use, it presents quite a startling contrast – almost “then and now”, or “old codger and bright young thing”. That’s largely because the Asus is an immediately attractive and purposeful-looking object. Yes, the glossy black finish will show fingerprints, but, hey, when it comes to mucky laptops I’m down there with the grungy-geeks. It seems robust too – nothing flexes or bends – and there’s no hint of incipient looseness in the hinges.
I like some of the things it has that my iBook doesn’t, too, most notably an SD memory card slot, and a battery that lasts much longer and is removable.
'Windows 7 Starter version holds no perils for a Mac user
Above all, though, is the huge bonus that it’s small and light – about half the weight of my iBook, and small enough to disappear among other gear into a modest shoulder bag, even together with the mains lead that I carry out of a habit developed through using the iBook. (The netbook’s much superior battery life probably makes it unnecessary to carry the lead a lot of the time, but I haven’t brought myself to leave it behind yet.)
But what of the Asus in action? Well, it quickly finds and holds on to any available wifi network, and the Windows 7 Starter version it comes with holds no perils for a Mac user. My computing requirements are modest, and short of ferreting out details and functions that I’m never going to use, all I can say is that, probably like most of the competition, it does what it says on the tin without fuss or hesitation.
So does that mean I really can leave the iBook at home and rely entirely on the Asus when I’m out in the field? You’ve no idea how much that would change my working life. I’d take the netbook out with me far more often than I take the iBook, because carrying it wouldn’t require a stop-and-think, “Do I really need it?” decision. It wouldn’t need a separate bag and the weight on the shoulder would cease to be an issue.
I’ll only glean that working advantage, though, if the netbook really gives me at least the same working efficiency as the iBook, and there’s one crucial area where it doesn’t.
No, it’s not the small screen, which is no problem to me at all. I refer, of course, to the keyboard. The Asus keyboard is, apparently, better than those on many netbooks, and it’s certainly extremely well packaged into the available space. The tactile effect of the individual keys is excellent, too. The only trouble is that it’s simply not full size.
It’s said to be 93 per cent. I don’t really know what that means, but what I do know is that when I compare the row of keys Q to P on the Asus with the same row on the iBook, the distance from the left hand edge of the Q to the right hand edge of the P differs by most of the width of a key. And that, believe me, is something you notice. It’d drive you mad on a piano, and it comes close to that on a computer keyboard.
Yes, it’s still possible to touch type. But is it possible to type naturally, at speed, while forgetting your fingers and paying attention to the screen, or to the person you’re talking to? For me, "Not yet," is the answer. Maybe I could get there if I kept at it, but so far I haven’t mastered it.
Rescued by a mouse
Even that wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t find the mousepad button so awkward. The pad itself is fine, with a distinctive texture that soon stops you absent mindedly stroking the space bar instead. The button though – a single chrome strip that rocks for left and right clicks – I find simply unusable. It’s narrow and stiff, and I can’t operate it with the thumb, so it brings everything to a halt. I quickly gave up on it and now can only contemplate using the Asus with a USB mouse, which, for me, transforms the experience.
Arguably, my requirements are untypical. That doesn’t make them rare. Plenty of people in education, including students, are touch typists, and my own feeling is that schools should work towards all their students being touch typists. For that, they need full-size keyboards, just as do student pianists, even very young ones. (Mike Herrity, in his article on netbooks for students in school, has a full-size keyboard as a desirable attribute.)
So do I still want this little Asus? I have to say that low cost and high convenience, and the device’s undoubted efficiency go a long way to keeping me concentrated on the possibility and if I really can master the keyboard, then maybe it’ll be fine. Were I in the market for a 10-inch netbook. I doubt if I’d see the point of looking elsewhere.
There, though, is the rub. There are bigger netbooks, with full-size keys, still lighter and smaller than a full size laptop, and frankly I think I’ll probably save up for one of those.
ASUS Eee PC Seashell 1005HA
Netbook with Atom N270 processor (1.6 GHz) and 10-inch screen. Typical price £265. Available from high street stores, online and RM.
Gerald Haigh is an educator, freelance journalist writer, and expert on school management systems. He has a regular column focused on school capital projects like Building Schools for the Future on the National College's Future website.
January 13-16, Olympia, London
The Eee PC Seashell 1005HA should be on a number of stands at BETT including those of RM (C60) and Microsoft (D40)