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Do Netbooks Have Net Worth?

With the release of the iPad and other tablets, netbooks were consigned to the scrap heap of history, right? Not so fast.

Pushing a netbook program on a college campus these days can feel a bit like selling abacuses in the math department. Sure, they work, but isn't the technology a bit dated? Besides, the staid laptop computing experience offered by the typical netbook no longer seems to be enough. Users like the cool factor of smartphones and tablet computing.

Those sentiments are certainly reflected in industry projections. IDC's quarterly "PC Tracker" forecast, published in July, noted a contraction in the "mini notebook" market that hit netbook leaders Acer and Asus especially hard. Indeed, both manufacturers are now scrambling to adjust their inventory mix to address the explosive growth in tablet sales. Nevertheless, the 2011 sales forecast for netbooks is more than 34 million units worldwide, according to analyst firm Canalys. That's not chump change.

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So what could netbooks possibly offer higher ed that an alternative couldn't do better? Try this: addressing basic computing needs and providing access to the web at a price that's hard to beat. As long as wireless internet access is available, no extra service fees are required. Plus, netbooks have a larger screen than a smartphone, and a keyboard that's more familiar to most users than that of a tablet.

These were the lures that attracted Bellevue College (WA), which recently acquired 500 netbooks. Kristen Connely, who directs the campus bookstore, chose Lenovo IdeaPad S Series netbooks for a new student rental program that's being rolled out this fall.

The two-year program is made possible by $783,000 in grant money from the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The funds will underwrite the program's startup costs, including the purchase of digital course materials, software, netbooks, and other equipment, as well as the hiring of students to provide IT assistance.

Based on a successful pilot in spring 2011, the bookstore will rent netbooks to students for $35 per term. "I wanted something that was portable, that had access to documentation for students to do their homework, and also internet access," says Connely. One of the typical complaints about netbooks--that they're underpowered and don't have much memory--is almost irrelevant in this context, she adds.

"A lot of the homework assignments from publishers involve interactive websites," she explains. "Netbooks may not have a lot of storage on them, but with internet access they don't need it." With a clear knowledge of what she wanted, Connely chose netbooks as the most affordable option.

Top Features of Top Models
Affordability is key. Of the 10 best-selling models in Amazon's netbook category, nine list for under $300. The Lenovo IdeaPad that Connely bought cost $265 directly from the company. The price meshed fairly closely with her program goals: The $35 per term rental price is intended to cover most of the cost of machine replacement. "In two years I'll make roughly $200 per machine, and that should allow us to replace the netbooks as part of our own sustainable program," she says.

The most common processor in the latest netbooks is the Intel dual-core Atom (N450, N455, N550, or N570) or AMD's dual-core C-Series Processor C-50. Only the Acer Aspire One models include 2 GB of RAM, upgradable to 4 GB; the others come with a single gigabyte, expandable to 2 GB. Hard drives are all a standard 250 GB. (The ones ordered by Connely at Bellevue less than a year ago came with only 160 GB.)

The six-cell lithium ion battery in the most recent crop of netbooks ensures that they'll last through a respectable seven hours of usage. Other common features include 802.11b/g/n wireless; 10/100 Ethernet; built-in webcam, mic, and mono or dual speakers; a graphic processor for media acceleration; three USB ports; and a digital media-card reader. None comes with a CD or DVD drive; adding one requires use of an external media drive that can plug into one of the USB ports.

Considering that writing papers is one of the college uses most suited to a netbook, screen size and resolution are important. Most of the popular models feature 10.1-inch displays, although the Acer Aspire One models have 11.6-inch screens. With most models, the screen resolution is 1024x600; the Acer Aspire One AO722 and Samsung NF310 boast 1366x768 resolution.

While the similarities among netbooks outweigh their differences, each netbook company usually offers some feature to set its device apart from the pack. For example, the Acer Aspire One netbooks have touchpads that support circular motion scrolling, pinch-action zoom, and page flip. The Asus Eee PC netbooks feature matte displays instead of the seemingly ubiquitous glossy screens. Plus, they come with 500 GB of Asus-hosted web-based backup and storage.

Software Options
Gone are the days when netbook makers put Windows XP, Windows CE, or Linux on their machines and called it a day. Now every netbook of note includes some version of Windows 7: either Windows 7 Starter or Home Premium.

Windows 7 Starter offers a collection of programs for doing the basics--using the internet, sending e-mail, creating documents, playing media, and connecting to networks--but nobody would mistake this for a fully turnkey computing experience. The Home Premium edition, a $120 upgrade when purchased directly from Microsoft, adds a few features that will appeal enormously to some users: 64-bit support and the ability to create and play DVDs (using an external player).

Faced with the bare-bones environment on her netbooks, Bellevue's Connely compiled a list of recommended websites where students can obtain free software, much of it delivered as an online service.

Her no-nonsense approach illustrates the unheralded advantage of the netbook: It can serve as a portable cloud terminal that gives users easy access to applications hosted somewhere else. Libraries can check them out to students for an afternoon study session; configurable classrooms might keep a supply on hand for team use; and computer labs can provide a few for casual couch-surfing access. The possibilities are as unlimited as the cloud itself.

Netbook Niche: Scanning on Campus

LeTourneau University in Longview, TX, introduced netbooks in 2009 to act as an on-campus scanning system that was dramatically faster, more flexible, and less expensive than proprietary solutions. A dozen netbooks have replaced a collection of handheld magnetic stripe readers for recording student attendance at mandatory chapel and to track participation in other campus events, such as a health fair and career fair.

According to programmer/analyst Steven Hadfield, the netbooks are all ASUS Eee PC 1000 HEs running Windows 7 Enterprise. "We wanted a platform that was reliable, as well as one that had replaceable elements using commodity hardware," he says. "The [scanning] application we built was written in Java, which allows cross-platform support in terms of both hardware and operating system. As a result of using commodity hardware, we were open to purchase cheaper hardware that our IT staff would be able to directly support."

The university chose the specific model of Asus netbook because it was powerful enough to handle even the fastest swipes through the USB-powered bar-code readers, says Hadfield. Plus, it can run for hours without being plugged in, is small enough to be installed inside a kiosk, and has a screen large enough to allow attendees to see their picture when it is displayed.

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