Netbooks—those pint-size, inexpensive laptops with displays measuring about 10 inches—have succeeded in putting the "It" factor back into info tech. But they all suffer from a big problem: They run software designed for use on much bigger displays, leaving you with a desktop that's cramped and unaesthetic. While Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) latest entry in this fast-growing sector solves some of the problems, there is more to be done.
Most of the issues I've had with existing products involve software. Netbooks generally lack the oomph to run Windows Vista, so most manufacturers have opted for Windows XP. That program feels hopelessly scrunched on netbook screens. Some netbook makers have experimented with Linux, which is better. But that leaves non�techies struggling with an unfamiliar and sometimes ornery environment.
The HP Mini 1000 Mi (from $435 with 10.1-inch display and 60-gigabyte hard drive) takes a new approach. Its software is a version of Linux called Ubuntu that remains hidden from the user—much as the Linux software in TiVos (TIVO) and other digital videorecorders does its job and stays out of the way. Running on top of that, there's a user interface designed by HP that addresses the problem of the small screen and won't be intimidating to new users.
The Mi doesn't try to replace a standard PC. It is not aimed at people who use Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook for corporate e-mail, create documents in Word, run spreadsheets, edit photos or video, or prepare presentations on their computers. Like all netbooks, it is designed for Web browsing and consuming information, not creating it. When you fire it up, the initial screen gives you a summary of your e-mail in-box, favorite Web links, and access to photos and music stored on the computer. A button at the bottom of the screen lets you use other installed programs, which are displayed as big icons sorted into tabs such as "Internet" and "media." The designers were careful not to cram lots of unnecessary information onto the home screen. They also kept navigation simple and made sure the choices are presented clearly.
Programs customized for the small screen, such as the preloaded music and video players, also work fine. And the Firefox browser, though designed for a much bigger display, is made far more usable by a button that causes menus and tool bars to vanish, clearing the screen for Web contents.
The Mozilla Thunderbird mail program that also comes installed is more of a problem. It's a fine mail application, but menus, icons, and tool bars take up about a quarter of the screen's 5¼-in. height—space that could have been used for actual messages. The word processor, OpenOffice Writer from Sun Microsystems (JAVA), seems designed to emphasize HP's contention that the Mi isn't for creating content. The trimmings take up so much space that there is room for only 19 lines of 12-point type on the screen.
As for the HP hardware, I have no complaints. The laptop itself, which is also available running Windows XP and in a high-fashion Vivienne Tam edition, is a solid design. Where other netbooks suffer from small, sometimes awkward keyboards, the Mi somehow makes room for a full-size unit.
I wish HP had worked a bit harder on the software applications—above all, mail and word processing. But I expect future iterations will be better. Intel (INTC) is working on its own version of Linux for netbooks called Moblin, which is likely to be seen later this year and should help. Microsoft is trying to make sure Windows 7 runs well on these mini-laptops, though what we really need is a small-screen Outlook Lite for corporate mail systems.
The netbook will never replace the full-featured laptop for everyone. For the road warrior who can trade advanced features for mobility, however, it is welcome progress.