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3 Steps to a Netbook Life

This post was written by me during my tenure at the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS. Original article here.

The growing trend in laptop computers over the last year has been the race to the fill the niche between the hulking, weighty beasts known as “desktop replacements” (those laptops with 17” screens and enough processing power to run even Windows Vista at a reasonable speed) and the Internet-enabled smartphones such as the iPhone, Blackberry, Treo, etc. What has emerged is the Netbook: a line of lean and inexpensive laptops that are small enough to carry in a purse or briefcase yet still fast enough to run Windows XP or the consumer-focused versions of Linux.

The small size of netbooks does come at the cost of performance; you can take a nap while waiting for the latest version of Photoshop to load. The Internet, however, is awash in web-based tools that allow you to do virtually every business or personal task online: write documents, make spreadsheets, create slideshow presentations, edit and share photos and videos, manage email, customer relationship management, or complete all the steps of a real estate transaction. Handling these tasks online takes the burden off your computer because the heavy lifting is done by the website’s servers. This allows you to do much more online with even less of a computer. There are just three steps to pull off this digital migration.
Step 1 – The first thing you need is, of course, a netbook. Almost every major PC manufacturer has a version. Dell has their “mini” line, Acer has the “Aspire One”, MSI has the “Wind” and there’s always the original (and some might argue still the best) the Asus EEEPC line. Try one of the largest online PC vendors, Newegg, for netbook options: http://tinyurl.com/lnupxr.
There are a few things to consider before purchasing.  Many netbooks come with a standard hard drive common to almost every PC.  A potentially better option, however, is to invest in a netbook with a “Solid State Drive,” or SSD. A solid state drive is basically a hard drive made of flash memory, the same type of memory used in digital cameras and more. Because there are no moving parts in a solid state drive, as opposed to a hard drive with spinning metal platters, SSDs are much more resistant to bumps, shakes and drops. In fact, you could take a netbook with a solid state drive, smash it on a concrete floor, remove the solid state hard drive and you data will be perfectly safe.
Another benefit of SSDs is that they use far less power resulting in longer battery life. It’s pretty common for netbooks with SSDs to get over 6 hours of use from a single charge. The drawback is that SSDs can’t hold as much data as a normal hard disk, so don’t expect more than 8-10Gigs of storage.
The other thing to understand when purchasing a netbook is what operating system is installed on the netbook when it ships. Because netbooks are made to be inexpensive, many come with a free operating system called Linux (describing Linux would be another Tech Tuesday article entirely).  Simply put, Linux is an alternative operating system (Windows and Mac are #1 and #2 respectively). More and more netbooks come with Windows XP in order to satisfy the lay users, but Windows will cost you at least $50 more than Linux on the exact same netbook.
Step 2 – Once you have a netbook you will need access to the Web to really get the most from your new purchase. Nearly every netbook comes with WiFi built in, but you should still invest in a way to access the Web when not near a hotspot. You could purchase a cellular data card from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc, but you could end up paying for a data plan on both your cell phone and the new data card. A better option might be “tethering” your Blackberry, Treo or Android (Tmobile G1) phone to your laptop. Tethering allows you to use the Internet connection on your phone to connect your laptop to the web. Simply purchase a software called PDANet to connect your Treo or G1. You can purchase a software called MobiShark to connect a Blackberry.  Right now, there is no “official” way to tether an iPhone to a laptop: it can be done, but it is not an easy process. One concern is that most cell phone carriers don’t like tethering because, to them, that’s money they’re losing on those expensive cellular data cards. Check your contract for clauses about tethering. Most of this time, though, you’ll be fine so long as you don’t watch a constant stream of youtube videos all day long.
Step 3 – Once you have your netbook and either a cellular data card or tethered smartphone for Internet access, it is time to take advantage of the web’s full potential. Check out this list of online apps that can take the place of everything you used to do with software installed on your PC.
Google Docs - Google Docs features completely free online word processor, spreadsheet maker and slideshow creator that can open and save Microsoft formats as well as save to PDF. Sharing documents and collaboration with multiple people on the same document is an added bonus that comes with web-based tools like this.
Picnik – All Realtors need to edit photos taken of property. This handy web-app allows you to do all the common fixes (brightness, contrast, cropping, adding text, etc) through the intuitive website. Import photos directly from Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and more for quick editing.  Picnik is completely free to use, but there is an inexpensive paid upgrade that offers more features that is worth considering.
JayCut – Are you on the cutting edge and like to produce video tours of property? Or maybe you just like to slice and dice family moments from the camcorder and send to the relatives? Either way, JayCut provides an online video editor to cut out pieces, add overlays, background music, text and more. When finished, save your movie to your PC/Mac or share it on Youtube, Facebook, MySpace, etc. Right now JayCut is in “beta” mode which means it’s free to try but don’t expect it to be perfect. Once it is officially released it may cost, but no telling when that will happen.
OpenDrive – Because netbooks with solid state drives (SSDs) don’t hold a ton of information (likely less than 10 Gigs) you may need to supplement that storage. One option is an online drive like OpenDrive. This handy service creates a new disk on your computer that you can browse and save to just like your C: drive or your My Documents folder. The trick is that this drive lives completely online so there’s no storage on you actual computer. You can access anything in your OpenDrive account through the OpenDrive website (password required, of coruse) as well as easily share any file with others.
Zipforms, Trueforms, Instanet Forms – Where would a Real Estate transaction be without forms. There’s no better way to manage forms than with one of the three MAR MassForms vendors. All three allow you to keep all the forms for your transactions online in a secure portal for easy access and sharing. There’s no need to take up precious space on your computer which can easily be lost, stolen or infected with a data-crushing virus.
For more useful online applications and tools check out my webinar on the Tech Tools for 2009

If you’re ready to live your computer life on the web you probably won’t be disappointed: the only limiting factor will be the speed of your Internet connection. As more online services integrate with each other, allowing you to easily ship your digital creations from site to site, without having to first download to your own computer, our personal computers will become little more than a keyboard and passive window to the Internet. Netbooks are helping drive this change, but they won’t be the final format. That is for the future to decide.

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