Last weekend I had a chance to speak at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in Palo Alto, Calif., on the subject of laptops. And what many of the attendees wanted to know was whether a low-cost Netbook would be a reasonable purchase for someone whose occupation requires not only frequent travel and note-taking at meetings but also countless hours composing at the keyboard.
The short answer: not unless you have a desktop waiting for you at your home office. You'll find the longer answer, along with my recommended writer-friendly laptops, after the page break.
A Netbook has several advantages for anyone who spends a lot of time at conferences and events: they're featherweight (usually around 2.5 pounds); most cost between $350 and $500; and with some models you can get a pretty decent battery life.
Of course, the disadvantages are considerable: Netbooks' small screens can accommodate only one window at a time and may fatigue your eyes; their performance is really only enough for surfing the Web and typing documents; and they don't incorporate optical disc drives, which some users still require. Plus--and this may be a deal-breaker for many writers--the tiny laptops require petite keyboards and some nonstandard key placement that may make typing difficult, if not infuriating.
Those disadvantages make Netbooks best for use as a secondary laptop for e-mail, Web, and light office work while away from your main computer. If you've already got a primary computer and just want something scaled back for taking notes at meetings, check out three of my favorites: the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, the MSI Wind U100, and the Asus Eee PC 901.
What if you want a laptop that's both travel-friendly and reasonable to use as a primary system? That's where an ultraportable laptop comes in. These systems are generally lightweight (usually 3.5 pounds or less); have the feature set of a full laptop (e.g., PC Card slots, memory card readers, and such security features as fingerprint readers or Trusted Platform Modules); offer stronger performance than Netbooks; and often have a four- to six-hour battery life.
Even ultraportables are not without their flaws--most notably, their high price tags, which generally start around the $1,800 mark. That amount of money still doesn't guarantee you'll get a built-in optical drive (though many systems do include one), and a screen that's smaller than 13 inches may still prove too small to conduct a full day's work. So if you do decide to go with an ultraportable, consider adding additional drives or an external monitor to make things more comfortable when you're at your home base.
My picks for writerly ultraportables begin with one of the most comfortable laptop keyboards out there, which can be found on both the 12-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X200 and the 13-inch ThinkPad X301. The X200 sacrifices the optical drive but offers a lower starting price, while the X301 incorporates all the latest bells and whistles and is priced accordingly. Other picks: the Fujitsu LifeBook P8020 (a recent component refresh of the LifeBook P8010 we reviewed earlier this year) and, for those who want a full-featured laptop in a Netbook-like package, the Sony VAIO TT190.
You may have noticed that the list thus far doesn't include any Apple products. That's because I think the company has left some Mac fans in a tough spot: they have to either drop a huge chunk of change on the sublimely elegant but ultimately under-featured (for the price) MacBook Air or schlep around the 4.5-pound MacBook, which despite being lighter than its predecessor is still too heavy for frequent travel. I do like the MacBook, though, and would recommend it to writers whose work rarely takes them beyond the coffee shop down the street.
As always, I welcome your input: if you're a professional writer, which laptop do you use?