Praise for the Lowly Netbook
Saturday, August 21st, 2010 by Reed Hoffmann
Netbooks (low-powered, lightweight laptops) have become very popular over the last couple of years. Great for email and surfing the net, but not the right computer for a photographer. At least that's what I thought before.
Now I’m singing a different tune. I recently returned from Africa, where I documented three disabled veterans climbing Kilimanjaro (see previous post). The assignment presented several challenges, mainly that I’d have to be self-sufficient photographically for up to nine days. I’d also have to carry all the camera and computer gear I chose to bring, to the top of the mountain and back. And the computer side of things is what had me most worried.
I’ve taken laptops around the world and into some pretty harsh environments (the jungles of Borneo and Fiji, for instance). In those cases I was only on location for a couple of days at most, and could bring an extra battery for the laptop. On Kilimanjaro I needed a way to not only check my images and back them up, but enough battery life to last over a week and as lightweight as possible. That meant either a digital wallet (small device to download photos to), a laptop or my iPad. The problem with using a digital wallet (like the Epson P6000) was that I’d need to carry several extra batteries (which are small), and I’d still need a computer for transmitting images once we got off the mountain. While the iPad offers the Camera Connection Kit, which would allow me to download images to it, I’d be very limited in what I could do with the photos afterward. It seemed that my only real choice was a laptop. That meant I’d need to find a laptop that was extremely light and had great battery life.
I’ve been a fan of PC Magazine (now digital only, http://www.pcmag.com, no paper version) for years now, and have come to trust their reviews. At the top of their list of netbooks, weighing about 2.6 lbs and with an astonishing 9-hours battery life, was the Toshiba Mini NB305. A few web searches later I found it for about $300 from Beach Camera in LA. Ordered one, replaced the hard drive with an extra 250GB, 7200RPM one I had on the shelf, and upgraded the RAM to 2GB. Started loading software and putting it through its paces. And I was quickly impressed.
Yes, the screen is tiny and low resolution (1024 X 600). Yes, it’s slow when trying to run Photoshop or Nikon Capture NX 2. But my, it’s small and so light! And the battery life is as advertised, which is pretty amazing. I carried it up and down the mountain, downloading my images every day. Photo Mechanic (by Camerabits.com, my favorite download/browse/sort tool) ran great on it, letting me check my NEF (RAW) files. And if it hadn’t been called on to be used with a cell card to transmit stories and photos from the mountain, the battery would have lasted the whole time. As it was, I pulled a little juice off a solar panel battery one of the guys had brought.
Where it really surprised me, though, was its performance off the mountain. Once back to the city of Arusha and the hotel, I needed to prep a selection of photos, build a web gallery and upload them so various news organizations (CNN, the Washington Post, The Associated Press and others) could get them to do stories on the climb. And check and respond to email. And the little netbook did that flawlessly (Photo Mechanic handled the NEF to JPEG conversions for me). For some special requests, I even had to open a few NEFs into editing software and make some adjustments. That part was slow, but still do-able.
On the long trip home, I was able to recharge the battery at the various airports and use the computer for 5-6 hrs at a time on the flights. By the time I’d gotten back to Kansas City, I had various collections of images done for both Disabled Sports USA as well as the participants, a slideshow finished, and had been able to go through and edit the hours of audio I had collected.
So what’s all this mean for the future of computing for me? Well, first, I won’t dismiss netbooks as useless for photographers. For certain situations they can be great. And it also means that if I’m traveling with the netbook, I probably won’t take my iPad as well. The netbook can do many of the tasks I use the iPad for. And I’ll still carry a “real” computer with me most of the time. For the majority of the photo work I do, I still need a fast and powerful laptop. I’m starting to use a Lenovo W510 for that, and think it may be the perfect all-purpose photographer’s laptop (more on that in a later post).
In the meantime, this little netbook will go on the shelf, ready for the next time I need that combination of light weight and long battery life. As a photographer I always talk about the value of having the right tools (cameras. lenses, strobes) to get the job done. This is just another tool I’ve added to my digital photography kit.