Being a techie kind of a guy, you’d think I’d be more abreast of the latest in computer hardware and gadgets. But up until a few months ago, I was pathetically unaware of the new class of computer hardware known as the netbook.

Netbooks first popped up on my radar screen when I stumbled upon an article describing how somebody was successfully running Mac OS X on theirs. That was (and still is) intriguing to me–OS X is supposed to be pretty slick, but I’ve always been put off by the Mac price tag. But I digress.

One of the attractive things about netbooks is they’re cheap. My MSI Wind U100-843 with 2GB of memory and a 160-GB hard drive ran me about $300. After having it for a few weeks now, I’m impressed with it. It runs Windows XP Home SP3 like a champ. The netbook itself is built well, and the battery supposedly will give me six hours of operation (I haven’t really tested this yet, though). It’s quick to boot, has a great display and a decent touchpad, and wireless connectivity has been solid. In short, everything works. That’s not a given with PC hardware these days, so it’s nice to experience it.

One of the things I didn’t really consider before I bought my netbook was whether it would be handy for use with my Digital Setting Circles project and a telescope. The netbook has no serial port, of course, so I’d have to use a USB-serial converter to plug the digital setting circles into my computer. A while back I picked up a really cheap converter on Ebay, and I figured this would be a good test. So, I loaded up TheSky 5, the ASCOM platform, and my own ASCOM driver and put the system through its paces.

There was no reason to think that the system wouldn’t work, and I was right–everything worked flawlessly. Even the el-cheapo USB-serial converter did its job magnificently. (For the life of me, I don’t understand why these converters have gotten such a bad name. I’ve never had difficulty with one. And a lot of USB devices make use of them internally so that separate USB drivers don’t have to be written for those devices.)

I originally designed my digital setting circles project to be used with a notebook computer, but many folks these days are using it with a PDA or smartphone because of the portability of such devices, the availability of software for them, and the fact that they often support bluetooth for wireless connections between telescope and computer. Still, handheld devices are definitely a compromise of power and versatility for convenience. Netbooks are now in a price range comparable to these handheld devices and provide nearly the same convenience of portability while being vastly superior in capability. I could easily envision using the netbook with my digital setting circles while simultaneously using it to control a digital imaging system and log my observing session–a tall order for a handheld device.

The handheld device landscape has shifted dramatically over the past few years. While PDAs running Palm OS and Windows Mobile once ruled the land, they’ve been largely obsoleted by smartphones like the iPhone and the Palm Pre. While software developers are catching up to the new platforms, one needs to actually own a smartphone (with its higher costs for broadband service) in order to use the software. Handheld alternatives to smartphones are disappearing fast. Netbooks don’t carry the extra baggage of requiring a monthly payment for cellular network access (unless, of course, you purchase one from a cellular carrier for precisely that purpose).

I know many people who love their iPhones, but right now I’m too cheap to pay for being connected to that degree. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon. In a couple years I’ll probably be an iPhone-wielding drone just like everyone else. In the mean time, I gotta go see if I can find that article on how to turn my netbook into a Mac…

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