Using Office on netbook computers, part 1

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Tips for buying a netbook computer and using Microsoft Office on the popular new, small screen, devices.

The popularity of netbook computers has taken both hardware and software makers by surprise. What was considered a niche market has become the new growth area for computer hardware.

Netbooks are smaller than traditional laptops, weighing around 3lb (1.5kg), a 9 or 10 inch (23-26cm) screen, smaller keyboard with a trackpad and buttons in front. They are often powered by the Intel Atom processor – a low-power CPU intended for smaller and low-cost devices. Wireless networking is your gateway to the Internet. Netbooks are low priced – less than US$400.

We’ve been seeing more netbooks in café’s with people lingering over a skinny cappuccino browsing the web. The small size makes it possible to carry in a handbag or regular briefcase. The machines are becoming very popular with travelers, the small size means you can be connected without the weight concerns of a laptop. Using a netbook is easier in a cramped economy class seat.

First, here are some suggestions for what to look for in a netbook if you’d like to use Microsoft Office on it.

Operating system

Not all netbooks use Windows, the cheaper ones reach that lower price by skipping the cost of Windows and using a version of Linux instead.

There’s nothing wrong with Linux especially since you can download OpenOffice v3 for free to run on it. OpenOffice v3 can read but not write to the Office 2007 document formats.

But you might decide to pay a bit more for the familiarity of Windows. After a slow start, Microsoft has sharpened their pricing on Windows XP for netbook makers.

Netbooks have a slower processor and less memory than most laptops/desktops so Windows XP is preferred over Vista (there’s little to commend Vista on a netbook in our view).

Make very sure that the netbook has Windows supplied. We’ve seen some machines which aren’t clear about the operating system and invariably that means there’s a non-Windows OS involved..


With the slower Atom processor and slower hard drive, memory becomes an important factor. More memory means software can run more efficiently and hard drive use is cached better.

Generally speaking, the video memory is shared with standard RAM. For example a 512MB netbook could actually running in only 448MB because 64MB is reserved for video.

We believe that 1GB of RAM is the least amount for anyone using Microsoft Office on a netbook. If the extra cost isn’t too much, jump to 1.5GB or 2GB. If you want to run that eternal resource hog, Microsoft Outlook, get as much memory as you can.

Keep in mind that installing memory into an existing portable computer can be expensive and fiddly- better to buy the machine with the hardware you need now and for the foreseeable future.

Hard Drive

Hard drives are generally around 80GB, though 160GB is possible.

Solid State Drives (SSD) will raise the price promising power savings and higher speed (though these claims are disputed). SSD drives are also smaller sizes with 4GB, 16GB or 32GB the most common. The sizes of SSD are increasing fast and in the next year you can expect to see 128 and even 256GB drives becoming available, for a price.

We like the idea and promise of SSD but are wary of the new technology. There are limitations and questions around the medium and long term write stability of SSD. We’re inclined to hold off on SSD until the price comes down and Microsoft tweaks Windows to work efficiently with SSD (at present Windows assumes it’s dealing with a standard hard drive).

A 4GB SSD is totally impractical for regular use with Windows with 16GB being the practical but still absolute minimum in our view.

Much depends on how much disk space you think you might need then add some because most people underestimate their disk space needs. If you’re travelling you’ll need space for your photos and maybe videos as well as any music and videos you bring from home for entertainment. Office users will need space for all necessary documents.

Windows always needs some free hard drive space to work with – about 512MB or a 1GB. Under that level Windows can start acting strangely.

On balance we’re inclined to go for the 80GB hard drive option or larger. If you want to try SSD, go for the largest one available, probably 64GB.

USB ports

The Macbook Air, among many limitations comes with a single USB socket which is really insufficient for regular use. A single socket means you have to carry around a USB hub to use more than one device.

USB sockets can be used for external keyboard, mouse, external storage, memory card sockets and charging smaller devices like mobile phones/MP3 players (the latter two important for travelers).

Your netbook should have at least two, preferably three USB sockets.


The Apple Macbook Air and now the Macbook Pro 17″ have in-built non-replaceable batteries which we think is a thinly veiled piece of deliberate obsolescence. We’re continually amazed at reviewers saying that the fixed battery isn’t a problem because people replace their portable computer before the battery expires. Only people who get a regular re-supply of their hardware could say that.

In the real world, where people pay for their own computer, a laptop can last for years except that the battery loses ability to hold a charge over time. Eventually it only works with the AC power attached, which rather defeats the purpose of a portable computer.

The simple fix is to buy a replacement battery. With a new battery your netbook can last a few more years quite easily.

Bottom line: make sure the netbook has a replaceable battery.

Screen Size

Netbook screens are smaller than laptops around 9 or 10 inch screen dimension.

In terms of screen resolution you usually get a standard width but a shorter height than a laptop or desktop screen. For example a netbook might have a 1024x576 or 1024x600 resolution instead of 1024x768 on a laptop.

The shorter screen is an issue when using MS Office. Most software has been designed with ever larger screens in mind – not smaller ones. Office suite software has the problem of making plenty of workspace available (ie document or worksheet view) while also showing enough features and status information. We’ll talk about that some more later in this article.

Most netbooks have glossy screens which look nice in the showroom but aren’t so good in practice. The glossy screen is harder to see in brighter/sunny conditions. Your reflection in the screen can be distracting. We prefer the non-glare / matt screen which is readable in lighter conditions plus Peter doesn’t have to look at his aging visage as he types.

An external VGA port is a good idea, it lets you plug the netbook into a larger screen when you’re at home and use it as a second computer. Many hotels now have video input sockets on the in-room TV’s to let you move from a tiny screen to a really big one.


The keyboard is necessarily smaller than usual. That’s OK for occasional use and web browsing but if you’re likely to be typing a lot then you might find your fingers rebelling against you.

Try out the keyboard properly yourself before buying to make sure you’re comfortable with it. Just a few key presses isn’t enough – type a few paragraphs.

The multiple USB sockets we suggested above let you plug in an external keyboard and mouse for longer jobs.

A small wireless notebook mouse is a useful extra buy. They are tiny but avoid the hassle of touchscreens and joysticks. If the netbook has Bluetooth included, then you can use that to connect to a wireless mouse. Otherwise look for a ‘rodent’ that has the USB connector which can be locked into the base of the mouse when not being used – this keeps both essential pieces together and turns the mouse off when not being used. The Microsoft Wireless Notebook mouse or Logitech V220 fits the bill.


Many netbooks come with an integrated webcam and certainly should have an in-built microphone. These will let you use cheap VOIP or video calling without extra equipment.

Wireless networking (802.11 b and g standards) is probably sufficient these days but a wired Ethernet port is nice to have.

A media reader (slots for memory cards) is also good as long as the slots are the same type as your digital camera. A PCI Express slot lets you expand in future.

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