Saturday, May 2, 2009

Form Factors—How Big is Too Big and How Small is Too Small?

I've played with a lot of laptops recently and have been thinking a lot about the adjustments that must be made when switching from one machine to another. Ultimately I've found that the single biggest trade off is the one made between portability and physical comfort, the comfort of the keyboard and the comfort of the screen. While performance and battery life are also issues, they tend to be secondary.

There are four laptops in this picture with a T-Mobile G1 cell phone for comparison and for the fact that its slide out keyboard makes it look like a tiny laptop. At the very bottom of this stack but still big enough to dwarf its companions is my big 17" HP Pavilion laptop. It's my workhorse machine with its big 1440x900 resolution screen and huge keyboard complete with number keys. I can use it for hours for pretty much any task imaginable, surfing the web, reading email, chatting on Usenet, downloading movies, and burning CDs sometimes all at once. Lately, I've even started letting it run overnight for really big downloads. It has a dual core processor, 3GB of memory, an NVIDIA graphics card, and two hard drives—the 250GB drive that it came with and an 80GB that I salvaged from a dead computer. It's pretty much all the computer most people need these days. It's also big and heavy and runs so hot that I use one of those silly laptop stands with cooling fans to keep it cool. Weighing in at almost eight pounds, it is not a true mobile computer. It's simply too big and heavy to be carried comfortably when I venture outside my home.

Next up is the computer it replaced, another HP Pavilion laptop. (I tend to like HPs and judging from their recent commercials, so does Microsoft.) It has a smaller 15.4" 1280x800 screen and a more traditional but still generously sized keyboard. Despite its age, it's still pretty well equipped: a slower dual core processor and NVIDIA graphics card, and an 80GB hard drive. The hard drive is pretty small by today's standards but otherwise it holds its own with most newer laptops. In fact, I must admit that I only replaced it because I got a good deal on the big laptop. This machine is a couple of pounds lighter than the machine that replaced it, making it more portable or at the very least schleppable. But it's still pretty heavy machine to carry around. It's the kind of machine that you stuff in a backpack when you expect to need it but you won't tend to carry it around if you don't have to.

This brings me to the netbooks. I have been using an Acer Aspire One pretty heavily in recent months because of its small size and light weight. The original Acer Aspire One had an 8.9" 1024x600 screen. It was slow, hot, and had a cramped keyboard. But at around three pounds it was so light that I could take it anywhere without a second thought. Its successor, Acer Aspire One D150, subtly improved on it every way. The 10.1" screen had the same resolution but was easier on the eyes. The touchpad on both netbooks is pretty small but at least the D150 moved the mouse buttons to the bottom instead of leaving them on the sides which makes mousing on the original Acer Aspire One awkward. It also has a slightly faster processor and a slightly bigger keyboard. While the screen is still a bit small, this particular Acer model is very close to the sweet spot for a netbook. It is a reasonably capable machine which is comfortable to use and eminently portable.

Finally, the original netbook was the Asus EeePC. The one pictured above is a EeePC 4G, a slightly more powerful variant of the original. It's an extremely basic machine and using it is something of a shock. First of all, the operating system which ships with it is almost unusable. It was unstable and could never seem to remember how to connect to my wifi hotspot. I finally replaced the OS with Easy Peasy, a stripped down Linux distribution based on Ubuntu. This allowed me to finally use the machine and get a feel for how it worked. It allowed me to appreciate the machine for what it was, a very basic machine that is capable of light web browsing, email, and other simple tasks. But it really does push the limits of usability in terms of screen and keyboard size. It's 7.1" screen has an 800x480 resolution which can make web browsing a challenge. The tiny keyboard is also pretty difficult for adult hands to use. Once you get down to this territory, you are really dealing with child size devices.

As a post script it's interesting to note that as our laptops are getting smaller, our cell phones seem to be getting bigger—at least in terms of screen and keyboard size. From the Treo to the iPhone to the T-Mobile G1 to the Blackberry cell phones have been trying to solve this form factor conundrum for over a decade. They bring out a phone with a keyboard and big screen and immediately search for ways to make it smaller. Then they experiment. They eliminate a physical keyboard or add a slider and the cycle continues. But ultimately they settle on boxes that are roughly the same size. Laptop makers are going through the same thing now.

No comments: