I love my aluminum MacBook. While I used a MacBook Pro for years, the smaller MacBook is a little easier to carry, and it never feels like it flexes or bends under its own weight, as the MacBook Pro sometimes did. However, it’s still just big enough that packing it in a bicycle or motorcycle bag is problematic, and it’s heavy enough that for backcountry or extended travel, it’s a bit of a load. What’s more, a lot of times it’s overkill. Usually all I need in the field is a place to dump images, and perhaps some email access. Over the last year or so a new class of tiny, ultralight laptop computers – netbooks – have appeared on the market at extremely reasonable prices. These machines turn out to be ideal photo accessories. Of course, Apple doesn’t make such a product, but there are now quite a few netbooks that can be hacked to run the Macintosh OS, allowing you to make something that Apple doesn’t: a tiny, very portable Macintosh.

The name “netbook” stems from the idea that, when traveling, most people’s computer needs don’t go beyond network access. Other than web browsing and email, they have few computing chores. If you’re a digital photographer, though, you might want to use a computer as a place to offload images, or to browse the day’s shoot, to begin to organize your shots, apply metadata, or even to start adjusting and editing. Of course, if you have network access, then you may want to be able to upload to web sites, or send images via email.

For those trips when I haven’t wanted to take my 4.5 pound MacBook, I’ve been taking a Digital Foci FotoSafe (.6 pounds) for offloading images, and a Palm Treo 680 (.3 pounds) with foldable keyboard (.4 pounds) for email, Google maps and for reading RSS feeds. I also usually take either my iPhone or my fifth generation iPod (.3 pounds) with me for media needs. With all of these, I have data backup, email access, limited web functionality and some music playback (okay, not an essential photo tool, but definitely an essential travel tool). However, because my FotoSafe lacks a screen, I have no way to review or edit images.

Last December, I bought an MSI Wind. As small as the MacBook is, the Wind manages to make it look cumbersome. Weighing in at 2.3 pounds, the Wind packs a 10″ screen, mostly full-sized keyboard, 120 gb hard drive 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, webcam, 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11g wireless, 3 USB ports, and bluetooth, and an SD card reader. In addition to its small size, it has much smaller dimensions than my MacBook, allowing for an easier fit in my bag.

Obviously, it’s a little larger than my FotoSafe/Treo/iPod arrangement, but it offers far more functionality.

You can order the Wind with an 80, 120, or 160 GB hard drive. I opted for the 160 gb version, and after installing an OS and some photo editing software, I still have more than enough space for offloading images. While I’ve never had any trouble or reliability issues with the FotoSafe, the Wind has the obvious advantage of a screen for reviewing images.

The Wind has a built-in SD card reader, which is a really nice addition. I usually shoot on CompactFlash, which means I still need to carry a card reader.

As a computer, the Wind works great for almost everything I need to do in the field. Obviously, email and web browsing are much easier with a real keyboard and large screen, so it’s a nice replacement for either my Treo or iPhone. Having built-in Wifi and Ethernet networking gives me lots of options for getting online. I can also tether to either the Treo or the iPhone, and get online connectivity through those, albeit slow, devices.

While the 1.6 GHz Atom processor is not the speediest CPU out there, it’s fine for most of the image editing tasks I’d want to do in the field. With its small screen, I’m not going to get into a lot of serious color correction and editing anyway (this was also true for my MacBook). But, for reviewing images, and performing some initial edits, or for organizing and keyword tagging, the Wind is perfectly adequate. I’ve been running CS4 on it and performance is perfectly acceptable.

Leopard runs quite handily on it, as do the iLife apps. Much to my surprise, even Aperture, with its particular video card needs, runs on the machine. It’s definitely a little sluggish but usable for sorting and metadata editing.

The only hitch is with Photoshop Camera Raw. Because of the limited vertical screen dimension on the Wind, the entire Camera Raw dialog box cannot be displayed, which means you don’t have access to the Save Image, Open Image, Cancel or Done buttons.

So far, I’ve found two workarounds: you can just press Return, which opens the image, or you can install Adobe Photoshop Lightroom which also runs Camera Raw, but manages to fit onto the Wind’s screen. If you don’t usually use Lightroom, working all of this into your regular workflow when you get back home can require some extra steps.

Of course, you can still preview your raw images in Bridge, so having access to Camera Raw in the field may not be a critical need.

The Wind’s screen is bright and clear, and has a nice matte finish, and overall build-quality of the machine is fine. It feels plasticy, but this is also why it weighs so little. Most importantly, it only costs $350. In fact, if you look around, you might find it as low as $300. This becomes another upside when compared to a MacBook or MacBook Pro. If you drop the Wind in a river, it’s cheap to replace.

The keyboard is easy enough to type on. Most of the space is saved by making some smaller punctuation keys, but your fingers get used to these pretty quickly. The trackpad does not work as well as a real Apple one. It’s fairly twitchy, and offers no two-finger support. The worst part about it is that the button is much harder to use than on a real Mac. However, it’s fine for how I use the machine, and I can always carry a mouse.

To install OS X, you need to find a hacked installer. These abound on any number of Bittorrent sites, and the installation process is pretty much just like a normal Mac. (Legally, you need to own a copy of OS X, though your OS X license forbids you from installing the OS on any non-Apple hardware, so it might be that there’s actually not a legal way to make any form of Hackintosh.)

In addition to different drive sizes, the Wind ships with either a 3-cell or 6-cell battery. The 6-cell lasts longer, costs a little more, and is a tiny bit heavier. Also, for some reason, the 6-cell Wind was more troublesome to hack than the 3-cell. This might have been a fluke, but for now I’d stick with the lighter, cheaper version.

After you run the hacked installer, you should find yourself looking at a normal Mac screen. To get the web cam working, you might need some additional patches.

If you’ve been considering a photo viewer with a screen, such as the Epson P-series viewers, then you should definitely look at the Wind. It’s cheaper, weighs about the same, has a bigger screen, packs the same storage, and is a full-fledged computer.

The Wind comes with Windows XP pre-installed. As a Mac user, I wanted to run the Mac OS on the machine, so I’ve been using the Wind as a Mac-based machine. You can read about that here.

I’ve been very pleased with this little computer, and heartily recommend it to any traveling shooter, who wants something smaller than what Apple currently offers.