The Mac Netbook Revisited

With Apple’s announcement of the iPad, there’s a lot of talk lately about the “death of the netbook.” But for the photographer, a netbook is still a much better alternative to any other portable option. Smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a typical laptop, a netbook provides plenty of storage for offloading images, but can run the same software that you use on your everyday computer. In addition to replacing your digital wallet-type device, having a real keyboard and connectivity options make netbooks capable terminals for the traveling photographer. If you’re a Mac user, though, you won’t find any netbook options from Apple. However, it’s now easier than ever to hack certain netbooks to run the latest version of Snow Leopard.

For the last year, I’ve been using a hacked MSI Wind as a netbook, but its keyboard played havoc with my repetitive stress injuries. Something about it made me hold my hands in a way that ultimately caused pain. I recently had the chance to type for a while on a Dell Mini 10v and found that I had no pain issues at all, so I sold the Wind and picked up a Mini 10v on sale for only $275.

Compared to my 13″ Macbook, the Mini 10 is considerably smaller and lighter, making it very usable for backcountry trips – something I would never do with my Macbook. With it, I no longer need to carry my Digital Focii FotoSafe for offloading, and I’m not stuck trying to type emails on my iPhone keyboard.

Mini10v vs. Macbook 13

Obviously, if you’re a Windows user, you can use the Mini 10v right out of the box. If you want to use the Mac OS, though, you’ll need to perform a quick and simple hack.

NetbookInstaller is an application that will take care of the hack for you, and using it is very simple. You’ll need a copy of Snow Leopard, and a USB stick with at least 8 gb of capacity. Detailed instructions on the NetbookInstaller site will guide you through the installation. You’ll image your Snow Leopard disk onto the USB stick. and then boot off of that. The NetbookInstaller application will modify the installation to allow it to work on the Netbook.

When you’re all finished, you should have a Mini 10v running the latest Mac OS (at the time of this writing, I’m running 10.6.2). The trackpad supports tapping and two-fingered scrolling, and sleep, restart, shutdown, the web camera, and SD card reader all work fine. The model I got has a gigabyte or RAM and a 160gb drive, though both of these are upgradable. The computer weighs in at 2.6 pounds.

Dell Mini 10v and 13" Macbook
The Dell Mini 10v on top of a 13″ Macbook.

What makes all of this practical, is NetbookInstaller, which provides a simple, painless way to get Snow Leopard running. It only took me about an hour to get the machine up and running, and that included the time spent copying the Snow Leopard disk to the thumb drive. Note that NetbookInstaller does support machines besides the Mini10v, and you can get a full list of compatible hardware here.

Photoshop CS4 runs fine on the Mini 10v, as does the latest Camera Raw. However, because of the short screen height, the Camera Raw dialog box gets cut off at the bottom – you won’t have access to the buttons at the bottom. You can, though, still hit Return to open an image.

Ultimately, I don’t find this a great hassle, because I don’t do a lot of editing in the field. Bridge runs fine, which means I can review images, and begin to sort and organize them, which is all of the in-field functionality that I need.

Hacked Dell Mini 10v

Finally, at $275, I don’t have to worry as much if the machine falls in a river or something, and it replaces several other gadgets that I normally have to take along – digital wallet, Palm Treo and folding keyboard for email – if I’m not taking my Macbook.

For e-reading, I think the Kindle’s small size, light weight, and superior (for reading) screen will prove to make it a better e-reader than the iPad, so I’ll be sticking with that and my netbook for the time being.

Dell Mini’s fluctuate in price a lot, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the Dell site for sales.

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