The Definitive Guide to Making the Most of Your Netbook
Netbooks are a great compromise between pecking away a smartphone keyboard or hauling a tank-size laptop around—but they aren't without shortcomings. Make the most of your netbook with these netbook-friendly tips, tricks, and applications.
Although often derided for being under-powered and a poor substitute for a full laptop, netbooks fill a nice niche. They're tough to beat for portable browsing, note taking, and mobile computing when a laptop is over kill, the battery life is too short, and using your phone is impractical or uncomfortable. Still, you can do a lot to make life with a netbook easier.
Accept the Hardware Limitations and Tweak When Possible
Netbooks are limited and you can't be happy using one unless you accept that. Watching video on it won't be like watching video on a 24" widescreen monitor. It won't run Crysis. You're not going to be single-handedly solving complex protein-folding operations on it and curing cancer. Nearly every netbook has a fairly standard cookie-cutter spec sheet of a 1024x600 pixel screen, a 160GB HDD, 1GB of RAM, and a modest mobile processor.
If you already own a netbook, the best thing you can do is shell out $30-60 and upgrade the 1GB of RAM to 2GB of RAM. It's a cheap enough upgrade and it provides a significant performance boost. If you're shopping for a netbook, the best advice we can give is to focus on two things: battery life and the physical inputs, like the spacing of the keyboard and arrangement of secondary buttons—physical design is about the only thing distinguishing one netbook from another these days.
Strip Your Netbook of Bloat and Crapware
Computer manufacturers love to stockpile their pristine machines with all sorts of crapware. Fortunately, for the most part, netbook manufacturers aren't too extreme with this practice. Given the already underpowered nature of the machines they sell, we'd imagine they're paranoid about bogging it down with too much crapware. Nonetheless, it's still worth your time to give your netbook a solid run through the decrapification-gauntlet. Photo by Fabio Bruna.
You can dig through the bloatware and delete it manually, but some bloatware—we're looking at you Norton Anti-Virus trial!—is a huge pain to remove by hand. Fortunately applications have been created that are specifically tailored to giving bloatware the boot, like PC Decrapifier—seen in the screenshot above. PC Decrapifier is great for any new computer including netbooks and will help you get rid of applications like Norton Anti-Virus, Microsoft Office Trial Edition, and other annoyances.
One caveat regarding gutting the crapware from your new netbook: Although 90 percent of the junk that is installed is in fact junk, be careful not to delete software that actually does something useful. For example, on my Asus Eee netbook there were two very similar programs with similar Eee branded names. One was a useful aggressive battery monitoring application designed to squeeze even more life out of my 6-cell battery and the other was a fairly useless application dock only for Eee netbook apps. Had I blanket nuked all the installed apps, I'd have kicked out the useful battery tool with the rest of the junk.
Once you've booted the factory-fresh crapware off your netbook, it's really important to keep things clean for optimal future performance. If a little bit of crapware and software creep slows down your beefy desktop a tiny bit, a little on your netbook will definitely gum up the works. Make sure to install an application like CCleaner—a favorite among Lifehacker readers—and run it on a schedule to keep things clean.
Learn to Love Full-Screen Mode and Keyboard Shortcuts
You might have a nice spacious monitor at home and never even think to switch to full screen mode, but on a netbook using full screen mode is an absolute must. The screenshot above shows a comparison between running Firefox in regular mode and running Firefox in fullscreen mode, displaying the Lifehacker homepage. Between the title bar, menu bar, tabbed sites, and the Windows start bar, around 40% of the screen gets chewed up. The same kind of situation exists when you load popular word processors like Microsoft Word and other office applications. Most software designers are simply not designing for small screens anymore; netbooks generally have a 1024x600 resolution, which is nearly 200 pixels shorter than the already quite small 1024x768 standard monitor size that most designers keep in mind when creating toolbar and site layouts.
Unfortunately no standard exists for which a keyboard shortcut will switch an application to full screen mode. Check the menu bar in your application or hit up Google with a "myapplication fullscreen shortcut" query to find it. The full-screen shortcuts for a few common applications are: Firefox/IE/Opera/Chrome - F11 (press again to return to normal view) and Microsoft Office - ALT+V+U (press ESC to return to normal view).
In addition to searching for individual and specific keyboard shortcuts to help with things like full-screen mode, it's worthwhile to extend your knowledge of shortcuts even further—typing on a reduced size keyboard and mousing on a small trackpad can be rough on your hands. If you extend the range of your Google queries from just the keyboard shortcut to something like "myapplication without a mouse" or "myapplication keyboard shortcut guide" you'll find gems like this guide to using the Opera web browser completely sans-mouse—or our own guide to mouse-less Firefox. Photo by Declan TM.
The best thing about improving your keyboard chops with the netbook is that all the new shortcuts you learn are transferable to your main workstation. For more information on handy keyboard shortcuts, application tricks involving keyboard shortcuts, and how to make them if your application lacks for them, take a stroll through the archives of the keyboard shortcuts tag here at Lifehacker.
Select Applications with a Netbook-Centric Attitude
Selecting applications for a netbook is a lot like packing for a camping trip. When you pack for a camping trip you select things for your pack that are efficient and lightweight versions of things you use every day at home, and you also pack things that are distinctly related to camping that you'd never use at home. Photo by 玩具王 the Nictoyking.
For example, you may use Firefox loaded down with 1,001 extensions on your quad-core home computer but opt to run Firefox with only one or two critical extensions or Google Chrome on your netbook. Also, just like with camping, selecting lightweight tools that are multifunction is valuable. Why use a bloated media application when something snappy and light like open-source VLC can take care of all your movie and music needs? In the same vein, look for ways to ditch software that is known for being bloated and resource hungry, like swapping out Adobe-gonna-eat-all-y'RAMs-Reader with FoxIt Reader. If you're unsure where to start when it comes to selecting lightweight software, you might want to check out past Lifehacker Hive Five topics. Lifehacker readers tend to gravitate towards the fastest and lightest-weight solutions even when constraints like using a netbook aren't brought into the equation.
Aside from searching out lightweight versions of applications your normally use, the netbook also benefits from applications you'd likely never use on a desktop computer.
Netbooks, for example, make pretty handy ebooks. They're full color, they have no annoying DRM or restrictions, and they're lightweight with a long battery life. I've been experimenting with using my netbook as an ebook reader and don't have any complaints to log. If your netbook doesn't already support screen rotation, you can easily remedy that situation by downloading EeeRotate—in use in the screenshot above. The tiny application allows you to rotate your screen using CTRL+ALT+RIGHT (you can rotate it so that you hold the netbook with the screen on your right or left hand side) and it reverses the axis of the mouse so you can still use your mouse without hassle. Pressing CTRL+ALT+UP will return the screen to normal.
If you're a Gmail user, you'll definitely want to enable Offline Gmail to allow you to compose emails in Gmail when you're between wireless hotspots and unable to access the net. If you're not a Gmail user it's worth downloading an full-fledged email client like Thunderbird and configuring it to use your web-based email so you can enjoy the same functionality.
Even if your keyboard chops are up to par, it's still a pain to launch applications on a netbook. Although I've yet to install Launchy—as much as I love it!—on my main Windows 7 desktop, most netbooks run Windows XP and Launchy can go a long way towards making application launching pleasant on the tiny keyboard and touchpad. Check out our guide to doing more with Launchy here.
Being able to shuttle files between your main workstation and your netbook, as well as keeping them backed up, is a must. Dropbox is a valuable addition to your netbook for this task. It's lightweight, it's fast, and for most users the free account is more than adequate. While writing this article I used Dropbox multiple times to easily toss screenshots and installation files between my netbook and desktop and as I took notes about the netbook—on the netbook!—I saved the .TXT file to Dropbox. Check out how to use Dropbox for more than just file syncing here.
Netbooks serve as an excellent go-between tool for lightweight and portable notetaking and web browsing, especially with the proper tweaking and software selection. While our list of tweaks and software suggestions is long, it's certainly not exhaustive. If you have a netbook of your own, it's time to sound off in the comments with your tips, tricks, and favorite applications for maximizing your netbook's capabilities.