Writer’s Netbook

About a year and half ago when I moved across the country, I started using my MacBook as my main machine. By now, it is way too plugged into external hard drives, external monitors, headphones, KVM switches and other devices to comfortably move around the house. I’d consider replacing it with a PowerMac desktop, but that would likely cost more than a second, cheap laptop that I can use around the house, the library, the university, the park, the coffeeshop, and other places I like to just write. A NetBook might do, but I really want a good sized keyboard. here’s what I’m looking for:

  • Must run Microsoft Word well. I wish it were otherwise; but OpenOffice just won’t cut it for professional tech authors. For computer books, Word is the low end. Past that, you’re looking at FrameMaker, TEX, or DocBook.
  • A full-sized, keyboard, preferably with a decent set of full sized arrow keys and page up and page down keys. (MacBooks are problematic here.)
    Alternatively, I would be willing to consider a tablet PC with handwriting recognition that really works, especially if it works well in Word.
  • A 15″ screen seems ideal. I might go a little smaller but not all the way to 9″ or 10″ like most netbooks. I could go larger if it were still thin and light.
  • As cheap as possible, ideally under $500.
  • As lightweight as possible. (Will pay more for less weight.)
  • I will use this in my lap, so it must not heat up uncomfortably.
  • Trackpad

They’re a few other requirements there are just assumed nowadays: wireless networking and a fast web browser.

Non-requirements include:

  • Any particular operating system.
  • An internal optical drive
  • A big hard drive
  • A built-in webcam
  • Built-in speakers

The MacBook Air is nice, but it’s too expensive, and the keyboard layout doesn’t include all the keys I like. What’s the cheapest machine out there that meets my requirements? If it’s cheap enough, I may just grab one. If not, I may wait to see if Apple ever releases their rumored tablet.

Maybe a Dell Adamo seems to have the best keyboard but is at least 100% too expensive. ThinkPad X200? (no trackpad :-( )ThinkPad X300? ThinkPad X200 Tablet? Dell Studio 14z? Toshiba Portege R600?

3 Responses to “Writer’s Netbook”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    I’m curious about which features you miss from OO.o.

  2. Lorenzo Gatti Says:

    Conversely, I’m curious about what special features make Word suitable for “professional tech writers”.
    Back in the day I used Word 97 for my thesis and it failed in a number of spectacular ways, from replacing fonts upon printing to moving around notes; I would have been better off learning LaTeX.

  3. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    From OpenOffice I personally miss the Outline mode and normal view. These are absolutely critical for my workflow. Beyond that, OpenOffice is just missing a lot of polish in a lot of little ways that add up to something that’s cumulatively very unsatisfying. I did actually write on book with OpenOffice, and it added months to the process and eventually got dumped into Word anyway. When you’re producing hundreds of pages, it’s really important to have a tool that works with you instead of against you.

    Those are things that I think will bother any long-form writer; but for computer book authors specifically (which is a very different world from theses) pretty much all the publishers from Dummies Press to O’Reilly have extensive Word templates that help you author the book in exactly the form their publishing systems need. Any deviation form that causes added pain and expense, and OpenOffice just isn’t compatible enough with Word to handle the macros and styles in these templates. They also make heavy use of Word features for editing, indexing, reviewing comments, copy editing, and more. Some publishers are more willing than others to work from other formats; but unless you’re going all the way to camera ready copy, they’d really prefer you to use Word.

    As to what makes Word especially useful for computer book authors, it’s just a really well-designed writing tool that integrates well with page layout programs. It sounds like your problems arose when trying to use it both to write and layout final printed copy. I agree that Word is not adequate for professional page layout. In fact, I’m not sure any tool really can do both except perhaps FrameMaker. When thinking about writing you shouldn’t be thinking about formatting and page layout. When thinking about page layout, you shouldn’t be thinking too deeply about the text. Writing and page layout are different activities usually best performed by different people.

    The specific advantage of Word is that the styles used for writing can be organized in such a way that it makes the page layout tasks easier and more automatic. The O’Reilly templates are a particularly well-done example of this, but all computer book publishers have them. Word’s reviewing tools are also excellent, and heavily used within the industry. Finally many (not all) publishers make heavy use of Word macros to assist with writing, indexing, and page layout.

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