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I have an IT question, I hope that's the place to ask it.

I'm building a team for a specific project and am considering buying Netbooks for the first time, the reason being cost-reduction (we are a lean-and-mean operation, I'm looking to save on whatever I can). The whole team is very mobile, sharing time between working at home to working at the office to working on airplanes... So desktops are out of the question.

My team has both software developers and "documentation guys" - designers and marketing folk.

The programmers are using mostly Python, and most of them running a small MySQL installation (developer installation). The rest of the guys are using mostly Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Is Netbook a viable choice for my programmers? And for the rest?

What are the trade-offs I should be aware about when choosing between Notebooks and Netbooks?

EDIT: Reading some of the answers, I understand I had an underlying assumption when asking my question. I assumed that netbooks, like notebooks, have docking stations allowing for work with large screens and "normal" keyboards in the office or at home. Is that incorrect?

Many thanks

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closed as off topic by Bart De Vos, Mark Henderson Mar 8 '12 at 9:55

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probably better off asking this on stackoverflow.com –  AnonJr May 27 '09 at 14:06
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Most developers I know aren't as productive on their laptops as they are their desktops with dual huge displays. Really screen real estate has a high importance to them. Netbooks are toys, not really for doing work. –  sparks May 27 '09 at 14:13
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@AnonJr: I'm a StackOverflow enthusiast, however I'm 100% sure if I asked it there they would tell me to go here... –  Roee Adler May 27 '09 at 14:23
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The question perhaps belongs in both places. Considering it's asked from an IT perspective -- i.e. asking about choosing hardware for particular needs -- I think it fits in here. And I'm sure I'm not the only developer that hangs around here too :-) –  Chris W. Rea May 27 '09 at 14:24
    
Joel (himself!) added a new tag to this question: "devel-environment", and after that addition I edited my post. Due to some bug (I think), I could not post my edit until I removed Joel's tag. Sorry for that. –  Roee Adler May 27 '09 at 14:31
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23 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I wouldn't recommend Netbooks personally for the following reasons:

  • Small keyboard. Your programmers are most likely going to hate the small keyboard after a short time period. Productivity killer.
  • Possibly slow speed. For running the software depending on which processor you get it may be quite slow compared to what they could use - this could be a big productivity killer.
  • Small screen. The tradeoff here is more a personal preference to the user and how well they can work with their constraints. At least with code it's nice to be able to bring up two documents and not need to squint.
  • Hard Drive space. There isn't much and depending on how much data you're dealing with is a point worth noting.
  • Graphics. Depending on the netbook the graphics card will be sufficient to run an external monitor and you could use an external keyboard/mouse via USB. It's worth noting that the vast majority of netbooks provide VGA out so you'll have to double check the monitor being used can still use VGA - that said how well your programmers can cope with the massive discrepancy in screen size may be more of a hassle both than it's worth. That's in terms of both managing dual monitors or having everything sized for a larger monitor and going back to a very small monitor.

Summation: If the constraints of a netbook don't hinder your users, sure. If they do you'll only be frustrating your users.

EDIT: Added last note about graphics cards to address edit in question.

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I agree with the keyboard and resolution comments for developers. Graphics shouldn't be a concern, and hard drive space shouldn't if non SSD. I think that the Atom can compile a small to medium app in not too bad of a time. But who cares about that, since resolution is a deal breaker for developers (I'm a developer). I still want a netbook, but as was said earlier, just as a toy! –  Gromer May 27 '09 at 20:47
    
After trying to code on my netbook (Acer aspire one 8.9") I bought a external monitor right away, my back is still killing me, the screen is too small and you have to look down all the time, the keyboard isn't that unconfortable, but isn't good either. I'm running visual studio 2008 and sql server express, mostly to learn asp.net mvc, and the performance for me is acceptable, but far from good. At least for small and test projects it is usable (1GB RAM, Atom 1.6ghz, 120GB HD). –  Fabio Gomes Jun 22 '09 at 17:45
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You guys are really spoiled. I live in Ghana, Africa. I use an old HP Compaq Pentium M with a resolution of 1024x768 for my web development. I just completed university. It works perfectly for me. I won't mind the extra real estate, but there is nothing that you cannot achieve with this resolution. I was limited on cash in school so I didn't have much of a choice. So I grew to love small screens. I sometimes code on my girlfriend's netbook and I never have any problems. I actually prefer small devices since I usually move around a lot even in my own room. The extra battery life proves to be very nice too. I do Ruby on Rails with quite a lot of GIMP and Inkscape work.

I would say a netbook is an ideal web development machine if you can train yourself to use it efficiently.

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We just bought a bunch of netbooks for our developers but for reasons that likely won't apply to most of you. Battery time and heat production were our main considerations.

In our area of India, power is not very reliable. Usually one day a week there is no electricity for six to ten hours, and our backup can only power so many computers. When power is out, we just unplug the 22" monitors and put the netbooks on a notebook stand. The external mouse and keyboard will still work, so while our developers will work from a horribly small screen until power is back up, they continue to be productive.

Also, netbooks produce significantly less heat. With average temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius here, this is another major win with netbooks. Savings on electricity will be multiplied by savings on A/C.

These were for us the considerations to go with netbooks rather than desktops or laptops. But as said, this hopefully won't apply to most of you.

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What about a nice dual core Neo or Atom netbook 11.6" or 12" and 2 Gigs of RAM or better like the Asus 1201n or hp DM1-2070. It may work and only 92% keyboard size on the HP looks tempting

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I beg to differ with many of the post in a way. I would not use it as my primary development tool. However, it is great for practicing and improving your development skills while on the train. Yeah, the screen size and power is not great, but your back will thank you in the future because your sacrificed those for a netbook's light-weight. I am getting one soon and plan on using Visual Studio 2008 and 2010 on my while traveling to and from work.

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Disregarding the ergonomics, connecting to a full-size screen and keyboard+mouse, an Atom cpu simply hasn't got any power left over for real work...

...this might be fine if it's just scripting, or getting some things done on a flight, but any developing in say c++ (or java, .net and so forth to a lesser degree) which requires compiling and linking - or integration with databases or any other system dealing with more than one environment at a time - will tax the cpu. If it's a c++ programmer in particular, by a lot - don't settle for less than the latest and greatest processor(s) and matched system - a 2 second wait instead of 10 or perhaps 20 makes a big difference... if the current application is large enough, we're talking minutes instead and that really makes a difference.

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I have a netbook I use to VPN/Remote Desktop to my big desktop machine..the desktop runs all my real software -it's always on - and the netbook is just for accessing when I am not in my office..I do alot of scrolling around though..but..the weight and size of the netbook is good for me..I bought the Lenovo version that has the Express card slot so I can use a phone card when WiFi is not available. I am going to invest in a 9 cell battery soon..it's a little more weight but being able to be on for more hours will be worth it..

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I can't imagine programming with less than a full sized 104 key keyboard in front of a desktop with 2 monitors or 1 very large monitor. I guess I could, but I wouldn't be very productive.

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I believe Jeff Atwood authored the definitative post on the subject:

Coding Horror: The Programmer's Bill of Rights

...Jeff's post is the best outline for developer productivity (and morale) enhancement I've seen. And it's not just the what but the why, which helps make the business case for the investment required. Take this post to heart when selecting computers for your developers.

The netbook does have its place in the workplace, just not as anyone's primary workstation.

The upside is portability and price. The downside is productivity and performance.

A netbook is best suited to casual web browsing on the sofa, at the coffee shop, or while lying in the hammock in the back yard. It also can be useful as a business traveling companion; it fits nicely on the tray table (even when the guy in front of you decides to recline and take a nap) and, once you get where you're going, it works fine to connect to a projector for PowerPoint presentation client dazzlement (though you won't want to author your presentation on one).

A netbook can be an acceptable Outlook client (though the screen is a bit small even for that) and can capabily run Office applications. Most likely you'll only use it to reference existing documents or make minor edits.

You might even be able to get by with Outlook Anywhere (formerly OWA) and the free-to-download Office document viewer applications if you only need to reference documents (and pinch pennies).

None of the netbooks I've seen have a true docking solution; VGA and USB is all you get.

Key things to look for are memory expandability (some come with 1 GB and will accept no more), screen size (some are just too small to be useful), and a six-cell battery (that should get you at least 7 hours unplugged). Keyboard quality and size are also important if you expect to do anything other than web browsing (even a quick email response can be frustrating on a cramped chicklet keyboard). No optical media, so you're stuck with the in-flight movie (does anyone still do that?).

All portable computers are an amalgamation of compromises; understand the trade-offs. David Pogue of the New York Times does his take on the netbook as "Mr. Compromise" (video).

I picked up an ASUS Eee PC to play around with a few weeks ago. My primary interest was for casual use around the house and when traveling. I upgraded to a 2GB DIMM and have Windows 7 RC and Office loaded. I find I use it more than I expected (the whole family does), but I certainly wouldn't want it to be my only computing device.

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I think that a netbook would be fine for the users you described as only needing to use office applications. Developers would need something a bit stronger. what they need depends on the complexity and requirements of the applications they are working on. I think that as developers we tend to ignore the difference between what we need and what we want. I use a very powerful laptop at work, which is understandable as the applicaton I work on is very performance intense and interacts with several external devices and software components. My work at home is done on a 6 year old laptop on which I mainly do web development using asp.net. That old laptop is easily able to handle all the tools I use, visual studio, dream weaver, photoshop, etc. What you get your devs doenst have to be state of the art 2500 dollar laptops, even though every dev including myself would love to have one.

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In my experience as a developer, netbooks and all but your most powerful notebooks are inadequate for every day development, and even the more powerful notebooks leave something to be desired.

There's a lot to be said for having a great workstation setup, not just the power issue that others have brought up, but the ergonomics and the monitors! Very few notebooks can handle 3 monitors (and no netbooks can), and even fewer can even handle 2 monitors @ 1680x1050 or higher, as far as I know.

Your developers may be mobile enough that notebooks make more sense than desktops, but I would greatly prefer a desktop for primary development and a netbook for checking email and occasionally SSHing in to servers remotely to provide support.

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No offense, but frankly if some IT guy was trying to impose netbooks on Information workers at work, I would try to have him fired asap. And I am an IT guy. Just multiply people salaries by the productivity loss to understand the problem.

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That's a bit harsh - wouldn't it be better to talk with that person to try to bring them to a better understanding of developers' needs? Firing people at random is not good for overall productivity either :) –  RedFilter May 27 '09 at 17:09
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Firing might be over-reacting, but normally - any worker stationed in front of a computer all day, needs the best damn workstation money can buy - really ^^ –  Oskar Duveborn May 29 '09 at 21:18
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I would not use netbooks for any of the users you mention, except as secondary devices for checking email and doing the occasional support or bug fix when on the road. Even with come kind of monitor expansion and external keyboard, they simply don't have the horsepower. I would be surprised if modern IDEs will even load on a netbook.

You might consider a small screen but highly-powered laptop with a docking station and external monitor for a primary workspace. You might even consider two docking station setups if they have two primary (i.e. home and office). If time actually on the road is relatively small, you might consider desktops for the primary workspace and netbooks as extra devices, using GoToMyPC or an equivalent to access the desktop when out of the office.

1- Developers and designers tend to love lots of screen real estate. When mobile, that needs to be sacrificed. If they have no primary workspace, then they likely never will get it.
--> check out the Lenovo laptop with the "sidecar" extra display and the digital tablet built in!

2- These are expensive people. Be careful weighing productivity against upfront cost .. slow and frustrated developers are a cost that keep on costing. I would err on the side of power, memory and screen size.

3- Include connectivity in your consideration. If they will be frequently mobile also include cases and some kind of remote backup as well.

Good luck. Please update the post or add a comment with what actually happens!

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The exact definition of a "netbook" is a little vauge, but generally they're cheap, small, ultra-portable PCs, the kind of thing that you can carry around with you to check your email on the train or whatever, and it wouldn't be a complete diaster if you lost/dropped/broke it. Netbooks do generally come with an external VGA port for plugging in to a large screen but that still doesn't give them a higher display resolution, and you can of course plug them in to as many USB keyboards and mice as you like, but I haven't seen any yet that come with a snazzy all-in-one docking station.

Unless you're on a very tight budget you are probably best letting your developers have whatever computer equipment they want within reason, or simply buying them a desktop, laptop and/or netbook and save the messing around.

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The programmers are using mostly Python, and most of them running a small MySQL installation (developer installation). The rest of the guys are using mostly Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Netboooks would involve too much waste of developer time. In general netbooks are designed to use very little power = massive loss in processing power. The cost of laptop hardware is nothing compared to the cost of developers sitting around waiting.

  • Others: economize here, netbooks are fine
  • Programmers: spend every last cent on cpu/ram for these machines

Also, don't assume there will be docking stations available! If we wanted to dock our Vostros, for example, we'd have to look into 3rd party hardware.

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For their development machine, most programmers need lots of screen area, memory, processing power, connectors, a docking station with a big screen/multiple screens for it, a comfortable keyboard and a good mouse. A netbook would not really be able to supply any of this, but it could be a good investment still, since they are so cheap compared to notebooks, just to make sure a programmer has a computer with them everywhere. Cutting corners when you don't have much money is okay but if you do pay your programmers you should consider if you can afford making them unproductive by giving them equipment that is not up to the task.

For the rest you can probably skimp a bit more on processing power and multiple screens, etc. But I don't think a netbook would be a viable choice for them either.

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As a programmer, the smallest screen I'll use for development work is my 17" MacBookPro, but I preferred the 24" and 21" monitors I had as a dual screen setup at my last job.

You need lots of screen real-estate for your IDE, docs, and the application or a web browser or two to look at your test site. A Netbook, by definition, doesn't have the screen real-estate for that.

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The biggest strike against netbooks for this type of work is the small screen. The screen on most if not all netbooks is too small for a modern IDE. You could get vim + a command window using 6x13 into 1024x600 but an IDE is not going to work.

If your team is mobile your main compromise is between weight and screen real-estate. In essence, the more pixels the better, as long as the text remains readable. For example, I did once have a 15" Toshiba Tecra with a 1680x1050 screen that I couldn't use because the text was too small for my slightly decrepit eyesight.

One return flight and a few nights in a hotel will cost as much or more than a laptop, so cutting corners on this hardware is likely to be a false economy. Hardware cost will also be a small fraction of the cost of the software in most development shops. Although Python and MySQL are free, Visio and Office are not and the more expensive incarnations of (say) Visual Studio can run to several thousand USD.

One significant win with netbooks is battery life, but the ergonomics of spending an 8 hour flight working on an EEE-PC 901 are not going to work for most people.

So, on the whole I think that netbooks probably won't work very well as development machines. For development work you're better off getting the machine with the biggest screen that you can comfortably lug around.

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Big screen is definitely a requirement. I gave up a really nice Thinkpad a few years ago because the 15" screen just wasn't big enough for dev work. Had some crazy high resolution, but even my 20 something year old eyes weren't good enough to work on those tiny pixels for long without going cross-eyed! –  Brian Knoblauch May 27 '09 at 16:50
    
If only Windows could scale as good as Gnome on high DPI screens... I once started Gnome session on a 2024x1536 21" screen and it defaulted to something like 180 or 190DPI. I was sure I was working at 1024x768 (or thereabouts) and went to control panel to change it. That was quite an amazement... –  Hubert Kario Nov 8 '10 at 20:25
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The only reason why should you consider netbook for developers, is when they have to take it to some presentation (where they'll connect it to overhead projector).

Netbooks are not apt for development, as generally they lack robustness (CPU, memory), have reduced size keyboard and small, low resolution and low quality screens. They use small and extremally slow 1.8" HDDs, or even smaller flash disks.

There in frikin' way, you could run development tools based on Eclipse on netbook.

You should consider buying notebooks with at least 15" screens, at least 3GB of RAM (6GB would be better), at least dual core CPU, fast HDD, decent GPU to handle all the eye-candy of modern tools.

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I use a netbook at home for web development. The only real productivity killer has been the speed of the SSD. I have the EEE 1000. If I were to do it again I would get the EEE 1000H and replace the hard drive with a good SSD(ie OCZ Vertex) and upgrade the RAM to 2GB. I use Ubuntu Netbook Remix, apache, mysql, Firefox w/ Firebug, and vim. The transition from a much faster desktop was harsh, but now that I am used to the keyboard, the portability is freeing. The Atom processor is slow in comparison, but I think its worth the battery life gained.

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My philosophy has always been to get the most powerful systems in the hands of the developers. I believed this as a developer, and as a system administrator, and still as a database administrator. I understand that they are running Python and MySQL, but if they are serious about their craft, they are going to need the power. Plus there is the issue of screen real-estate. With a netbook you can certainly plug in a monitor when you're at home or in the office, but not when you're on a plane or remote. One of the reasons I have a wider laptop is for the screen size.

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I second the power issue. Developers are notorious for outgrowing their systems quickly. Also, on screen real-estate, don't just get a cheap, large notebook. Get one that can do high resolution as well, so each developer can maximize his ability to work. –  Milner May 27 '09 at 14:48
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Strongly against that: Don't give the developers anything stronger than the target customers are expected to have, in essence this means: a standard office PC. Of course put some good graphics card in it that can handle 2 screens (if budget allows it). Developers with strong machines will (usually) just use all the resources they can get and then you'll have a resource hog as a product in the end (the same is true for sysadmin where just because the test install with 5GB of data scales doesn't mean it will with 5TB on data) –  Server Horror Jun 24 '09 at 23:18
    
@Server Horror: I can't say I wholly agree with you. Target customers are rarely expected to compile their applications repeatedly, nor are they generally expected to use an IDE. By all means, make the TEST machines the same as the target machines, and mandate that all software be tested on them prior to release, but crippling a developer machine by giving it the same specs as a Word + EMail + Web Browsing machine just doesn't sound like a brilliant idea. –  JMusgrove Nov 12 '10 at 21:44
    
@JMusgrove By no means crippling productivity is what I meant. I you need an ueber-workstation to get work done -- Go get it. But I've all too often seen developer stations with 8GB of RAM some multi-core CPU, HW-RAID controller and whatnot just because it was possible to get it -- Guess what? 5 other people in the team suddenly needed that too. Not because they wanted but out of a sudden they needed it -- let me repeat: If the power is needed nothing's wrong with giving it to the team but why not try to solve it with brain instead of hardware? :) –  Server Horror Nov 15 '10 at 21:04
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As a programmer, I'd be unhappy with a netbook. I have a netbook for light web browsing and for ease of portability. Even with the notebook my work provided me I am unhappy from a programming perspective. I much prefer desktops. I think overall, it is a personal decision, but I think for 90% of the population, netbooks will be too small.

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The keyboard may be an issue. Many cut corners to get the size down and since you don't get a full keyboard, typing may be frustrating.

System resources and screen size may be an issue for some as well. I know the Dell netbooks only come with XP, and with Windows 7 just around the corner, the netbook landscape could change shortly.

I considered this a few months ago and decided it was better off getting a 13" notebook. I paid a bit more but it was worth it.

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Screen size/resolution would be my main concern. You need as much as possible for coding, and the low resolution of a Netbook makes it pretty uncomfortable to work on. –  James Sutherland May 27 '09 at 14:08
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