Netbooks for Photographers

A lot of photographers are looking into netbooks as an affordable laptop that is small and light that hopefully can do the job of editing, capitioning and sending their photos.

My main laptop is a 15 inch MacBook Pro with an Intel chip running at 2.4 ghz with 4 GB of ram. I needed a small laptop for a trip overseas that would serve as a back-up, have long battery life and could run a java based application called Shootlive that allows for remote editing.

Initally I was going to buy a MSI Wind because it could be hacked to run Mac OSX. I didn't have time to order one online, so it was off to the local Best Buy. They didn't have the MSI Wind in stock and an Asus EEE PC 1000-HEB was in stock. The unit advertised extra-long battery life so I purchased it and hoped this would be a good choice to play movies on the long plane trip to France.


For $349 USD, plus local tax, I got a laptop running Windows XP SP 3 with a 10 inch screen, 1GB of ram, an almost full-size keyboard and an array of inputs including 3 USBs, mic and headphone jacks, SD card reader, ethernet jack, video out and a Kensington type lock hole. Also included are a video web cam and microphone perfect for Skpe. This model has a 160 GB hard drive, which is a important if you are doing any kind of photo-editing and need storage for an iTunes library of videos and podcasts to take on your long journey.


I loaded up the computer with some Windows software which I had laying around that I purchased for my 7-year old Dell Laptop. I couldn't find my copy of Photoshop so I installed Lightroom 2.3, an updated version of PhotoMechanic along with the usual Firefox web-browser and internet apps. A lot of photo-related applications are not designed to run on the Asus' 1024x600 screen resolution, but they give you a hack by letting you set the screen to 1024x768 which provides you with a virtual scroll, sans scroll bars.

On the flight to Boston, I lauched iTunes and start watching a movie. Everything was fine until suddenly the computer crashed. I tried re-booting it, but the BIOS couldn't find the boot drive. I thought the 3-day old drive was dead,but later I figured out that it couldn't operate at altitude. By contrast my MacBook Pro worked fine on the airplane. This problem with the hard drive is a good reason to get a solid-state drive when they get down to reasonable prices.


I finally made it to France to cover the Cannes Film Festival and set up my little netbook for the sole purpose to run ShootLive and transmit the photos over the local Orange 3G network. Everything worked to perfection. I would use the netbook to download memory cards with photos and an editor would look at the selection and have the netbook transfer the cropped and toned images back to New York for distribution only minutes after I shot them.

Later I would use my Apple MBP for a second edit to send the rest of my photos. During the second week of covering the film festival, my MBP's video died on me. I had to rely on my netbook for all my editing. This proved to be a true test of whether a netbook could handle editing of many photos on deadline. The biggest problem was the screen, it was way too small for Lightroom and even with all the panels closed, my editing still suffered in efficiency. I sent half as many photos as normal and it took twice as long. The other slow down was the actually processor speed. What would take just a second to do on my MBP would take 10 seconds on the Asus.

Back home I decided to see if I could make the netbook more photo-friendly. The first thing I did was order more ram. A 2GB stick from Amazon.com is only about $30 bucks with shipping and handling. It literally takes a mintue to put in. Just unscrew two small screws to the access panel and you can get to the ram and hard drive. I watched the youtube video beforehand, but I don't think it's necessary. It may be the easiest laptop in the world to change ram. One small thing they don't tell you is that after you install the ram, you have to re-start into the computer's BIOS to make sure it recognizes the 2GB. Otherwise you left scratching your head when your OS says you have only 1GB of ram.


The second thing I did was download Windows 7. The release candidate is free from Microsoft, and after hearing how it ran well on netbooks, I decided to give it a try. Netbooks don't have any optical drives, so an external DVD drive makes things easier for software installs. The other option is using a USB thumb drive.


Windows 7 installed easily and has some great features that are perfect for a netbook. It has a very Mac OSX like dock/system tray that could be put on the side of the screen, freeing up space on the bottom. I have the dock auto hide to give me even more screen real estate for applications. You do have to re-install the ASUS specific drivers after you install Windows 7 if you want to continue using some ASUS-specific hardware stuff. Installing Windows 7 made the screen resolution back to 1024x600 without the virtual mode. You can get back some screen real estate by setting the fonts smaller, I have very small windows bar now, and by putting the taskbar on the side.


I found my copy of Photoshop CS2 for Windows buried deep in my garage and even though they recommend 1024x768 screen, it installed fine and I could read any window. The same could be said about PhotoMechanic. The biggest window in PM, the IPTC stationary pad, barely fits on the screen and I can access all the fields and buttons.


The big question is with all the upgraded ram and the nifty operating system, how does the netbook perform with demanding applications like Photoshop? I think the biggest problem maybe the video card. I noticed some jitterness and dropped frames when trying to watch a movie via iTunes and even a flash movie via the new Hulu desktop applications. In PhotoMechanic, it took a long time to generate thumbnails of the images. The Atom 1.6 ghz processor is on the slow side compared to my MBP. I could open up 8 images from my Canon IdMK2N in Photoshop and it did a decent job with some actions. It just takes a lot longer trying to look at the previews in PM.


Another bottleneck in speed is the slow USB 2.0 ports in comparison to the faster Firewire 800/400 ports of the MBP. That makes downloading a big memory card a lot slower. On the positive side, Asus gives you 3 USB ports, where my MBP's has 2 and a Mac Book Air has only 1.

The netbooks' trackpad has some problems. The click buttons take a lot of effort and after a short time editing photos, my fingers hurt. This is one spot where they really skimp on netbooks. Think about adding a mouse to your computer bag. However, the power brick for the ASUS is very small, much smaller then any Apple brick.


Windows 7 does have a nice feature that Mac OSX doesn't have, the ability for the laptop to keep running and not go to sleep with the lid closed. It is an option in the control panel. So you can run applications like transmitting photos and close the lid and it keeps on working, it just turns off the screen. Which is great if you are working and shooting with the laptop beside you.


The top feature on the Asus netbook is battery life. My MBP battery life with a brand new battery is about 2 hours, 2.5 hours max. The Asus says you can have like 8 hour battery life, but in the real world with everything turned on to the max, it falls to about 4 hours, which is great when you can't plug-in but you still have to transmit photos from a long event. With the original ASUS hybrid engine control panel set to conserve energy, you could probably get 6+ hours of life.


I found out after I purchased the ASUS that Best Buy sells, the model 1000HEB, which is different than the 1000HE sold through Amazon.com. The HEB model doesn't have bluetooth, has the older Atom N270 instead of the newer Atom N280 chip, and has the B/G wifi and not the newer N. I was wondering why their price was cheaper. Everything else is the same. I think the only real difference is the battery life, they claim 9 hours on the newer book, probably because the N280 runs more efficently. The difference in processor speed is negligable, 1.6 mghz to 1.66 mghz.

If you are a photographer whose priority in a laptop is ultra-portablitiy and long battery life, the ASUS and similar netbooks could be a perfect fit. It's small screen size and slower processor is going to slow you down, but it's great for smaller editing jobs, web-browsing, email and some word processing chores.