Six Ways to Make Your Netbook More Like a Notebook

Last Updated May 28, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

Ever wish your netbook had just a little more processing power, storage capacity, and battery life? In other words, does it sometimes leave you longing for a real laptop? Fear not: With a few simple tweaks, you can make your netbook run more like a notebook.

1. Improve the battery life
A netbook with a 3-cell battery isn't likely to run more than about two hours on a single charge. Even if you splurged on a 6-cell battery, chances are good you're running out of juice sooner than you'd like. Here's how to stretch that battery to the limit:

2. Double or triple your storage on the cheap

If you bought an inexpensive or early-generation netbook, chances are good it came with a low-capacity solid-state drive (SSD) -- probably just 4-8GB. Fortunately, chances are also good that it came with one or two Secure Digital (SD) slots, and SD media is cheap: Here's an 8GB card for just $11.99 and a 16GB card for $25.49.

No room at the SD-slot inn? How about a 16GB USB flash drive for $29.49? Or a 250GB portable USB hard drive for $82? Needless to say, you can easily upgrade your storage without spending a fortune.


3. Switch to "lean" software
Most netbooks have pokey processors and limited RAM. Consequently, Windows XP and especially Vista tend to run like molasses. If you can upgrade the RAM, by all means do so. Beyond that, consider switching from the usual bloatware to smaller, nimbler applications. Some examples:
  • In place of Adobe Reader, use Foxit Reader to view PDFs.
  • In place of Internet Explorer, use Firefox or, better yet, Google Chrome. Lifehacker found the latter to be the fastest of the browsers.
  • In place of a Norton or McAfee security suite, use nothing. Seriously. Windows Defender does a reliable job of stopping most malware. Firefox will scan your downloads for viruses. And Windows' firewall will thwart most outside intrusions. Most users go way overboard when it comes to system-choking security software.
  • Use Thunderbird in place of Outlook, or skip an e-mail client altogether and check your mail on the Web when traveling.
Using apps like these won't make your netbook faster, per se, but they may make it seem less slow.

4. Keep your stuff in sync
Many users buy netbooks to use as secondary notebooks -- systems they tote when taking short trips or trying to travel light. Of course, you still need access to all your documents and data, and that means signing up for some kind of synchronization service.

For example, Dropbox, Syncplicity, and SugarSync automatically keep your files in sync between two or more computers, while at the same time storing them in "the cloud" for anytime, anywhere access. All three services charge nominal monthly fees if you want more than a few gigabytes of storage.

If you can live without the cloud aspect of the equation, try Windows Live Sync (formerly FolderShare). It quickly and efficiently keeps files synchronized, and it's free to boot (though you're limited to a maximum of 20 libraries, each with up to 20,000 files--not a significant limit for most users).

Finally, don't forget Foxmarks, which synchronizes your Firefox bookmarks and passwords. It's now available for Internet Explorer as well.

5. Get 3G Internet on the run
Few netbooks have built-in modems, but you can still get high-speed Internet access just about anywhere. The secret: your cell phone. For example, you can turn a Windows Mobile phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Or turn a Palm Centro or Treo into a wireless modem. Even an iPhone 3G can pull modem duty, provided you're willing to jailbreak it.

No smartphone? Many regular phones can be "tethered" to netbooks as well. Check with your carrier, or hit Google and search for your phone model and "tethering."

6. Have fun on the run
Because they're light on processing power, netbooks aren't exactly ideal for games or video. But that doesn't mean your travels have to be all work and no play. Start with GOG.com, a site that sells discounted downloads of older games like Painkiller and Fallout 2. These titles have much lower system requirements than the latest games, so even your netbook should run them just fine.

As for movies, TV shows, and the like, you can't beat free video-streaming sites like Fancast and Hulu -- provided you've got access to Wi-Fi. If not, consider stocking up on downloads from Amazon or iTunes. Most netbooks have just enough horsepower to play full-screen video. If yours doesn't, well, even half-screen video is better than nothing.

Okay, your turn: What tricks of the netbook trade have you learned that make the little wonders more travel-friendly? Hit the Comments and share your thoughts.
  • Rick Broida On Twitter»

    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.

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