As convenient as they are, laptops can be a pain to lug around. They’re heavy, take up table space, generate heat, and need to be plugged into power every couple of hours. For years the computer industry has tried to develop smaller, more portable alternatives to laptops. PDAs, Tablet PCs, and Ultra-Mobile PCs all serve a niche market, but it’s hard for many people to get “real” work done on a device that has a very small screen or lacks a keyboard.
Perhaps the closest we have come to a panacea of mobile computing is the subnotebook. Having many of the same features as a traditional laptop, these devices usually have smaller screens (7-10 inches) and smaller keyboards that give the entire device a smaller size and weight. While they are easier to carry around, subnotebooks have also remained a niche product mainly due to the large price premium attached to them. Even the much-hyped Apple MacBook Air is out of reach for most consumers at $1,800. However, a new breed of subnotebook has emerged over the past couple of years – the Ultra Low-Cost PC.
At first glance, ULPCs tend to look like many other subnotebooks. Under the hood, however, they are very different. ULPCs have slower processors that generate less heat and use less power. They also tend to have only half the memory (RAM) of a typical laptop. There is rarely a CD/DVD drive and there may not even be a hard drive installed. This configuration allows for devices that cost between $300-$600. That doesn’t mean everything in a ULPC is low-tech. Some have built-in solid-state drives much like the USB drive you have on your keyring. They may also have more advanced batteries that allow them to run for many hours without a recharge.
ULPCs are also distinguished by the software they use. Open source software is often used in place of proprietary software. This means that no “taxes” need to be paid for the software licenses and the savings can be passed on to the consumer. The operating system is often a customized version of Linux. Open source apps such as Firefox (for web browsing) and OpenOffice (for word processing, etc.) also tend to be included. It is possible to find ULPCs running Windows, but most of them are not powerful enough to run Vista. The popularity of ULPCs has prompted Microsoft to extend the life of it’s previous (and less resource hungry) operating system, Windows XP. Long live XP!
One of the first ULPCs to get a lot of attention was the One Laptop Per Child XO-1. However, the most popular ULPC on the market is the ASUS Eee PC. There is an excellent video test drive of the Eee PC over at School Library Journal. Similar devices like the Cloudbook have also been on the market for a while, but we are now starting to see interest from major players like HP with its Mini-Note and Dell with its rumored device. When HP and Dell take notice, you should too.
Why have ULPCs become so popular while other mobile devices have had limited success? Consumer needs and habits are changing. More people are using online resources instead of local software. Email, the Web, and social networks are where many are spending their time. Even productivity apps like MS Office can be largely replaced by Google Docs or Zoho. This means that wireless connectivity is very important while fast processors and huge amounts of local storage are not as critical. People are also becoming tied to their digital lives. While no one wants to carry a big, expensive laptop with them everywhere they go, they may very well keep a $400 ULPC in their purse or car most the time.
Are ULPCs a fad? Maybe, but fads in technology can still be very important. Will ULPCs repalce laptops? Not likely, but there is definitely a market for them and a large part of that market includes young people.
So, what does this mean to me, Glen?
- People in your library will increasingly want to access library resources on their own devices. Even school districts are also starting to provide ULPCs to students. Cater to them with comfortable work spaces and power outlets.
- Most libraries now have wireless hotspots. If yours doesn’t offer wireless, stop reading right now and go do it! Make sure it’s reliable and easy to use or you will lose your customers to Panera and Starbucks.
- ULPCs and other mobile devices tend to have smaller screens. Make sure that your website, catalog, and other online resources are at least usable on ULPCs and other gadgets.
- The best way to make sure that your library can handle all of the above is to get a ULPC and play with it. They’re cheap. Your library can’t afford not to have one.