Thursday, October 27, 2016
Publication Date: 05/1/2008
Archive >  May 2008 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

No Moving Parts
Walter Salm, Editor
What goes around comes around. How many times have we heard that old saw? Last month in this space, I was bemoaning the demise of truly small, ultralight ultra simple computers like the old Omnibook 300, and was appalled at the high cost for two new hard-disk-driveless computers from Lenovo and Apple.

Just about the time that the March issue of U.S. Tech went to press, I walked into a warehouse club in Florida and discovered the new light of my life: the ASUS EEE PC (reviewed on page 10 of this issue). This tiny, ultralightweight computer takes the concept of no moving parts to a new level without tacking on a prohibitively high price. Selling for $299 (for the 2GB Linux version) and $399 (for the 4GB Windows XP version), it has everything the old Omnibook 300 had plus much more — with one glaring exception; when the battery runs down, you can't pop in a pair of AA batteries to power up again. But wait, is this a possible market for the Medis $25 fuel-cell power pack?

No moving parts means that the user has to rely on outboard USB-connected items: a pocket-size hard disk drive, an external DVD reader, and quite likely a powered USB hub. And the keyboard, although it is fully functional, is rather minuscule; it just doesn't work for a speed typist; I found myself using the ultralight computer with my trusty Scorpius 35 clickety-clack keyboard with trackball, the same way I always use the external keyboard with my other notebook computers.

What Asus has done here is to rethink the computer. This is no cheapie Chinese toy company; their regular line of notebooks command retail prices in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. With one shot, the company has decided to go after a much larger market segment, which not only includes a lot of youngsters ($400 is a lot easier on the family budget than $1,000 or more for a laptop), but also includes on-the-go people like sales and marketing people, editors and reporters — hard-working stiffs like us.

The secret to this bit of "new technology" lies in two areas: the ever-shrinking size and cost of flash memory, and the manufacturer's recognition of the fact that many people don't really need all those costly bells and whistles on a notebook computer that's designed to travel.

A trip to CostCo or Best Buy or Wal-Mart will reveal that the cost of today's flash memory is an incredibly cheap $10 per gigabyte — whether it's on USB dongles or SD/MMC cards or even smaller. External HDDs are similarly low-cost. For that matter, you can visit the Tiger Direct website and see 500GB HDDs for $89.99, and a Terabyte drive for $219.99. If my math is correct, that works out to less than 22 cents per gigabyte! If you buy a pair of the $90 500GB drives, that's 18 cents per GB.

One of the hidden dangers of digital technology is inherent in the small size of the new hardware. Everything is just too easy to steal and conceal, and they're easy to lose. The tiny components are even more of a headache. The other day, a very important, and very small accessory came up missing. It was an old, but very useful Lexar SD/MMC card reader that looks like an overgrown USB dongle. The case opens up, slide in the SD chip, close and plug into the nearest USB port. It's simple, it's elegant, it was about $20 at Wal-Mart about 4 years ago. Try to find a replacement! I finally "replaced" it with a multi-card reader with a cable to plug into USB. Cost: $20 at Wal-Mart. And naturally, 3 days later, the missing gadget was found stuck in a deep corner of a computer bag's pocket. I welcomed it like a long-lost son.

Can I keep up with all of this new technology? The kid down the block knows far more than I do, and is better versed about all the latest and greatest. Of course. He/she actually watches those TV commercials and has a mile-long wish list ready for Santa or the next birthday. Trouble is, by that time, half the stuff on the list will already be obsolete.  

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