As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC. The obvious advantages would include:
- Reduced costs: you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
- Open-source alternative OS: the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
- portability: unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it). There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.
Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with. At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask. When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff. It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.
The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to. My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.
That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:
- the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds. Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines. People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
- Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses. One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
- Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron). I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well. This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
- Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
- It gets really hot. It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap. And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
- No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use. Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards. No Second Life. No World of Warcraft.
So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes. The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group. However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:
- It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
- The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
- A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
- A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
- It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
- There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well. For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children. It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
- Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
- The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.
In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library. The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.