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3 Ways to Make Your Old Netbook Suck Less

cheap-netbooks-in-store

Netbooks are terrible, as most people now agree. They seemed like a good idea at the time, offering a cheap laptop experience in a small package. But they were ultimately too slow, too small, and too poorly built.

Many netbooks are now lying around, unused. If you’re one of the people who purchased a netbook and can’t bring yourself to use it, these tips may help you get some more value out of your investment.

Optimize Windows For Speed and Screen Space

Many netbooks came with Windows 7 Starter Edition and could barely handle it. If you’re using a netbook that came with Windows 7, you can speed it up with some simple tweaks:

  • Reduce Startup Programs: Use a startup manager like the one included with CCleaner and disable as many startup programs as possible. The fewer programs that start, the more RAM your netbook has available for use. On slow netbooks, every program you can prevent from automatically starting can make a difference.
  • Use Lightweight Software: Seek out lightweight software for your netbook instead of using heavier software. For example, try Sumatra PDF instead of Adobe Reader and a lightweight music player like foobar2000 instead of iTunes. If you need to write a basic document, try Abiword instead of Microsoft Word. Choosing lightweight software can make a massive difference in your netbook’s responsiveness.
  • Tweak Your Browser: Optimize your browser for its low-resource environment. Use as few browser extensions as possible — these can suck up RAM and CPU cycles. Consider enabling click-to-play plugins in your browser so Flash content — including Flash-based advertisements — won’t slow things down unless you actually want to view it
  • Enable Readyboost: ReadyBoost won’t offer a performance increase on modern machines with sufficient amounts of RAM, but ReadyBoost can offer a noticeable improvement on RAM-starved computers like netbooks. Just insert a USB drive or SD card and select the ReadyBoost option when prompted — Windows 7 will use the drive as a cache.

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You should also consider making the most of what limited screen space you have available to you:

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  • Optimize Your Taskbar: Decide where you want your Windows taskbar. You’ll have more vertical space for applications and web pages if you placed it at the left or right side of your screen. Or, auto-hide the taskbar and it will stay out of sight most of the time.
  • Hide Your Browser’s Interface: Hide unnecessary browser toolbars by right-clicking in your browser’s toolbar and selecting the appropriate option. You can also press F11 in any browser to hide the browser’s interface and make the current web page take up the entire screen. Press F11 again to disable full-screen mode.

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Install a Lightweight Linux Desktop

Netbooks weren’t supposed to run Windows. The original netbooks ran lightweight Linux systems, but Microsoft wasted no time and started shipping netbooks with Windows XP — Windows Vista was too heavy — and then Windows 7.

In other words, machines that were originally supposed to run a slimmed-down version of Linux were eventually shipped with Windows 7, requiring antivirus software and all the other stuff that comes with the Windows desktop. It’s no surprise that the netbook market collapsed under the weight of these poorly-performing machines.

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While your netbook may have shipped with Windows, you can replace it with a lightweight Linux system for free. We’ve covered the best Linux distributions for giving that old netbook a new lease on life. A Linux distribution like Puppy Linux can perform well even on systems with 256 MB of RAM. Puppy Linux can even be run entirely from a USB stick, so your netbook’s slow hard drive won’t be a factor. A lightweight Linux system may be just the thing to speed up a netbook that’s choking under the weight of Windows 7 and the requisite antivirus software.

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Turn Your Netbook Into a Server

Okay, so maybe you’ve written that netbook off entirely. It seemed like a good idea at the time because you got such a good deal, but ultimately there’s no reason to use that netbook when you’re happy with another laptop. That doesn’t mean the netbook is completely worthless.

While netbooks may be ill-suited to offering a full desktop software experience, they offer higher-powered hardware than many embedded systems. You could turn that netbook into a server for your home network. For example, you could connect a large external hard drive and use it as a network-attached storage (NAS) device, a media server for other computers in your house, a place to back up files to, or even as an always-on BitTorrent machine. You shouldn’t buy a netbook to use as a server, but there are worse uses if you have one lying around.

Experienced Linux geeks can turn a netbook into a server just by installing an operating system like Ubuntu Server Edition and configuring the appropriate software on it. If you’re looking for something that’s more easy to set up, you may want to try a software distribution built for this purpose, like FreeNAS.

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Ultimately, there’s no fixing the fundamental issues with netbooks in general — cheap build quality, terrible screens, and keyboards that are uncomfortable to type on. But, with some tweaks, they can still be of some use.

Image Credit: Clive Darra on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 09/30/13

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