Netbooks and Google Docs

I’ve gotten a couple of questions in the last couple of days of how I’m liking my netbook and whether I am, as I suggested I would, using Google Docs as my primary word processing program. Rather than giving them each their own entry, let me bundle them up here.

The netbook: So far, I really like it. I think the size netbook I have (8.9-inch screen, a something like 80%-sized keyboard) really is about as small as I could go and actually have it usable for me on a daily basis, but in fact it is actually usable — more so than my 15-inch Toshiba, actually, since it’s a lot lighter to carry and easier to open up and get to business on. I’m not sure I would want to write a novel on it, but I have written articles (and obviously, blog posts) without any real problem at all. For what I use it for during travel (e-mail, browsing, light word processing) and at home use (basically the same thing), it does great.

The only real disadvantage to the netbook at this point is that the screen is small enough that I spend more time than usual craning my neck downward to look at it; I suspect this is a computer where I will need to take a slightly greater number of breaks to avoid neck/wrist/etc strain. This is not a bad thing. Also, I do strongly suspect that people much larger than I am at 5’8″ and of average proportions therein might find a computer of this size a little too small to be useful. But then again I’ve seen really tall people whacking away at Blackberrys, so what do I know.

Google Docs: Actually, I do use it quite a bit… for some things. Google Docs works great for when I’m doing short things that don’t require much in the way of formatting — so for example, it’s perfect for writing short short fiction or Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader pieces or my AMC column. But for things that do require formatting, like novel or novella manuscripts, it’s sort of a bust because, in fact, Google Docs don’t allow you to do anything more than rudimentary formatting (or if it does, does not allow it in a obvious fashion, which amounts to the same thing). Also, Google currently puts a cap on the size of the Google Doc files, which is less than what I need for a whole novel, so again that’s something of an issue. So, basically, I use Google Docs for short stuff, and I end up using Word or Open Office for longer, formatted stuff. It’s not a bad division of labor, especially since I write the longer pieces at my desk anyway, and so don’t need to have those documents be portable. I do occasionally post chapters of longer works into Google Docs for archival purposes, just in case my computer implodes, but that’s just one way I archive work in progress. It’s not for actual writing in that case.

And that’s where I am with portable technology today.

29 Comments on “Netbooks and Google Docs”

  1. “Potentially stupid question alert- So, netbooks don’t run Office?”Yes, they do, if they have some flavor of Windows installed. John’s Acer runs XP, I think. He’d just need to share a CD drive on his desktop for the install.

    I ran into the formatting thing on Google Docs myself. I’m back to Scrivener/Word for the same reason, but I still use Google Docs to keep a current copy of all work as an online backup. Redundancy is good.

  2. Why would you use a whole Office package on a netbook when a simple editor with an autosave feature, like (insert VIM/Emacs/ here) would do? The portable ASCII text file can be loaded later into a word processor and formatted to your heart’s content; you need to proofread it anyway, so no time lost there.

    I think netbooks are immensely useful; in fact, I’m getting one myself ;)

  3. Just curious– do you any concerns about Google’s Terms of Service as it might apply to your writing? How safe is your content on Google Docs? Presumably Google can run their magic algorithms on your writing to extract some potentially useful advertising data; you’re trading convenience (i.e. net-based word processor) for Google to slither around your words. As a professional writer who makes a living from his words, how do you feel about this?
    (I use Google for most of my email, so I’m obviously making similar trade-offs. But I don’t make a living from my email and rarely have anything of consequence to say!)

  4. OLPC, good for reading webcomics at the coffee shop, which is what I got it for really. That and an ebook reader, worked well for Hyperion.

    I managed to get The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett to play on it by ripping DVDs to my preferred format (AVI) which transformed well into Theora. I suppose I should have just installed VLC or something but I wimped out on that.

  5. Timely post! After reading about your fun little new toy — and that a good friend just ordered a Dell Mini for herself online — I sauntered over to Fry’s earlier today and picked me up a nice new white Aspire One. I figure for $350 it’s a fairly guiltless impulse buy. When I started to let my eyes wander to the Lenova’s and HPs, I had to stop myself. The second I start thinking, “I could go one better for another $100…” it becomes not an impulse buy, but a true purchase. At least in my mind. Thing is, I have a HP desktop that I use daily at home for the heavy power compy tasks and a 15″ Gateway laptop that for the last year and a half has been my portable comp for work and leisure travel (I do lots of both). I carry both my work laptop and my Gateway on business trips and lordy am I sick of lugging both out to go through security at airports. if the Acer does right by me, I will be so pleased.

    I was worried about only having WiFi access on the Acer, but it sounds like you’ve not had many problems finding networks? Have you downloaded any files of mentionable size, say, 350MB or so? Is the processing speed really noticeably slower than your other comps? Guess that’s all I need to know, since I’m not a writer or scribe, just a surfer and leecher. :)

  6. I’m curious about what you think about their terms of service as well for google docs. After reading through them, basically there’s no way in hell I’d ever trust anything to it. Specifically this term, bolding is mine:

    11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

    “Promote the services” sure sounds like they reserve the right to use your stuff in their advertising without paying you for it.

    Now, to be fair, Google claims that this isn’t what they mean by this clause, but if the clause meant what they say it means, then why wouldn’t it say that, instead of what it actually says? Nothing in what they claim it’s for has anything to do with service promotion. As such, until they remove the offending terms, I sure wouldn’t use it for anything commercial.

  7. For other perspective, I am 6’2″ and have giant monkey hands (shoe size 14 wide, hands similar). I have now written one 80,000 word novel draft and am 43,000 into a second on a EEE PC, which is the same size or a bit smaller than that one. It took about ten hours to get used to the keyboard, now it’s all gravy.

    So if you were wondering if you should buy one, yes you should. They are wonderful little mobile supplements to your desktop computer.

  8. Big Cheese @ 12: My sticking point is whether netbooks are wonderful little mobile supplements to my *notebook* computer.

    Oh, and how well do these teensy weensy Windows machines (or Linux machines, for that matter) hibernate and resume from standby? I’ve never had a Windows machine that could do that well… least of all compared to my Macbook.

  9. What things does google docs NOT do that you would want them to do as a professional writer?

    You mentioned “formatting” but didn’t go into details.

    And I *so* want a netbook and am flailing about trying to justify the purchase.

  10. I just got an HP Mini-note 2133. Same size screen, but 92% keyboard. It’s pretty awesome. Before this, I was using a VIAO with a 10.4″ screen (this one is 8.9″), and at first I thought it was prohibitively small, but then I fiddled with the resolution, DPI, and font sizes, and now it’s rather brilliant. It’s certainly more crisp and bright. I’m a little disappointed by its processor (it uses a VIA over Intel’s Atom), which seemed not to handle video well, but then I fiddled with the codecs, and it seems more smooth. It’s also running Vista (which, contrary to what seems popular opinion, I love), and I’m using Office ’07 (which I also love). It does Photoshop and Lightroom easily enough; I haven’t tried editing video on it yet, but most everything else has been smooth.

    Just adding to the netbook love and such.

    Oh, and to the question re: Chrome v. IE, I don’t know about the latter, but I’ve tried Chrome a couple of times, and each time it’s seemed to have a larger footprint and require more resources than Firefox, without anything in the way of improvement over it.

  11. My own Aspire One arrived today! I’ve been in the market for new laptop for awhile now, as my Toshiba Satellite has basically given up the ghost, but I just haven’t been happy with any of the possibilities I’ve been coming across.

    Then yesterday, my dad suggested getting two laptops–a netbook for portability and a desktop replacement-style laptop for doing things that require higher performance. Acer offers a computer that fits the second description also, and together they cost less than a MacBook (which is the option I was leaning toward).

    I like the Aspire One so far, though I keep accidentally hitting = instead of backspace. I figure I’ll get used to it, though.

    Mine’s sparkly blue. =)

  12. Size: 6’4″
    Job: 3D animator.

    Wish I could use one. Can’t. Everything I’d use it for, I do on the iPhone which is palmtop and therefore size agnostic.

    But I’m happy for you, li’l buddy.

  13. For those of us who don’t slavishly follow your blog (I swear, it was only a short lapse! I’ll read everything else from now on!), what model netbook did you get?

    I got a blue AspireOne with Linux in Singapore over the summer. Great for watching a tv show or doing stuff on the train going somewhere, but my Open Office is in Chinese, the ‘i’ key sticks, and I’m having trouble getting Wifi to work (probably through my own ignorance of WAP/WEP and Linux). If I could get the wifi running, I’d be very happy (more so if coffee shops in Japan actually offered free wifi).

  14. Regarding taking breaks, I was wondering if you use any software to remind you to take breaks or whether you just take breaks when you realize that you’re tired.

    I use a (free) software called PrevRSI which has worked well for me. There’s also another (free) software called Workrave which I’ve used in the past and it’s pretty good too. (Disclaimer: I’m not involved with either project.)

  15. I’ve seen people use special laptop stands or put their laptop on a pile of books to prevent neck strain. Personally I tend to slouch in an armchair when I use mine so it ends up on the right level anyway.

  16. TIP: If you’d like to save yourself some neck pain at home, buy a cheap USB keyboard, then put your new laptop up on a platform (or a box, or a stack of books, whatever) at eye level. That way you can use your laptop as any other computer monitor and still type comfortably. It won’t help on the road, but when you’re stationary it’s a real spine saver.

    Hey, so you write articles for Uncle John’s? I’ve got several of those! You really are everywhere, aren’t you? Like having a little Scalzi with me every time I go…

  17. Re Google Docs:

    I’m in the progress of trying it out for novel writing. I tend to use one file per chapter anyway, so the size limits aren’t hugely problematic for me. In regards to formatting, I’ve not needed anything particularly complex so far. You can dump in a CSS stylesheet (Edit/Edit CSS) to make it look vaguely manuscript-like.

    I just have this:

    P {
    font-family: Courier New;
    text-indent: 4em;
    line-spacing: 200%;

    which does a fair job, as far as I’m concerned.

    My only real complaint is that starting a new document from a template I’ve got stored is hardy than it should be. I should just be able to make a copy of it, rename it, and edit it. But the only way I seem to be able to do it is open the template, File/Save as copy, find the copy (which will be in the ‘Items not in folders’ folder, not the folder I’m working in), rename it, and then move it to the right folder. Still, it works.

  18. John,

    This might not be relevant, but in case it is …

    I saw an article some time ago about a fellow who got surprised by the trial version of Office 2007. It only saved documents in the new docx format and when the trial expired, he had no way to access the files he had created. Someone eventually helped him convert his files to the old doc format to rescue him.

    Just so you don’t get similarly surprised.


  19. @Helper:

    There’s a simple file download available via Microsoft to fix that issue. Well. Fix that issue in that it allows previous versions of Office to read .docx. So I was able to view .docx via Office XP.

    Of course, you can always change the Word settings to save in Word 1997-2003 format, which is .doc, anyway.

  20. All this talk about small laptops has made me really want to get a MacBook Air.

    I think I’m going to wait and see what happens in January (and hope that they rev the laptop and upgrade the processor) and then I’ll probably buy one either way.

    My laptop works great. It’s just big.

  21. All this talk about small laptops has made me really want to get a MacBook Air.

    I think I’m going to wait and see what happens in January (and hope that they rev the laptop and upgrade the processor) and then I’ll probably buy one either way.

    My laptop works great. It’s just big.

  22. Jason @#28,

    they just bumped the MB Air to a faster processor and better graphics unit in October, so don’t expect another update in January. If you want one of those, now’s the time.

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