Just when you thought that everyone was going to buy a CB radio/pet rock/mood ring/Betamax/eight-track, you had the courage of your convictions and held off. Good for you.You probably also haven’t yet tied your mobile media consumption to either Apple or Amazon. Double good for you–waiting a year has paid off. Now you can buy a lightweight mobile media viewer/tablet PC that is also a full netbook computer.

For the same price as the iPad (about $550) Dell’s just released the device that is the likely leader of the pack, the Inspiron Duo. It’s a nifty flip-screen netbook that they’re calling a tablet/netbook hybrid, but which one day they’ll just call “a personal computer.”

I think the Dell product is close to a stable design for the notebook. In a couple of years the industry standard will have better batteries, more advanced docking and a detachable clamshell keyboard, but this version will work just as well for you completing your presentation on an airplane as entertaining your toddler in a car seat.

It’s also a far better choice for the college student writing papers, streaming lectures, and playing Halo on the go.

Leisure reading plus everyday computing

For the past year, I’ve done most of my leisure reading on a netbook, making use of a variety of different e-reader formats and sometimes using screen orientation software that turns the netbook screen into vertical orientation. I turn off the wireless connection, dim the screen to its lowest level, enlarge and customize the font, and often reverse the type (to white on black). Very soothing, and no need for a lamp when H. is trying to sleep.

The Dell tablet will handle the reading function nicely. It’s a touch heavier than either the Kindle or the Ipad, but lighter than either of the netbooks I already use for e-reading and occasional screening of missed episodes of Sons of Anarchy.

On my desk sits a large, heavy “media laptop,” but for all my other computing/media consumption at home, in the office, or on the road, I’ve long switched to the netbook, first a nice little Asus that I left on top of my car while latching my son into his car seat, then my current HP mini. Both run eight hours or longer on a single charge. Right now the Dell item runs about half as long, but I imagine the next iteration will offer more.

It’s true that currently that the Kindle and iPad beat this particular Dell offering in a few ways: they’re lighter, run longer on a charge and better adapt to extreme viewing angles.

But as a media creation device–anything requiring a keypad, from writing papers to editing a powerpoint–both are all but useless. What their purveyors fail to understand is that for most professionals and students reading and writing (media consumption and production, if you prefer) are intertwined at every level, from annotation to original or collaborative composition. That’s why netbooks have succeeded and most tablets have failed.

Furthermore: giving the Apple store so much prominence in your media consumption is plain foolhardy, especially when it comes to very young children.

Your toddler will want one too

As I’ve previously written, our son Emile has had his own touch-screen computer since he was fourteen months old, a large, expensive HP all-in-one which gives us access to the very large and important world of early learning activities such as poissonrouge and starfall.com.

We play these games together, as we would any other play-based learning activity, and for less than an hour a day (initially only fifteen minutes). They’ve been just one component of a broad spectrum of parent-intensive play-based learning, but a very important one. The touch screen makes a world of difference: children acquire the pointing reflex around ten months, and with the ability to point follows the capability of interacting with a screen and parent.

At some point I’ll write more about Emile’s “zero to three” learning experiences, which have been enormously successful by both traditional and progressive measures. He’s currently just two years and nine months, so maybe I’ll write when he turns three. You can read all of my caveats on the subject in the earlier pieces, but I’ll just reiterate here that we play with him: the learning is embedded in, and incidental to, play.

Based on our experience and the very substantial research about early learning, I’d recommend a Windows-based touch netbook to any toddler with a parent who understands the difference between play-based learning (as at poissonrouge or starfall) and the pointless mind-numbing drill of flashcards, “hooked on,” etc.

There’s no question in my mind that the feelings and good intentions that have led millions of parents to buy useless and perhaps harmful “Baby Einstein” videos would be far better served by parentally-involved play with a touch screen and the right kind of early learning.

Both drilling your child and using video as a babysitter are harmful. And neither of them bears any relation whatsoever to thoughtful, play-based, parentally-involved interactive learning facilitated by a touch screen.

Most of these early-learning games are flash-based applications that Apple does not support, primarily to maximize revenue to its media sales operation. While there are some early-learning apps written for the iPhone and iPad, they are far more limited. The arrival of the Dell and several other netbook tablets is a big boost for your toddler.

Buying for myself, I’ll wait until battery life meets the netbook standard of eight hours or more. But buying for Emile–I’ll buy what’s available when he needs it. His first summer in Quebec we left his thousand-dollar monster thirty-pound HP all-in-one behind, and regretted it; the next summer we packed it into a suitcase and brought it with us, and were glad we did.

Come May, we’re buying this Dell for him unless there’s a better option.






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