Café computing: iPads, Atrix Lapdocks, Chromebooks, and MacBook Airs

Leave the heavy laptop at home and try one of these lightweight alternatives instead, with or without a latte

Last Saturday at my favorite café in San Francisco, Martha & Bros., I did a double-take when I saw what appeared to be a prototype Chrome OS laptop -- aka a Chromebook -- in use by a young woman at one of the tables. I'm accustomed to seeing regular laptops, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android smartphones at this and other coffee houses, as well as increasingly iPads, but certainly not Chromebooks, which were made available only to beta testers in late December.

I went over and asked her if it was indeed a Chromebook (it was) and why she was using it instead of some other device at the café. She said that the Chromebook was perfect to surf the Web and do email and other social networking via its browser, which is pretty much the only mechanism available to such activities on Google's forthcoming Chrome OS. The Chromebook is much lighter than a laptop, and its screen is a larger, more readable size than a netbook's screen. Battery life also is decent; four to five hours is quite possible for the diskless device.

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The idea of a Chromebook or another lightweight device -- such as an iPad, Android tablet, or smartphone docked into a dumb laptop such as the Motorola Atrix/Lapdock combo -- as a casual "café computer" makes a lot of sense. Their batteries last fairly long (the iPad can go 10 hours, more than anything else I've tried), and their keyboards and screens are sized well for real surfing and communicating. You don't get the clutched-fingers syndrome as you do from using a smartphone's keyboard for any length of time.

But does the idea of a café computer make sense? Maybe it's one of those techno-urban indulgences favored by latte-sipping geeks in places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, West L.A., New York's Manhattan, Boston's Back Bay, D.C.'s Northwest, and techie-friendly islands within Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Austin, and the two Portlands -- but unlikely to catch on in the rest of America.

At the risk of sounding like an insular latte liberal rather than someone who'd prefer to be at a tea party, I think the idea makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.

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