Netbooks and E-Readers

A college student with SMA wonders if newer technology can compensate for progressive muscle weakness

Dell's Mini Netbook is considerably smaller than a laptop computer.
Article Highlights:
  • Netbooks offer a small, lightweight alternative to laptops for students without a lot of hand and arm strength.
  • All e-Readers currently on the market, including the iPad, share the same problem -- the pages can't be turned by voice command.
by Kent Kreiger on March 31, 2010 - 11:05am

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 2

Going back to school is hard, especially when you’re 51 years old and going back for your bachelor’s degree.

I grew up with type 3 spinal muscular atrophy, so I understand and can deal with my disability. But every year I get weaker, so I continue to need to find ways to compensate and — in the case of going back to school — to figure out such problems as handling my textbooks, taking notes and turning in assignments.

As a student, I decided to see if new technologies could better meet my changing needs.


Textbooks generally are very large and heavy, so I immediately thought about e-readers for reading downloaded texts.

Prices for e-readers range anywhere from about $150 to about $829 for a top-of-the-line Apple iPad.

First I looked at Amazon’s Kindle. I really like the look of the Kindle. However, turning pages requires pushing a button, which is difficult for me. I was intrigued by the text-to-speech capabilities, but to turn on that functionality you must hit a button and then hit another button to stop it and I don’t have the strength for that either. I decided that, while the Kindle is very light, I just don’t have the strength to make it operate. However, for those with better strength and with more arm and wrist mobility, this could work great.

Next, I checked into Sony’s Reader. Again, it’s lightweight and its text-to-speech functionality is great. But again, there is no way to verbally turn the pages; this must be done manually by touching a button.

I also checked out the new iPad from Apple. It’s also lightweight and has text-to-speech capability. It has the ability to read aloud at your pace if you’re able to place your finger along the words and drag across the sentences. I was curious if I could use some type of pointer that I could hold in my mouth to drag across the screen. I was told that was possible, but putting permanent scratches on the screen also is a definite possibility. So again, because I don’t have enough strength, the iPad is not an option for me either.

I was unable to find any e-reader that allowed me to use voice commands to change or turn pages.

Netbooks are impressive

Next, I considered “netbook” computers. I didn’t really know what netbooks were but during my research I became very impressed with them.

A netbook is a mini notebook computer, sometimes called an “ultraportable.” Basically it’s a small, lightweight and (depending on the options) inexpensive laptop computer, but without the computing power of a standard laptop. The screen sizes range from 7.1 inches to 12.1 inches (diagonally), and the prices range from about $180 to $1,500, depending on the different options.

Netbooks have a limited-size internal hard drive, usually 160 gigabytes. On most laptop computers, internal hard drives can be as large as one terabyte (1,000 gigabytes). Netbooks also have a limited amount of RAM (random access memory), usually two gigabytes, but a few can have three gigabytes. By comparison, eight gigabytes of RAM can be added to a typical laptop computer. Also, there is no built-in CD/DVD drive, although an external CD/DVD drive can be purchased and used through a USB port.

Netbook battery life varies from three hours up to 15 hours, and most have a place for an extra battery. Without the extra battery, weight ranges between .9 pounds and 3.1 pounds.

For me, weight is not that much of a factor because I need to ask someone else to set it up for me no matter what it weighs. But for those for whom weight really does make a difference, a netbook’s reduced size and weight might be just right.

Software, add-ons, Internet

If the programs you use require more than two to three gigabytes of RAM, the functionality or overall speed and responsiveness of the software will be lowered, but may still be usable. However, software that needs more than two to three gigabytes of RAM won’t work on a netbook.

In my case, I utilize programs like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Avid Video Editing software, ProTools Audio Editing software and other video special-effects programs. I also use Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word. On the netbook, the graphics and editing software will not work because most of them need a minimum of three gigabytes of RAM, which would leave no RAM for the computer’s operating system to work. While the Microsoft software will work, it generally needs a minimum of one gigabyte of RAM. If the netbook has a total of two gigabytes, the Microsoft programs will work, but slowly.

Most netbooks have only two USB ports, while some have one and others have none. If you need more than two USB inputs, you can use a USB hub, a device that allows multiple USB devices to be connected to a single USB port. I need two USB ports: one for my external pointer device (a Kensington Turbo Mouse Trackball) and one for a thumb drive (flash drive) to store and transport information. If I need to plug in something else, I would have to use a hub.

The problem here is, unless you’re running your computer off of AC power (plugged into the wall), the extra peripherals that you plug into your computer (trackball, flash drives, larger external storage, DVD player) will really shorten you battery life.

Netbooks feature built-in WiFi (wireless Internet) capabilities. The hardware is just like what’s in your cell phone. You pay a monthly fee for “upload and download services” and the computer is ready to go, giving you Internet access anywhere you can get a cell phone signal. Prices for the monthly service vary among carriers, but are around $35 to $50 per month.

What about my “textbook problem”? Would a netbook allow me to turn pages by voice command? Sadly, no. You can download the books you want and use Dragon NaturallySpeaking or another voice-activated program to have the books read aloud to you. But, like the e-readers I saw, there’s no way to turn the pages by voice command.

At present, I access my textbooks by downloading PDF versions or Word versions of my required reading and workbooks, if they’re available. If they’re not available, the Disabilities Resource Center at my university will scan in my needed books. If I’m using a Word document, I go from page to page by using the scrollbar on the right side of the page, which I control by trackball. If I’m using a PDF file, I can use the up and down arrows to go from page to page.

Students should check with their disability resource center or high school guidance counselor for the digital textbook options that they offer. All schools are different.

Speech-to-text software

Voice-activation (speech-to-text) programs work really well on netbooks. I use Dragon Systems NaturallySpeaking, which is only available for devices running Windows operating systems. Besides Dragon, the voice-activation program that is bundled with the new Microsoft Windows 7 operating system is really impressive. Some older Windows operating systems, like Vista and XP, also offer a voice-activation feature. These programs allow the user to add words to its dictionary.

For Mac users, the new MacSpeech Dictate works very well and also will accept words in its dictionary.

Not only do all of these voice-activation programs work in word processing programs and e-mail programs, but they also work in most word-oriented programs, such as Excel, PowerPoint, Notepad, etc. They also have the capability of running your computer by voice command, like opening files, editing, saving, opening up Web browsers, navigating around the Web, etc.

As a student, the main problem in using speech-to-text for taking notes during class is interrupting the instructor or the flow of the class. I discovered that all voice-activation software programs need a steady tone and mid-level volume to work, so taking notes during class using voice-activation is not a viable solution.


So, if I can’t use a voice-activation program in class, what about typing options?

The size of the keyboard on a netbook is anywhere from 80 percent to 100 percent of the normal-sized keyboards found on standard laptops. If you need a larger keyboard, a separate one can be plugged into the USB port. But since I don’t have much mobility in my fingers, typing normally isn’t an option for me anyway. This is where onscreen keyboards come into play.

What types of onscreen keyboards are available? Windows users have an adequate onscreen keyboard built into every operating system. It can be found under Programs-Accessories-Accessibility.

For a programmable keyboard that allows you to add words to its built-in dictionary, check out the freeware program Click-N-Type. It’s very easy to set up, and it was easy for me to add the words that I use often and terms that are needed for specific classes. This is a Windows-only program. On the Mac side, there is a program called Keystrokes.

Now what?

What I’m trying to decide after gathering all this information is if I should purchase a netbook or just continue to use the Dell M65 notebook computer that I currently have.

The advantage of the netbook is that I can connect to the Internet without having to be in a coffee shop or somewhere else that offers WiFi.

On the other hand, I can have this flexibility with my existing notebook computer if I buy an external WiFi adapter. A USB WiFi stick or external PCI card plugs into your computer and connects to the Internet wherever you are. You pay for the time that you use on a monthly basis, as you would a cell phone bill.  

Kent Kreiger

Since, as a student, I’m going to need physical assistance to take out and set up a netbook anyway, I’m thinking maybe I’ll just stick with my notebook computer for now. But those netbooks do look interesting. Decisions, decisions …

Kent Kreiger, Scottsdale, Ariz., has been a video/film editor for more than 25 years. He’s worked on several TV shows, including “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Spin City,” and was part of the editing team that won the 1998 Academy Award for “Saving Private Ryan.” He’s now a student at Arizona State University in the Film and Media Studies program with an emphasis on media industries. His plan is to teach editing at the college level. Check out his Web site and drop him an e-mail at

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