Researching notebooks for medical research

Research study planned by University of Michigan doctor raises interesting questions about Netbooks, broadband Internet access, and physical computer security.

I received an interesting e-mail from a reader over the weekend. Dr. Katherine Gold, a lecturer with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan, had some questions related to Netbooks (or small notebooks), broadband Internet access, and physical computer security. After some discussion, Dr. Gold and I decided to see if some of you might be able to help answer her questions.

Logo of the University of Michigan Health System

Here's the situation: Dr. Gold is setting up a research project to investigate the benefits of online support groups for low- income women in the Detroit area who have recently suffered the loss of a stillborn child.

Most women benefit from such services, but they tend to be less available to the poor for because they are less likely to have computers and Internet access. Also, these women often have other children to care for, jobs to hold down, and limited transportation options, so they may not be able to take full advantage of Internet access at public libraries or other facilities.

In Dr. Gold's experience, the greatest need for support often comes at night, when such facilities aren't open, anyway.

The bottom line here is that Dr. Gold wants to supply her participants with computers they can keep at home for the duration of the study, along with some kind of Internet connection.

There are several key challenges for this approach: cost, convenience, theft resistance, ease of use, maintenance, and so on.

Dr. Gold and I agree that a Netbook--the original concept of a Netbook, a machine no larger or more expensive than necessary to provide basic Internet access--would provide a good platform for this application. A properly selected and preconfigured system would provide the necessary functionality at minimum cost. A Netbook is both less attractive to burglars and easier to secure than a desktop PC with a separate display and keyboard.

Acer Aspire One
The Acer Aspire One is a small but complete notebook computer. Acer

In fact, when Dr. Gold wrote to me originally, she had already identified what I think is probably the most appropriate off-the-shelf solution: the $99 special offer from Radio Shack for an Acer Aspire One with built-in wireless broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity.

The only drawback to this offer is that it requires a two-year commitment to a $60-per-month AT&T wireless data contract, which adds up to another $1,440 on top of that $99 retail price. That's a lot of money for a study like this, especially when it's scheduled to last only one year.

Dial-up access would be cheaper, but it would preclude testing the therapeutic value of high-bandwidth Internet services such as videoconferencing and would likely interfere with ordinary telephone usage, which makes it a nonstarter in many households.

Dr. Gold provided some statistics on the stillbirth problem: it's 10 = times more common than Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), involved in 1 in 100 births in the Detroit area. As one might expect, stillbirth leads to much higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders compared to live birth, and these problems have significant social costs.

Stillbirth is three times more common among African- Americans in Detroit than among whites there, explaining the special value of extending Internet-based therapy to lower-income women.

I suggested that a corporate sponsor might be willing to help defray the costs of the hardware and Internet access, and that was one of the considerations that led us to this post. It seems to me that a study like this could help demonstrate that the value of small notebooks goes well beyond students, and the value of wireless broadband goes well beyond business travelers.

I'd also like to draw attention to something that's always been obvious to me: "rugged" is the corollary to "small."

Smaller notebooks are more likely to be carried around, particularly without the protection offered by a briefcase or backpack, so they ought to be more rugged as well. There are a lot of low-cost small notebooks out there, but there are few, if any, low-cost rugged models.

Ruggedness lends itself to theft resistance as well; the traditional Kensington security slot is less effective on a machine with a flimsy plastic case and a lightweight internal metal frame.

Another thing we'd like to hear about from you folks out there--have you had any experiences with Internet-based theft deterrence and recovery services such as Computrace LoJack for Laptops? Such a service could be a helpful addition to this study and similar applications.

Feel free to comment below, or write directly to me and Dr. Gold. (Addresses obfuscated a little to deter spam.)

I'll post updates as Dr. Gold's project moves along.

About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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