A friend of mine has a very cool portable darkroom. (Because he’s primarily a wet-plate pinhole shooter, he needs to be able to develop plates as soon as he takes them.) As digital photographers, we have things a little easier, of course. If we want to process images in the field, we only have to carry a computer. But, if you’re on an extended trip, heading into the backcountry, or you just like to travel as light as possible, then carrying a computer is not always an option. Fortunately, over the last year or so a new class of tiny, ultralight laptop computers – netbooks – have appeared on the market at extremely reasonable prices. These machines turn out to be ideal photo accessories.

The name “netbook” stems from the idea that, when traveling, most people’s computer needs don’t go beyond network access. Other than web browsing and email, they have few computing chores. If you’re a digital photographer, though, you might want to use a computer as a place to offload images, or to browse the day’s shoot, to begin to organize your shots, apply metadata, or even to start adjusting and editing. Of course, if you have network access, then you may want to be able to upload to web sites, or send images via email.

I have a MacBook that I use for a lot of travel. It’s a great portable digital photography workstation, but at 4.5 pounds it’s a little heavy for some trips, and its size makes it difficult to cram into smaller bags (such as when bicycling or motorcycling).

So, when traveling into the backcountry, or for some international travel, I’ve been taking a Digital Foci FotoSafe (.6 pounds) for offloading images, and a Palm Treo 680 (.3 pounds) with foldable keyboard (.4 pounds) for email, Google maps and for reading RSS feeds. I also usually take either my iPhone or my fifth generation iPod (.3 pounds) with me for media needs. With all of these, I have data backup, email access, limited web functionality and some music playback (okay, not an essential photo tool, but definitely an essential travel tool). However, because my FotoSafe lacks a screen, I have no way to review or edit images.

Wanting something between the weight and bulk of the Macbook, and the bare minimum functionality of my other gizmos, I bought an MSI Wind last December.

With a 10″ screen, mostly full-sized keyboard, 120 gb hard drive 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, built in webcam, 10/100 Ethernet, built in 802.11g wireless, 3 USB ports, and bluetooth, it’s a very full-functioned laptop. Best of all, it weighs only 2.3 pounds and measures roughly 10.25 x 7 x .75″. So, not only is it lighter than my Macbook, but it fits in a much smaller bag.

Obviously, it’s a little larger than my FotoSafe/Treo/iPod arrangement, but it offers far more functionality.

You can order the Wind with an 80, 120, or 160 GB hard drive. I opted for the 160 gb version, and after installing an OS and some photo editing software, I still have more than enough space for offloading images. While I’ve never had any trouble or reliability issues with the FotoSafe, the Wind has the obvious advantage of a screen for reviewing images.

The Wind has a built-in SD card reader, which is a really nice addition. I usually shoot on CompactFlash, which means I still need to carry a card reader.

As a computer, the Wind works great for almost everything I need to do in the field. Obviously, email and web browsing are much easier with a real keyboard and large screen, so it’s a nice replacement for either my Treo or iPhone. Having built-in Wifi and Ethernet networking gives me lots of options for getting online. I can also tether to either the Treo or the iPhone, and get online connectivity through those, albeit slow, devices.

While the 1.6 GHz Atom processor is not the speediest CPU out there, it’s fine for most of the image editing tasks I’d want to do in the field. With its small screen, I’m not going to get into a lot of serious color correction and editing anyway (this was also true for my MacBook). But, for reviewing images, and performing some initial edits, or for organizing and keyword tagging, the Wind is perfectly adequate. I’ve been running CS4 on it and performance is perfectly acceptable.

The only hitch is with Photoshop Camera Raw. Because of the limited vertical screen dimension on the Wind, the entire Camera Raw dialog box cannot be displayed, which means you don’t have access to the Save Image, Open Image, Cancel or Done buttons.

So far, I’ve found two workarounds: you can just press Return, which opens the image, or you can install Adobe Photoshop Lightroom which also runs Camera Raw, but manages to fit onto the Wind’s screen. If you don’t usually use Lightroom, working all of this into your regular workflow when you get back home can require some extra steps.

Of course, you can still preview your raw images in Bridge, so having access to Camera Raw in the field may not be a critical need.

The Wind’s screen is bright and clear, and has a nice matte finish, and overall build-quality of the machine is fine. It feels plasticy, but this is also why it weighs so little. Most importantly, it only costs $350. In fact, if you look around, you might find it as low as $300. This becomes another upside when compared to a more expensive laptop. If you drop it in a river, it’s cheap to replace.

If you’ve been considering a photo viewer with a screen, such as the Epson P-series viewers, then you should definitely look at the Wind. It’s cheaper, weighs about the same, has a bigger screen, packs the same storage, and is a full-fledged computer.

The Wind comes with Windows XP pre-installed. As a Mac user, I wanted to run the Mac OS on the machine, so I’ve been using the Wind as a Mac-based machine. You can read about that here.

I’ve been very pleased with this little computer, and heartily recommend it to any traveling shooter, who doesn’t want to carry a larger, heavier laptop.