The low-cost, low-power family of laptop computers known as Netbooks have become a tempting choice, offering access to basic PC tasks for a fraction of the price of traditional laptops or desktops. But wading into the Netbook waters is not as simple as it looks. These once-uniform machines have splintered into different subcategories, each offering different features at different prices.
Our handy Netbook guide offers tips and advice for picking the perfect Netbook. Things to keep in mind include how much you want to spend, how long the battery needs to last, and if mobile broadband access is a necessity. Above all, we frequently remind shoppers that Netbooks are a useful addition to your tech collection, as long as one's expectations are kept realistic.
A new wrinkle to consider is that post-October 22, most new Netbooks will include Windows 7 as their operating system. Previously, Windows XP was the default choice for Netbooks, as it worked fairly well with low-power Intel Atom CPUs. Because XP users weren't included in the various free Windows 7 upgrade offers that was a strong incentive for potential buyers to hold off on a Netbook purchase. A small percentage of Netbooks still include various versions of Linux (and that was the only option for the very first Netbooks), and there's considerable interest in upcoming products using Google's Androidand Chromeoperating systems.
Who Needs a Netbook?
Students typically require low prices and portability above all. A laptop that can easily go from class-to-class is key, so many students turn to Netbooks. The downside is that these have small screens, which can make online research and paper writing a chore.
The business traveler
Those who work on the road often need a small, lightweight system that can comfortably open in an airline seat and still run a PowerPoint presentation. At the same time, business users often require access to security and management tools to satisfy the requirements of their IT departments--so a Netbook will likely not be your only PC.
The first-time buyer
If this is your first laptop--or more likely, you're buying a laptop for a parent or grandparent who has never had one before--a Netbook is an inexpensive way to get a digital newcomer introduced to the Internet.
Whether you're documenting your afternoons at the local coffee shop or live blogging a news conference, Netbooks are practically required equipment for writers on the go. Keyboards on most Netbooks have evolved to usable sizes, and, while they add significant cost, 3G mobile broadband connections are common.
Types of Netbooks
The industry has found a natural price floor about $299. For that price, you can expect a basic, if no-frills, Netbook that works fine for Web surfing, e-mail, working on office documents, and maybe some light multimedia playback.
Netbook features tend to be nearly identical across brands, and on sub-$300 models you'll generally find cheaper-feeling construction and cramped keyboards and touch pads compared with premium Netbooks, which can cost $100-$200 more, even though they generally have the same internal components. Key specifications include:
- Intel Atom N270 CPU (higher-end, N280)
- 1GB RAM
- 120GB-160GB HDD
- 10-inch display at 1,024x600 pixels
- Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter
- 802.11g Wi-Fi
One of the more welcome trends in Netbooks has been the appearance of higher-resolution screens. Typically, 10-inch Netbooks (and 9-inch models before them) had 1,024x600-pixel resolution displays, which could feel cramped when working on Word documents or scrolling through long Web pages. Additionally, many software applications were not optimized for nontraditional resolutions.
With the introduction of 11.6-inch Netbook screens, we're now seeing 1,366x768-pixel screens that provide a much more familiar working environment and more desktop real estate (and can properly display 720p HD video content). We're also seeing this higher resolution migrate to premium 10-inch Netbooks, although that can make text and icons appeal small.
That catch is that most manufacturers are using these high-definition screens to boost prices out of the $299-$399 category. Many high-definition laptops cost $499 or more, although we have seen models available for as little as $399.
The earliest Netbooks allowed 3G mobile broadband access only if you hooked up your own external USB modem. Eventually, the idea of getting online anywhere with a Netbook was too good to resist and PC makers such as Dell and HP added built-in mobile broadband options to their systems.
Unfortunately, this typically added $100 to $150 to the cost--not an insignificant amount for a sub-$400 device. Too offset this, some cell phone carriers are offering subsidized Netbook hardware in return for a two-year data plan contract (usually about $60 per month). Examples include AT&T with Nokia's Booklet Netbook and Verizon's deal with HP's Mini 311.
If you know you're going to use a particular system for mobile broadband for the next two years, getting $100-$200 off the initial purchase price is a plus, but, as with smartphones, these two-year $60 per month deals should really net you a free (or at most, $99) system to truly be a great deal.
If Netbooks have an Achilles' heel that keeps them from being more universally useful, it's the lack of capability to handle many gaming and video playback chores.
Nvidia's first graphics option for Netbooks, the Ion, is based in part on the integrated GeForce 9400M GPU in Apple's MacBooks. The added graphics power can help Atom-based Netbooks play back HD video smoothly, and even handle some basic gaming.
What to avoid
While the internal components of most Netbooks vary only slightly, there are a few things we advise potential buys to keep an eye out for. These features may not be deal-breakers for you--depending on your needs--but for most people, they should be a clue to look elsewhere.
Intel's Atom Z-series CPUs
Even though they generally have better battery life and similar clock speeds as the more common N-series Atom processors, the Intel Z520 and Z530 CPUs lose just enough performance to make using a Netbook a truly frustrating experience. With little performance headroom to spare already, low-power Netbooks can't afford further compromises to the user experience.
Awkward touch pad buttons
Some Netbooks have touch pad buttons awkwardly pushed to the sides of the touch pad. This makes them harder, but not impossible, to use, and should be generally avoided. Another thing to look out for is a slim rocker bar taking the place of two distinct buttons--go for separate left and right mouse buttons whenever possible.
Tiny solid-state hard drives
The earliest Netbooks came with tiny 16GB or smaller SSD drives. These are great for heat, power consumption, and weight, but they are not so good for installing full operating systems and important applications. You can still find older Netbook hardware on sale with these tiny hard drives, but avoid them. The standard today is a 160GB traditional platter hard drive, which should have plenty of room for apps, videos, photos, and more.
Netbook makers have finally figured out how to squeeze the most keyboard into the least space. Current models are generally easy to use, even for touch typists, but beware cheaper or older models that have shortened shift and control keys, unusual key placement swaps, or are even missing the entire row of Function keys.
With Netbooks, your choices are typically a three-cell or six-cell battery. As a general rule, three-cell batteries will fit flush with the Netbook's body, and provide around three hours of battery life. A six-cell battery will often stick out from the rear of the system, but can last up to six hours.
Some brands, such as Asus, have succeeded in working larger six-cell batteries into their already slim chassis designs, with no noticeable increase in size.