Netbooks are all the hype right now. The size and price points are extremely attractive, especially during a recessive economy when money is tight. Also, for those of us who do lots of blogging, these devices are simply the best, boasting portability and very long battery life. So, what’s not to love?
If you decide that you must get one, you need to carefully weigh all of the options when making your choice. The differences may be seem to be minimal, only affecting a few dollars towards your bottom line price, but you need to be sure you do get what you really do need and don’t overspend in the process.
Below is a list of items you should consider when shopping around for a new Netbook. For comparison purposes, I’m using Amazon as a price “standard.” There may be other better deals or models available at one point in time or another, but I have found that Amazon averages out pretty well, pricewise.
Note: I have NOT personally tried ANY of the Netbooks mentioned in this article. I have made my recommendations based on Twitter interviews and reading documents from the manufacturers and simply reviewing other information. If there are any vendors looking to have a more in-depth review done of their Netbook offerings, I encourage you to fill out my Vendor form.
Here are the core components that make up a Netbook (oddly enough, since Netbooks are simply miniaturized laptops, you can use these same items when doing laptop evaluations as well):
- CPU â€“ Most Netbooks you will see out there use an Intel Atom processor of some type. As of this writing, the N270 seems to be the standard, boasting a 1.6 Ghz speed, although some higher-end Netbooks are starting to show up with the N280 chipset; there are other chipsets available, but the Atom seems to be leading the pack. Look for Netbooks that allow you to over or under-clock the CPU. Asus is one that allows for this. Remember, you aren’t going to find a screaming fast processor. These CPUs are designed to be energy efficient.
- Memory â€“ Most Netbooks tend to come with either 512MB or 1GB of RAM standard. There are a few models that have the ability to add more which is definitely an advantage, especially if you want to run Window XP, Vista (not recommended for Netbooks ) or Windows 7 which tend to use up more RAM than their Linux counterparts. I would recommend getting a minimum of 1GB for running XP or 512MB if running some flavor of Linux. But be sure that you can add more RAM if you choose at a later date.
- Hard drive â€“ There are typically two options you can go with here:
- Solid State Drive (SSD) â€“ typical sizes are 4, 8 or 16 GB and some are even higher than that. The advantages of Solid State Drives is that they are faster to boot and typically are lighter on the battery use and they weigh less than traditional hard drives. Disadvantages are they they have smaller capacities than traditional HD’s and after extended use, they do wear out (flash memory has a limited amount of rewrites, but most people should not have to worry about that). Also remember, the Operating System of your Netbook will eat up a portion of space, so if you have a small capacity drive, look for small OS’s and applications to go on it.
- Hard Drive (HD) â€“ typical sizes are 60GB, 80GB, 120GB or 160GB â€“ If you are going to be playing MP3s or videos on your Netbook, you probably want to go with an actual hard drive option. Look for Netbooks that are easy to upgrade (RAM & Hard drives are good upgrade options). Traditional HD’s do add to the weight factor as well as bump up energy consumption.
- Weight & Dimensions â€“ weights range anywhere between 2-4 lbs., battery and screen sizes will add to the weight factor; while these computers are designed to be small, the more powerful ones can hit 4 lbs or more. Most manufacturers are concerned with maintaining a small form factor. Interestingly, it seems like some manufacturers produce the same chassis but simply have different screen size configurations. So, if you are debating the size factor, it might be a wash between a 8.9 and 10.1 inch screen, and only come out in a few dollars in extra cost for added real estate.
- Webcam â€“ 0.3 Megapixels â€“ 1.3 Mpx â€“ be sure to get a better resolution cameral (higher Megapixels) as it will make video conferencing better for your callers. Most Netbooks seem to top out at 1.3 Mpx.
- Keyboard/Touchpad â€“ If you can, try to go to a store or borrow a friends to test them out. Another thing you can do is look at screenshots for keyboard lineups. The Shift key, for example is larger on some than on others. Also the placement and positioning of other keys should be noted. Most keyboards are 80-100% of full size keyboards. Many of the trackpads or touchpads are multi-touch. Be sure to look at screen shots for the button positioning for the touchpad as well.
- Operating System â€“ It doesn’t matter really which OS your Netbook comes with. It’s a personal preference and you can always install something else.
- Windows XP â€“ most Netbooks come with some form of Windows XP (e.g., Home). Windows XP has proven to be fairly reliable and a good OS option for use.
- Linux â€“ A few come installed with different custom Linux images
- Windows 7 â€“ Once Windows 7 is released, many Netbooks will include this Operating System. Rumor has it that Windows 7 will run much better than Vista. I recommend against installing Vista on any Netbook.
- Hackintosh â€“ some Netbooks can be turned into Hackintoshes (e.g., Dell, MSI Wind) which means that the Macintosh Operating System can be installed; be sure to check compatibility of the manufacturers with this project on the various project websites if this is something you are considering.
- Connectivity/Slots â€“
- Wireless B/G/N/Cellular â€“ All Netbooks should come equipped with wireless. Most come with 802.11b and g protocols. Some vendors are now including 802.11n and others even have an optional EVDO/cellular wireless or similar card. Be sure the manufacturer has drivers to support your EVDO device.
- Bluetooth â€“ I would recommend looking for a Netbook that has Bluetooth capabilities to allow for wireless headsets (for Skype or headphones) or for other types of connectivity.
- Ethernet 10/100 & Gigabit Ethernet â€“ all Netbooks come with a Ethernet connector to attach a Cat5/6 LAN connection.
- USB â€“ most Netbooks include a minimum of 1 USB port, with others boast 3. These can be very useful, especially to connect EVDO modems, external drives, CD/DVD drives or other accessories. Look carefully at the placement of these ports to ensure that they are not too close to where your wrists are when typing.
- VGA â€“ all Netbooks have a way to connect an external monitor. Most have standard VGA ports. Some have mini VGA connections (e.g., on the HP). Look to those standard types of connections unless you want to carry an extra dongle everywhere you go.
- Headphone/Mic/Integrated Mics/Speakers â€“ most Netbooks include jacks for speakers/headphones and microphones. This is useful for Skype or other conference calling capabilities or watching movies/listening to music. Some have built-in microphones, making it much more convenient when having web conference calls or video calls. All Netbooks seem to have on-board speakers as well.
- Card Reader â€“ many Netbooks include some type of card reader. This is useful for downloading images from a camera, for example. Types range from 2-in-1 to 4-in-1.
- Battery â€“ there are a variety of batteries available. This is a critical piece to any Netbook purchase. There are high-capacity Lithium-Ion batteries available that can get you 5 or more hours of extended use. Note though, the higher-capacity batteries tend to weigh a bit more or be larger and can add to the weight of the device.
- Cell types â€“ 2, 3, 4 or 6 Cell
- Usage – 2-9.5 hours
- Screen â€“ all Netbooks are supposed to have small form factors. Spending a bit more to get more screen real estate may be worth the extra investment.
- Resolutions – 1024×600 & 1024×576
- Graphics Card â€“ Intel GMA 950 & nVidia GeForce 9300M
- Sizes â€“ 7, 8.9-10″, matte or glossy
- Extras –
- Cases â€“ some of the manufacturers provide carrying cases, a definite plus
- Online storage – Asus includes 10GB free online storage to back up your data.
- ExpressCard â€“ these are found on the Lenovo Netbooks
Here are some of the current Manufacturers as well as a Good, Better and Best recommendation for their Netbook lines. Please note that these recommendations could become outdated as new models are offered and that most of these are simply taken from Amazon: ((Prices taken from Amazon on 3/24/09; not all available models are shown))
- Best â€“ Ideapad S10 (10.2″/1.6GHz/1GB RAM/160 GB HD) – $349
A breakdown of various models can also be found on Wikipedia.
Luckily when you look at different types of mainstream Netbooks, usually only about $50-100 or so separates the good ones from the better ones. The are some very high-end ones, but I feel that at a $800-$1000 pricepoint, you would be better off getting a smaller, more powerful, mobile laptop.
To me, it seems that the sweet spot is around $350. You can definitely find some good values and performance at that range. I would recommend a minimum of 1GB RAM and at least either at 16GB SSD or 160GB HD. If you can get a model with a newer CPU (e.g., like with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE), you won’t be left far behind when new models come out. Be sure to ensure that you can do HD and RAM upgrades easily. And another plus is ensuring that you can put Linux or OS X on the device (e.g., with a Dell Mini 9 or MSI Wind).
HTD Says: Netbooks are HOT now for so many reasons. While I have not personally reviewed any of these (or even tried them), they are definitely a welcome addition to any household or business, especially at the pricepoint!