How to Buy a Netbook

Introduction

The term netbook, coined by Intel, conveys little useful information about this category of machines. Sure, they all have wireless networking, but so does every other laptop. What the term originally helped to identify was a class of small, ultralightweight, cheap-as-dirt mobile PCs.

Netbooks are tiny--usually between half and two-thirds the size of a garden-variety laptop--and they typically weigh around 2.5 pounds. With their cool, slim designs, they outclass some fancy ultraportables. And best of all, these diminutive laptops start at around $200 (in some cases $100, when purchased as part of a mobile broadband promotional deal).

But that doesn't mean a netbook is for everyone. These are basic computing devices that will meet only basic computing needs. If you're looking to do a little bit of word processing, maybe edit a few simple spreadsheets, and want to surf the Web, a netbook will suffice. But if you're looking to edit high-resolution photos or work with video, a netbook isn't for you: These systems have seriously limited processing power. You can listen to some tunes, but don't expect first-ratesound. And you might be able to watch a few online videos, but you'll be looking at a relatively tiny screen.

In determining what makes a netbook a netbook, and not an ultraportable laptop, we take several factors into consideration. Chief among them: price, size, and the CPU under its hood. But netbooks are constantly evolving, and we're now on the cusp of next-generation models. Soon, we'll see Atom processors outfitted with a discrete nVidia GPU (the Ion platform). And Intel isn't the only chip maker in the netbook space: AMD is half-stepping into the territory with the Athlon Neo CPU. The distinguishing characteristics are in flux. With that in mind, here's what you need to know when buying a netbook.

The Big Picture

The netbook market is new, and constantly in flux. We'll explain the options available to you today. more

The Specs Explained

Just because netbooks are cheap, that doesn't mean you have to expect poor performance. We'll guide you through the choices you need to make in order to get the most out of your mini machine. more

Netbook Shopping Tips

Sure, some netbooks are cheap. But some also cost almost as much as full-fledged laptops. Our advice well help you find the right machine at the right price. more

More on Netbooks

Here's a chart (with links to reviews), a slide show, and a discussion of the differences between netbooks and ultraportables.

PC World's Top-Rated Laptops

Keep in mind PC World's other laptop lists:

The Big Picture

So many netbooks have reached market in the past year--and so many more are on the way--that selecting the right model can be a daunting task. There is no such thing as perfection in a category that is ultimately defined by compromises, but with a little grounding in the basic features of mini-notebooks, you can make an informed buying decision.

Key Features

Processor: With bargain-basement prices, svelte dimensions, and full-blown operating systems, models in the current crop of netbooks look great on paper. But the Intel Atom processor powering these machines can't do anything much fancier than editing basic documents, sending e-mail, and browsing the Web. The standard configuration for the machines you'll find on store shelves includes a 1.6GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM using Intel's 945 chip set and running Windows XP--not exactly a performance powerhouse, but it works.

Making the most of your netbook is all about managing expectations. Don't plan on playing modern PC games, editing huge pictures, or creating 1080p videos on these machines--at least not yet. Later this year, nVidia will release its Ion graphics platform, and AMD has already launched its Neo processor. These two mobile chips promise to boost netbook performance significantly, and may very well change the way we think about small, cheap computers.

Display: When our reviewer first encountered the original Asus Eee PC's 7-inch LCD, he declared that he had to increase the magnification in his eyeglasses' prescription--and spin the scroll wheel like a manic gerbil--just to read an everyday Web page.

Fortunately, times have changed. Even the smallest machines these days offer about 9 inches of viewable display area, with at least 800 pixels across. That is adequate for Web browsing, though the 10-inch screen available on most netbooks these days makes a real difference in the experience. And in the coming year, you'll start to see more and more devices that straddle the netbook-ultraportable divide by offering 11- and 12-inch screens. However, screen coating is also a critical consideration. The HP Mini 2140's glossy screen may look snazzy indoors, but in broad daylight--where many people would at least occasionally use it--the reflection can be dazzling, if not blinding.

Another characteristic to weigh is native resolution. The default setting for most netbooks is 1024 by 600 pixels. Though this slightly odd aspect ratio will work with most software, some programs require a different resolution to run properly. If you intend to run proprietary business apps that demand a specific resolution, make sure that the netbook you buy can support it. (The upcoming 11- and 12-inch models won't run into this problem.)

Battery life: Though the Intel Atom CPU is by no means an energy hog, netbooks aren't known for long battery life. That is partly because vendors typically try to keep costs down by providing a modest three-cell battery. If you're lucky, a battery of that size will last 2.5 hours on one charge, judging from PC World Test Center results. So if you want to stay productive on your netbook while traveling, you'll probably need to buy an oversize, extended-life battery to power your machine.

The best-selling Acer Aspire One is a case in point. As configured, this neat little machine sells for roughly $300; but if you want it to run longer (surviving a cross-country flight would be nice), prepare to shell out another $100 for an optional six-cell battery that effectively doubles its duration. The bigger battery adds a little more weight to the system, too: There's roughly a 0.3-pound difference between three- and six-cell netbook batteries, but the longer life between recharges is worth the extra investment.

So far, Samsung has earned the laurels for producing netbooks that have the longest battery lives. We've seen some that last upwards of almost 8.5 hours in our lab tests.

You get one other bonus when you buy a bigger battery, in some models at least: The double-stuffed power source props up the netbook at a slight tilt, making ergonomic typing on the (usually) tiny keyboard a little easier.

Keyboard: Many netbooks come with serviceable, comfortable keyboards, despite their smaller size. A netbook's keyboard is usually about 88 or 92 percent of a full-size QWERTY keyboard, but the layout and arrangement of those keys counts almost as much as their size. To see whether the layout and shape of a given keyboard will work for your fingers, you need to do some hands-on testing at a store. Of course, bigger keys are better for beefy digits--and netbooks that have 10-inch screens tend to offer the larger keyboards.

Software: Windows XP is largely the operating system of choice. Some foolhardy manufacturers have loaded netbooks with Windows Vista Basic while others offer up Linux flavors in their netbooks. Why Linux? For starters, it runs a little leaner than XP, which makes it perfect for a netbook's anemic CPU. Second, it trims a few more dollars off the price of these already-inexpensive portables.

For the most part, Windows XP netbooks carry very little onboard software. A few machines we've seen came preloaded with OpenOffice.org--the free Java-based office suite--but few vendors care to match Samsung, whose netbooks have a fairly well constructed software suite (one that's good by notebook standards, let alone netbooks). Almost all of the other netbooks we've examined require you to download, on your own, the software you want to use.

Expecting Windows Vista to work with a netbook's puny processor is like expecting a baby with one hand tied behind its back to push a Buick up a hill. Nevertheless, HP originally packaged its 2133 netbook with Vista Business Edition--and no one was terribly surprised when its unimposing Via C7-M processor ran like an out-of-shape sprinter in a swimming pool full of Jell-O. Now Sony thinks it can get its new Atom-processor-based VAIO P mini-notebook (which it insists on calling a "lifestyle notebook" rather than a "netbook") to run Windows Vista Basic. This is probably still a bit of a performance stretch, but initial tests show that Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 is a very plausible netbook OS.

We've also heard rumors that Google's Android OS will find its way into netbooks this year, but no products are available as of this writing.

Wireless connectivity: If names mean anything, it seems reasonable to expect a "netbook" to deliver wireless broadband and constant connectivity. But that's not quite the way things are today. Most netbooks do offer 802.11g wireless, which is more than adequate for basic needs around an office, airport, or hotel room. A couple of premium models offer 802.11n.

We've also started seeing netbooks that offer integrated 3G wireless broadband. It sounds great, but there is one big (and tightly knotted) string attached: A two-year contract will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 over the life of the deal and will wed you to a device that you might desperately want to replace long before the contract expires.

Our advice: If you crave wireless broadband performance, make sure that your netbook of choice supports an external solution. That way, you can buy a wireless broadband card and plug it into whatever machine you need. PC Express slots are still rare on netbooks, but USB ports aren't. So even if you opt for a system that doesn't accommodate PC Express, you can add a USB 3G adapter, which you can then use with any computer you own.

Optical drives: Forget about them. A netbook, by definition, lacks any form of optical drive. You may find drives on some devices that straddle the line between netbook and notebook, but you won't find them on a true netbook.

The Specs Explained

When buying a netbook, you don't have as many configuration options as you do with other laptops; these machines are limited. But that doesn't mean that all netbooks are created equal.

Before you go shopping for a netbook, the first thing you should consider is how you'll you'll be using it. The first generation of netbooks targeted nonbusiness consumers--especially students. After all, you can stuff one of these affordable task-specific portables in a bag, and it can take a beating. But machines of this class make sense for corporate users, too. Why lug a huge laptop through the halls of an office complex when all you need is a good keyboard and a wireless connection?

Such thinking has led vendors to divide netbooks into business and consumer subcategories. Corporate netbooks pack more premium components than their consumer counterparts. Of course, premium gear is expensive, and corporate netbooks command prices above $600.

Here's a rough breakdown of some configuration options you'll want to consider when making your purchase.

Important consideration: Keyboard size and layout. Yes, a netbook will have a small keyboard, but those keyboards are often quite comfortable. The layout and arrangement of the keys is almost as important as their size. If possible, do some hands-on testing at the store to see whether the layout and shape of a given keyboard will work for your fingers. You should also note the position of the mouse, touchpad, and any related buttons. Make sure they are convenient and comfortable.

Important consideration: Screen size and coating. You'll find netbook screens that range in size from 8 inches to 10 inches (and soon, as big as 12 inches) diagonally. 8 inches of real estate is adequate, but a 10-inch screen will make a real difference in the user experience. You should also consider the coating. A glossy screen may look snazzy indoors, but in broad daylight--where many people would at least occasionally use it--the glare on it can be blinding.

Important consideration: Screen resolution. Another characteristic to weigh is the screen's native resolution. The default setting for most netbooks is 1024 by 600 pixels. Though this slightly odd aspect ratio will work with most software, some programs require a different resolution to run properly. If you intend to run proprietary business apps that demand a specific resolution, make sure that the netbook you buy can support it.

Somewhat important: Operating system. Windows XP is pretty much the standard, with some flavors of Linux available for most netbooks. Linux runs extremely fast by netbook standards. And its low overhead helps keep the retail price low on these little machines. But each netbook vendor deploys Linux differently on the systems it sells; most vendors also include a customized menu interface to streamline the user experience, and these menus can be obtrusive, limiting productivity. For your first netbook, unless you're already interested in Linux, you may want to go for a model with Windows XP preinstalled. The cost difference is usually minimal, and XP is relatively speedy even on netbooks. Don't, however, expect Windows Vista to run on a netbook's puny processor.

Somewhat important: Software. For the most part, Windows XP netbooks carry very little onboard software. A few machines we've seen came preloaded with OpenOffice.org--the free Java-based office suite--but most netbooks we've examined require you to download, on your own, the software you want to use.

Somewhat important: Hard drive. Let's be clear: You're not going to find a terabyte hard drive on a netbook. But you can find models with reasonable amounts of storage space. We've tested models with drives as small as 60GB, and some with drives as big as 320GB. Most netbooks offer drives in the 120GB to 160GB range, which should be adequate for your storage needs.

Somewhat important: Processor. Netbooks are cheap for several reasons, and one of those reasons is the paltry processors they pack (an Intel Atom CPU in the 1.6GHz range is typical). That said, competition is on the way. AMD's Athlon Neo CPU is a step up (as seen in HP's Pavilion dv2) and we're still waiting to hear word of netbooks sporting nVidia's Ion platform.

Somewhat important: Installed memory. Another reason netbooks are cheap is because they don't pack very much RAM. Look for 1GB of RAM. Anything more is beyond the realm of the standard small netbook.

Somewhat important: Wireless connectivity. You might expect a machine called a netbook to deliver wireless broadband and constant connectivity, but you'd be wrong. Most netbooks do offer 802.11g wireless, which is more than adequate for basic needs; you'll also find 802.11n wireless as an option, though it's rare. If you crave wireless broadband performance, make sure that your netbook of choice includes a PC Express card slot or a USB port so you can buy a wireless broadband card.

Netbook Shopping Tips

If you're convinced a netbook will meet your needs, and are ready to start shopping, here are a few recommendations. Remember, netbook specifications don't vary as greatly as those of a regular laptop. These specifications will meet the needs of the average netbook user.

A 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. This CPU isn't going to pack a ton of power, but it will suffice for your basic computing needs. Most recent netbooks use Intel's 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU, but you can also find some models with the 1.66GHz Atom n280, which also has a faster frontside bus speed (667MHz versus 533MHz in the N270). In our performance tests, though, the difference between these two processors was negligible.

Supplemental battery. Vendors usually try to keep costs down by providing a modest three-cell battery, which will last about 2.5 hours, if you're lucky. If you want to stay productive on your netbook while traveling, you'll probably need to buy an oversize, extended-life battery to power your machine. You can find optional six-cell batteries for about $100. Keep in mind that these batteries not only boost the price of a netbook, they also increase its weight.

A 10-inch screen. You'll find netbooks with screens smaller than 10 inches, and these models will suit some people just fine. But if you can, opt for a larger model; that slight bit of extra room will make a noticeable difference.

A 120GB hard drive. Yes, you'll find netbooks with 60GB hard drives. But don't limit yourself to such a small amount of storage when you can find models with 120GB--or larger--hard drives for the same price.

A well-laid out keyboard. You know you'll be compromising on size when you purchase a netbook, and that applies to the keyboard, too. But smaller doesn't have to mean unusable. Look for a model with a keyboard that is well designed and nicely laid out. Make sure the mouse buttons are sensibly positioned, too.

At least two USB ports. Many netbooks offer three, but some of the smaller models have only two. You don't need to settle for less than that.

Subscribe to the Best of TechHive Newsletter

Comments