How to Buy a Netbook

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.

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