How to Buy a 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.

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