How to Buy a Netbook

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Don’t give up on netbooks just yet. Netbook manufacturers are including more features, bigger screens and keyboards, and faster parts. We walk you through the latest trends and tell you what features really matter in a netbook.

The first batch of netbookz to hit the scene was greeted with awe and surprise. Thosetiny laptops, which were once sold at a premium, could be had for half the price of a typical system seemed incredible. Since then, the stakes have risen: The Apple iPad has proven that it can be the secondary web and email device, and in response to that, PC makers have shifted their attention from netbooks to tablets. Competition has grown fiercer, too. Netbook makers are including more features, bigger screens and keyboards, and faster parts—all while slashing prices like a Walmart special. These devices, which are already in many households, are also becoming increasingly popular among small business professionals and college students.

 

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The choices, meanwhile, are coming from all sorts of household names, like ASUS, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. As a category, netbooks are such a diverse group that it’s hard to come up with a single, all-encompassing definition. The best indicators that you’re dealing with a netbook are a low price, light weight, and low-powered components. Likely the system will have a screen on the smaller side and a basic feature set. Still, netbooks vary in screen size, typing experience, and specialty features. And now the war is heating up between Intel and AMD at the component level. Despite all the look-alikes, there are certainly differences that warrant further explanation. Luckily, this netbook buying guide does just that.

Larger Screens, Bigger Keyboards
It’s generally easy enough to tell a netbook from other laptops, but to distinguish between systems, you’ll need to do a little homework. In the past, screen sizes defaulted to 10-inches with 1,024-by-600 resolutions on almost every single netbook. These days, netbooks are breaking away from this trend. Oversized netbooks like the HP Pavilion dm1z and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e are sold with 11.6-inch widescreens, while the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Ion) and the Asus EeePC 1215N are shipping with 12-inch ones. And their resolutions, as a result, are upped to HD-capable ones (1,366-by-768).

Once upon a time, full-sized keyboards were few and far between, but now they exist in netbooks as small as 10-inches. Case in point: The HP Mini 5103, Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3, and Acer Aspire One AOD255-1203 squeezed one in to their 10-inch frames. The vast majority of netbooks don’t have full size keyboards (they usually range from 89 to 93 percent of a full-size), but expect that to change very quickly.

Usual Array of Features, Some Exceptions
You will find an abundance of USB ports, Webcams, card readers, and built-in Wi-Fi. Netbooks don’t include optical drives or have great-sounding speakers, but they can acquire an internet connection in more than one way. An 802.11n WiFi chip and Ethernet port can be found in most netbooks, taking care of both your wireless and wired needs. Embedded 3G modems, which can use cellular signals to acquire broadband speeds, are available in the HP Mini 5103, Lenovo Thinkpad X120e, and the Acer One D255 (through AT&T). Mobile broadband is also available in USB form, which can be attached to anyone of the three USB ports that come with every one of these netbooks. An HDMI port, which simultaneously transmits audio and video to a flat-pane (via a cable), can be found in the HP dm1z, the Lenovo X120e, and the Asus 1215N.

Atom Platform, Mostly
You’ll also find the Intel Atom platform, made up of the Atom processor, integrated graphics, and memory (usually 1GB) in almost every netbook. Although the Intel Atom processor is the most energy-efficient netbook processor out there, it’s not the fastest. AMD is making waves with its new Fusion APUs, a combination of CPU and graphics cores on a single die—plenty of speed, minus the merciless battery-drains. These processors can already be found in netbooks like the HP dm1z and the Lenovo X120e.

Intel is already into its fourth generation of Atom processors, the most recent of which are the Atom N455 (1.66GHz) and the N475 (1.83GHz). These are single-core processors that have been updated with DDR3 memory support. The dual-core version—the Atom N550 (1.5GHz)—has also rolled out on the Acer D255-1203, the HP 5103, and the Samsung NF310-A01, improving performance by up to 20% (over the single-core Atom) without impacting battery life. Along with the Fusion APUs, these new netbook processors are arriving just in time for the back to school and holiday season.

What to Consider
Standard netbook batteries have standardized on 6-cell (48 to 63WH) units, but some vendors might try to sneak in a 3-cell battery (~30WH), so be wary of this. Our battery tests have shown that the smaller batteries will get you anywhere from 2 to 3 hours of battery life on a single charge, while the bigger ones range between 6 to 9 hours. If your activities include trips abroad and all-day classes, don’t settle for anything smaller than a 6-cell battery.

You’ll also find two hard drive choices, solid-state drives (SSDs) and spinning hard drives. The consensus is that spinning drives offer the best gigabyte-per-dollar ratio, and most of them start with at least 320GB of storage space. While SSDs have faster transfer speeds, are durable, and have longer life spans, they command much higher premiums than their spinning counterparts. In an extreme case, upgrading to a 128GB SSD in the HP 5103 will cost you an additional $450, more than the entire price of our review system.

Many of these netbooks will run fine on 1GB of memory. Most Intel-based netbooks can be upgraded to 2GB, provided you can make this simple upgrade yourself. Fusion-based models, like the HP dm1z and the Lenovo X120e, start with 3GB and 4GB, respectively, and can be upgraded to a whopping 8GB. For light 3D-gaming and full 1080p HD video playback, several of these netbooks are built around Nvidia’s ION platform or use ATI’s Mobility Radeon graphics cards.

What You Can Do With Them
Don’t underestimate the capabilities of these machines. Netbooks are not just limited to Web surfing, compiling spreadsheets, or word processing. You can offload your photos from a digital camera and edit them using a program like Adobe Photoshop Elements 7. With lots of patience, you can transcode videos to another format or edit them using complex video editing packages.

You can run your entire music library off of a program like Apple iTunes or Windows Media Player. A netbook can play video from sites like YouTube or a movie from an external USB drive, unmarred by distortions and lag. Businesses, too, are considering these pint-size laptops because you can run various e-mail clients, put them on a network, install a VPN client, and secure them with antivirus and antispyware suites.

At the price points we’re seeing in the netbook market—namely $300 to $550—sex appeal isn’t off limits either on a netbook. The HP 5103 has a sleek-looking aluminum frame, while the Toshiba NB500 Series uses colors and textures in its favor. As for the future of netbooks: As long as manufacturers can keep the price down, the sky is the limit. Check out our reviews of the latest netbooks on the market in our Netbook product guide.