How to: Buy the Right Netbook

By Jamie Lendino

April 06, 2009

A quick and helpful guide to the ten most important things to consider when deciding whether to buy a netbook.

The term “netbook” has only recently come into widespread use, but it’s not a new idea. Various manufacturers took stabs at it over the past 20 years; Gateway's popular, DOS-based Handbook 286 from the early 1990s comes immediately to mind.

But today’s full-featured netbooks have struck a chord for folks wanting something more powerful and comfortable than a smartphone, but less bulky than a traditional laptop.

Netbooks are highly portable, shrewdly priced, and can--in a pinch, with external peripherals--function as a secondary desktop PC. Plus, there's the "oops" factor. I'd never call a $400 purchase expendable--that's still a lot of money. But if the worst were to occur, and your netbook was lost, stolen, or sat on, it wouldn't cause nearly the trauma a $2,500 MacBook Pro would in the same situation.

That makes a netbook desirable for everyday use. Throw one in a bag or briefcase and you’ll never be without access to e-mail, the Web, or important files again.

As with most computer-related purchases, there are plenty of options to consider when buying a netbook. To help, we’ve put together a 10-minute guide that covers all the basics. While we don't have the space to examine every possible machine and configuration in depth, we'll give you everything you need to know to make an informed decision--from the specs you need, to the models, brands, and even some stores you should consider.

Here’s what you need to know when buying a netbook today:

Screen size:

Let's start here, since most netbook manufacturers divide their product lines by screen size. 10-inch is pretty much the norm at this point. While manufacturers experimented with 7-inch and 9-inch screens, in our opinion, you really need at least a 10-inch screen for the machine to be practical.

That size affords a relatively roomy 1024-by-600-pixel resolution on nearly all models. It’s also wide enough to accommodate a decent-sized keyboard (see below).

asus eee pc 1000 netbook, netbook buying guide

We consider a 10-inch screen, like the one on this Eee PC 1000, to be a workable compromise between portability and size, at least for a light-duty machine dedicated to Web browsing, document editing, and e-mail.

Price:

Fortunately, netbooks fall in at the bottom end of the pricing scale. Just $279 will get you in on the ground floor with an 8.9-inch model. $349 to $389 is a more workable range, and is good enough for a 10-inch model running Windows XP with 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard disk, and Windows XP.

More than that will buy luxury features like a stylish case design or a built-in cellular data modem (though the latter also requires a monthly data plan in order to work).

Keyboard and mouse:

This is a place you want to pay particular attention. Not only will you be typing and using the trackpad all the time, but the small size, shape, and cost of netbooks force manufacturers to be particularly stingy in these areas.

Asus Eee Pc 1000 netbook next to a Macbook Pro, netbook buying guide

Even when compared to laptops on the smaller and lighter end of the scale, netbooks look puny in comparison. Here is the same 10-inch Asus Eee PC 1000 positioned next to an Apple MacBook Pro with a 15.4-inch screen.

Look for keyboard flex, chintzy feeling plastic, and smaller-than-normal keys (92-percent of full size is probably okay; anything below that will feel cramped).

For the mouse, note the trackpad layout. HP, for example, has a thing for side-mounted buttons that make clicking and dragging a royal pain. Other manufacturers install cheap-feeling plastic buttons that click loudly.

Operating system, Windows XP or Linux:

The two main options here are Windows XP and Linux. Without delving too far into the Linux vs. Windows on a netbook OS war, Windows XP offers compatibility with apps you are probably already familiar with, plays nice with external peripherals, and works just like a desktop PC. But it requires a security software subscription, takes more system resources to run well, and doesn't come with an office suite or other useful software.

Linux machines cost less, come with lots of free open-source software preloaded, and don't need a security suite. But they work differently than XP machines, require extra setup for some external peripherals (depending on the Linux distribution), and don't run important third party apps—such as QuickBooks or most already-written internal corporate software.

CPU, memory, and hard disk:

Intel's small-footprint Atom processor revolutionized netbook design. The current Atom N270 now is found in just about all netbooks these days, while the Eee PC 1000HE features the next-generation N280.

Skip lower-priced alternatives like the Celeron. A Windows XP machine needs at least 1GB of RAM and a 100GB disk. Don’t settle for 512MB of RAM, because RAM is cheap these days, and because you'll want to upgrade it immediately. If you're running Linux, though, you can get away with just about anything--including a tiny, flash-based system drive.

Ports and expandability:

Amazingly, some netbooks offer up to three USB ports, an external VGA port, and an Ethernet jack. That's more than what you'll find on Apple's $1,799 MacBook Air, a machine that also weighs three pounds.

Even so, port configurations vary between models, so make sure the one you’re about to buy has enough to accommodate your current array of peripherals.

Other important features:

Wi-Fi is an absolute must--you need at least 802.11b/g compatibility, though 802.11n is a plus now that many home and business users are beginning to shift to that standard.

Most netbooks come with a built-in Web cam. Some even have Bluetooth, as well as card readers for transferring camera photos. If you're going to spend a lot of time away from power outlets, look for extended-range six-cell batteries. Some netbooks crap out after two or three hours due to puny battery capacities.

HP Mini 1000 netbook, netbook buying guide

The HP Mini 1000 netbook looks classy with its sleek lines, black finish, and full-size keys. Its side-mounted trackpad buttons are as difficult to use as they look, though.

Dedicated graphics chipsets are almost non-existent on netbooks, but integrated graphics are okay for anything short of 3D gaming.

Brands to consider:

Asus started the category in 2007. HP, Acer, MSI, Samsung, Lenovo, and Dell have since muscled their way in; all have models worthy of consideration.

Sony clearly wants to play, but its having trouble with the idea of a $400 portable. Steve Jobs has gone on record as saying that Apple doesn’t know how to build a $500 machine that isn’t “a piece of junk." (Sounds like a personal problem.)

Models to consider:

All of the major vendors appear to have sorted out their netbooks by the second or third generation. Some notables:
  • The Asus Eee PC 1000HE has a comfortable keyboard and long battery life.
  • The MSI Wind is a little cramped but offers a svelte design.

Acer Aspire One netbook, netbook buying guide

Acer snuck up on the computer industry, and recently placed third in sales ahead of some big names—due in large part to its wildly popular Aspire One series of netbooks.

  • HP’s Mini 1000 looks very classy—almost like what Apple would release, if it were silver instead of black.
  • Acer finally offers a 10-inch Aspire One these days, but it lacks full-size keys.

Other worthy options include the Samsung NC10, the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, and the Lenovo IdeaPad S10.

Where to buy:

Amazon is a great start, and keeps a running tally of the  best-selling netbooks at its site. Asus and Acer have the top five, currently.

Dell and HP sell direct online as well as in stores. Best Buy and Newegg are also solid options for buying netbooks.

Learn more

Article adapted from Datamation.



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