How to Buy a Netbook

Four months ago, we published a buyers guide for small, lightweight laptops titled, 'How to buy a mini-laptop.'

Mini-laptops are now generally called netbooks -- a name coined by Intel -- but the devices remain popular for their small size, half to two-thirds the size of a normal laptop and far lighter. With the holidays fast approaching, we decided it was the right time to revisit this product segment and lay out the issues users will want to consider before they make a purchase.

Netbooks have caught on because they offer people a mobile, easy way to wirelessly access the Web. And over the past few months a dozen or more new netbooks have hit the market, giving people a wider range of choices.

Most netbooks sport small LCD screens, 8.9-inches to 10-inches, versus an average of 15.4-inches for normal laptops. Netbooks generally weigh around 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram) each, far lighter than most laptops, and carry batteries that last up to 8 hours. They cost between US$199 and $799.

For anyone looking to buy now, here are some tips for your first netbook, compiled after reviewing about a dozen of them.

1. Make sure you want a netbook and not a full-fledged laptop computer.

What do you want to use this netbook for? Do you want a lightweight device for easy Internet access? Or are you really looking for a device to carry around that you can edit video on, play games, or use for other applications that test the computing limits of a netbook?

Don't buy a netbook if you're really looking for a laptop, it would be a mistake.

To ensure longer battery life, some key components on a netbook, such as the microprocessor, are less powerful than common laptops. That's why they're good for surfing the Internet, sending e-mails, or doing homework.

Anyone looking to do more should shop for a more powerful laptop, not a netbook.

2. Buy a netbook with an 8.9-inch screen or larger.

I tested an Eee PC with a 7-inch screen, the Surf, and found screen too small. I was not able to view an entire Web page on the cramped display. On a screen that small, you have to scroll left and right as well as up and down to see an entire Web page. Scrolling up and down is normal, but left and right was annoying.

That's less of a problem on the slightly larger-sized screens and, in the 8.9-inch screen size, the weight and size of the netbook is nearly the same as devices with 7-inch screens.

The 10-inch screens are even better, yet add size and weight to the netbook.

3. Make sure you get a 6-cell battery for your netbook, although you may have to pay $50 more and the device will weigh more.

Most companies started out offering netbooks with 3-cell batteries as the standard, but that doesn't offer a whole lot of run time, just 2 to 3 hours. A 6-cell battery doubles that, and in some devices designed around a 6-cell battery, such as Asustek Computer's Eee PC 901, you can get up to 8 hours.

In a mobile device, battery life is vital. You don't want to always have to look around for outlets, or fight over the last available socket in a coffee shop.

Most vendors are now following Asustek's lead with 6-cell batteries. In fact, the netbooks listed on Amazon.com's bestseller list for the past month nearly all carry 6-cell batteries, Acer's Aspire One, Asustek's Eee PC 1000HA and Samsung Electronics' NC10-14GB.

Micro-Star International's Wind series, which sports a 10-inch screen, is a good example of the difference in weight on the batteries. Wind netbooks with 6-cell batteries weigh 2.6 lbs (1.18 kg), while those with 3-cell batteries weigh 2.3 lbs (1.04 kg).

Vendors generally offer 6-cell batteries for all models. But most devices come standard with a 3-cell or 4-cell battery, so if you want a 6-cell you may have to ask for it, and expect to pay a bit more.

Another benefit of the larger battery is that it props up the back of the device, putting it on a slight angle that makes typing easier. Keyboards on netbooks are smaller than normal keyboards, and comfortable typing was one area I was not willing to compromise on.

4. Try out the keyboard and make sure it's right for you.

None of the devices I tested had a better typing pad than Intel's ClassMate PC, which has a keyboard far smaller than the Eee PC 1000. Keys on the ClassMate PC's keyboard are raised and there is a lot of space between them, making them easy to find by touch.

By contrast, the Eee PCs, Wind and Elitegroup Computer Systems' G10IL designed their keyboard with flat keys and little or no space between keys because, I was told by Elitegroup staff, it makes them look nice. The trouble is, it also makes typing more difficult.

I really liked the keyboards on Acer's Aspire One, Hewlett-Packard's Mini 1000 and Everex's CloudBook Max, but the best keyboard was on HP's Mini-Note.

5. Software: see what comes preinstalled and consider trying the Linux OS.

There are two lessons on software.

First, some vendors have skimped on including software in their netbooks on the pretense that users can download a lot of free software on the Internet. That's true, but it's a bad excuse for not going the extra distance for customer satisfaction.

Who wants to spend time downloading when many netbook makers have added lots of software so users can play with their new netbook right away?

Asustek included a lot of useful software on its Eee PCs, as has Acer, which also added a nice opening screen that boots up in just 12 seconds.

Second, it may be time to the give the Linux OS a try.

The Acer opening screen I just referred to is based on Linux, and the Aspire One comes with the Linpus Linux Lite OS, which is very user friendly. I've used Windows for most of my life but switching to Linux on the Aspire One was smooth and easy.

Most of the netbooks I tested with Linux booted up far faster than Windows XP or Windows Vista. Which reminds me, don't buy a netbook with Vista -- it's just too slow.

There are also free Linux-based word processing programs and spreadsheets available on the Internet such as Open Office, Sun's inexpensive StarOffice and Web-based software such as Google Apps.

Google also offers a nice package of free software, Google Pack, which includes several popular applications such as Adobe Reader, Skype, RealPlayer for music and video, Norton Security Scan and two browsers, Google's Chrome and Firefox.

Of course, it would be nice to see a Web site devoted to netbooks, with software specifically designed for low-power devices and smaller screens. Netbookdownload.com, anyone?

6. Price: if it costs more than $500, start looking at a regular notebook computer.

Companies have started promoting a wide range of netbooks at ever higher prices, but once you pass $500, netbooks start to compete with laptops, and a laptop will almost always give you more value for your money.

Laptop computers have far more powerful microprocessors and other components than netbooks, and sport DVD drives. There are no DVD drives on netbooks.

If size and weight are your main concerns, there are plenty of small, full-featured laptops, including the Sony Vaio TT with an 11.1-inch screen, Lenovo U110-23042BU">Ideapad, also with an 11.1-inch screen, and of course Apple's lightweight MacBook Air.

7. Look around at what's available.

Many new netbooks have come out since I wrote my last netbook buyer's guide. There are a lot of look-alikes since newcomers have copied what the pioneers found to be the most popular configurations. The net effect is to put more good devices out there from a number of competitors. You may be able to pick up a nice machine for a very low price.

PC World has rated several of these new devices based on their specifications, performance, design and price, with Asustek's Eee PC 1000H coming out on top, followed closely by Lenovo's IdeaPad S10, Asus's N10JC, Dell's Inspiron Mini 9, HP's Mini 1000, and MSI's Wind U100.

Darren Gladstone, PC World's netbook reviewer, said he's sticking with HP's Mini 1000 until a newer model comes out, but it's not my favorite. Nor is my favorite netbook among the group PC World rated.

These are all good machines, but it should be noted that the IdeaPad S10, Inspiron Mini 9 and HP Mini 1000 do not currently come with 6-cell batteries, or at least I can't find any. To me, that's a big negative because mobility is so important.

Mobility may not be so important to you, so that's why you need to decide what you want to get out of a netbook (or laptop) before you buy one.

There were a lot of nice netbooks out there worth considering.

Giga-byte Technology's M912 is the netbook with by far the coolest technology with its touchscreen. The screen can also swivel around so you can show someone else what you're working on.

But I was quoted a price of NT$19,900 (US$632) for the device, and since I'm not really sure how much I'd use the touchscreen, I figured it wasn't right for me.

I almost decided on one of the netbooks with the bigger, 10-inch screens. My top choices were Asustek's Eee PC 1000

with the Xandros Linux OS and a 40G-byte solid state drive (SSD) for storage and 6-cell battery, followed by Micro-Star International's Wind U100 with a 6-cell battery.

Darren rightly pointed out that Asus's Eee PC 1002HA, also with a 10-inch screen, looks like a very nice device, but neither of us have had a chance to try one out.

In any case, the 10-inch screen devices are a little bigger and more expensive than what I was looking for. Size is important to consider in terms of weight. Ten inch screens, hard disk drives (HDDs) and 6-cell batteries add a lot of extra weight to a netbook.

All of the netbooks I tried out include wireless Internet access through Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, but only Asustek's more recent Eee PCs, including the S101, 1002HA, and 1000HA, offered the speedier 802.11b/g/n as of this writing.

Several netbooks are now on sale with built-in 3G modules and mobile phone service providers are offering them with 3G (third generation telecommunications) contracts, so people can access the Internet from anywhere on their mobile phone network.

People can also buy add-on 3G or WiMax cards for any netbook.

8. And finally, the best netbook available (for me) is....

I've tested over a dozen different netbooks and published reviews on most of them, and after trying out some pretty cool devices, I decided to buy the one that's right for me: Acer's Aspire One.

Based on the criteria above, here's why:

I already have a laptop PC, so I don't need a powerful netbook. I just want a small, lightweight device that's easy to carry around so I can surf the Web or write when I'm outside my office.

The Aspire One comes with an 8.9-inch screen and either a 3-cell or 6-cell battery, and of course I will pay a little more for the 6-cell battery. I get stranded in airports sometimes, often take trains, and simply like to sip my coffee very slowly. I need a long lasting battery.

The keyboard on the device is quite comfortable, and the software it comes with is easy to use, especially the Linpus Linux Lite OS.

The price sealed my decision.

Prices have come down for nearly all netbooks because of growing competition. Acer's Aspire One with Windows XP, a 160G-byte HDD (hard disk drive) and 6-cell battery sells for around US$380 on Amazon.com currently, compared to around $430 earlier this year.

I plan to buy the $329 Aspire One that comes with Linpus Linux Lite OS, has an 8.9-inch screen, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom microprocessor, 512M bytes of DRAM and 8G bytes of flash memory storage and a 3-cell battery, standard. I'll add more DRAM and buy an additional flash card, as well as trade up to a 6-cell battery, which will likely raise the price to around $400, in all.

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