Laptops

Business Netbooks: The Next Big (Little) Thing?

Call it an enigma. Few concepts have generated as much internal IT controversy -- or caused as much vendor handwringing -- as the "business class" netbook. The idea that the traditionally consumer-focused netbook platform, with its underpowered CPU and toylike form factor, has a place at the enterprise IT table seems almost preposterous. Yet a quick glance around the Web reveals a groundswell of support for using netbooks as companions to -- and in some cases, replacements for -- traditional business PCs. It seems that many end-users have become enamored of the netbook's light weight and all-day battery life, and are now quite willing to turn in their more powerful, yet less convenient, corporate laptop PCs in order to reap the rewards of ultraportability.

Of course, the netbook craze places tremendous pressure on enterprise IT shops, many of which have stringent hardware certification requirements that disqualify most consumer-focused devices. Fortunately, a few prominent netbook vendors are working to address this concern by creating a new class of devices that marries the best of the consumer netbook space with additional capabilities to satisfy the wants and needs of IT. These so-called business-class netbooks retain the popular small form factor of their consumer brethren, yet incorporate additional features -- like larger keyboards, integrated fingerprint readers, and ExpressCard expansion slots -- to make them palatable to an often reluctant IT management caste.

[ Discover what's next for netbooks in InfoWorld's special report. | Keep up with the latest desktop computing developments in Randall C. Kennedy's Enterprise Desktop blog. ]

In this roundup, I take a look at four competing business netbooks: the Mini 2140 from HP, the N10Jc from Asus, the Aspire One AOD150 from Acer, and the Wind U123 from MSI. All fill the bill as netbooks per Microsoft's recently revised Windows licensing definitions, yet only the HP and Asus sport the significantly up-rated hardware that qualifies them as business class per my own (unofficial) definition. And when the dust of benchmarking and torture testing finally did settle, a clear winner emerged to serve as the ultimate standard bearer for this emerging product category.

Acer Aspire One

If the race to dominate the emerging business-class netbook market was determined by sheer popularity, then Acer would be the hands-down winner. With 38 percent of the netbook market, this Taiwanese heavyweight is truly the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Other vendors can only sit and watch with envy as Acer's branding becomes synonymous with the categories that its products occupy. Even market pioneer Asus (now with a 30 percent share), which invented the netbook platform with its groundbreaking Eee PC, has to concede that it is no longer the volume leader.

Unfortunately for Acer, IT shops don't pay much attention to consumer popularity. Rather, speeds and feeds ultimately determine whether a product is suitable for a specific business computing scenario. And in this regard, Acer's popular Aspire One model is perhaps a bit too Costco and not enough Office Depot for serious enterprise use.

For starters, the Aspire One has a terrible keyboard -- easily the worst I tried in this roundup. The keys are tiny, with the entire deck measuring just 9.25 inches. That's nearly an inch narrower than the HP's uniformly excellent keyboard, and the net result is a tactile nightmare. The Aspire One keyboard's only redeeming value is a full-size right Shift key that extends to the very edge of the deck. Otherwise, the implementation is a disaster. There is simply no way an adult human can comfortably touch-type on this keyboard.

Test Center Scorecard

Acer Aspire One

Build quality (20%): 6

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 6

Expandability (15%): 6

Manageability (15%): 6

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 6.2 (fair)

ASUS N10Jc

Build quality (20%): 7

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 7

Expandability (15%): 8

Manageability (15%): 8

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 7.2 (good)

HP Mini 2140

Build quality (20%): 9

Performance (20%): 9

Usability (20%): 8

Expandability (15%): 8

Manageability (15%): 9

Value (10%): 9

Overall score: 8.7 (very good)

MSI Wind U123

Build quality (20%): 7

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 7

Expandability (15%): 6

Manageability (15%): 6

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 6.6 (fair)

My next beef is with the Aspire One's build quality. Like the MSI Wind U123 -- also a consumer-focused device -- the Aspire One features way too much cheap plastic. The case feels flimsy and the hinge action nearly gave me a heart attack when the lid flopped open rather violently during an ill-advised leg shifting exercise on a crowded train. The icing on the cake was when my test unit's hard disk decided to go belly-up in the middle of my evaluation. Fortunately, I was able to extract a complete set of benchmark results just prior to the failure. However, when combined with the unit's poor overall construction, the death of the Aspire One's hard disk did little to boost my confidence in its business suitability.

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