Business Netbooks: The Next Big (Little) Thing?

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[ InfoWorld editors designed a laptop with the cutting-edge features we'd like to see. Then readers responded with their own suggestions. See "The best laptop money can't buy." ]

After all, netbooks aren't supposed to have fingerprint readers or discrete graphics processors, nor should they sport HDMI outputs or base configurations that feature Windows Vista and 2GB of RAM. Yet these are the very real specifications that make the Asus N10Jc stand out from the crowd (at least on paper). In fact, if it weren't for the underpowered Atom CPU and cramped screen and keyboard, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish the N10Jc from any number of thin-and-light notebooks. For a netbook, its specifications are quite unusual.

But first, the basics: The Asus N10Jc is an Atom N270-based netbook with both integrated Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 950 and discrete Nvidia 9300M GS graphics. This switchable graphics option (there's a slider control on the left side of the chassis) is supposed to be one of the major selling points for the N10Jc. However, benchmark testing under OfficeBench showed the unit lagging behind the HP Mini 2140 even with the more powerful Nvidia adapter selected.

Switching to the integrated GMA 950 adapter caused the N10Jc to fall even further behind the HP Mini, prompting me to repeat the tests several times to confirm the original results. No matter how I tweaked it, the N10Jc was simply slower than the competition, which was all the more surprising since the unit I tested sported 2GB of RAM. The 320GB hard disk seems out of place in a netbook form factor; most have a 160GB or smaller disk. Likewise, the N10Jc's fingerprint reader, though a welcome addition and one that security-conscious IT shops will no doubt appreciate, was unexpected on an entry-level system. But then again, nothing about the N10Jc's marketing pitch feels low end. In fact, Asus seems to have gone out of its way to distinguish the corporate N10 series from its more consumer-focused Eee PC lineup.

Unfortunately, the company only partially succeeded. Yes, the N10Jc projected the image of a serious PC, right down to the faux chrome accents and the understated silver-on-black color scheme. However, I quickly discovered that the corporate makeover is only skin deep. For example, my test unit's case featured way too much cheap, hard plastic, and its screen hinges seemed flimsy compared to the HP Mini 2140. I found the quirky keyboard layout quite frustrating -- due to an undersized right Shift key competing with the up arrow and a redundant second Function key -- and the overall tactile experience, though better than that of the Acer Aspire One, was nonetheless disappointing when contrasted with the near-perfect HP configuration.

Factor in the unit's overall poor performance and I'd be reluctant to justify choosing the N10Jc over an HP or Acer, especially when you consider the price premium Asus is attaching to this "corporate netbook." A basic unit with 1GB of RAM and a 160GB disk will run you a cool $649, while my pimped-out test unit, with the bigger disk and additional RAM, weighs in at a budget-busting $799 -- well outside of the traditional netbook price range. In fact, you can find a variety of true notebooks, with screens 15 inches or larger and integrated optical drives, for less money. This includes several models from Asus, such as the attractive M51 series.

[ Looking for maximum horsepower in a portable package? See "Road warrior power trip" and "Speedy mobile workstations: Dell, HP, and Lenovo." ]

Of course, none of these traditional notebooks is as ultraportable as the three-pound N10Jc, which measures a modest 10.8 by 8.26 by 1.46 inches. And few could likely compete with the N10Jc's 6.5 hours of battery life on a six-cell (48 watt) charge during OfficeBench rundown testing, though this advantage drops to 5.25 hours with the Nvidia adapter enabled. However, these traditional notebooks won't choke on H.264-encoded video -- which any machine in this price range should be able to process. Simply put, Asus is charging a premium without adding significant performance or value, and that's a formula I can't endorse.

HP Mini 2140

The HP Mini 2140 is the company's flagship offering in the business netbook segment. An update of the pioneering Mini 2133, the 2140 swaps the older model's underpowered Via C7-M CPU for the ubiquitous Intel Atom N270 running at 1.6GHz, while retaining its predecessor's overall form factor and excellent keyboard.

In fact, its keyboard really sets the HP Mini 2140 apart from the crowd. At 92 percent of full-size, the Mini's keyboard provides by far the best tactile experience of any netbook I've tested. Key spacing is surprisingly generous, with a comfortable layout and good all-around travel. Add to this the full-size Shift and Enter keys, plus HP's patented Dura Keys finish for resisting wear, and you have a configuration that is comfortable to type on for extended periods (for example, writing a 3,000-word article on netbooks).

The Mini 2140 is also one of the sleekest netbooks I've had the pleasure of using. Its modest dimensions -- 1.1 by 10.3 by 6.5 inches -- make the unit eminently portable, while its brushed-aluminum finish brings to mind a business chic reminiscent of another Test Center favorite, the Dell Precision M6400 mobile workstation. Like the much larger Dell Precision, the mini's metallic finish is cool to the touch and extremely comfortable to carry -- major factors in a device that's designed to be toted around all day.

Unfortunately, the sleek ergonomics don't extend to the 2140's track pad, which is far too short for prolonged use. This, coupled with the awkwardly placed, side-mounted buttons, mars what otherwise might be a near-perfect layout of a netbook keyboard deck.

Note to HP: Most users would gladly trade a few ounces for a slightly deeper palm rest area with a taller track pad. Also, consider adding support for circular scrolling a la the aforementioned Precision and the Acer Aspire One. A little chiro-action would go a long way toward mitigating an otherwise annoying deficiency.

Another potential ergonomic faux pas: the optional six-cell battery, which protrudes from the bottom of the unit like an elongated tube of Necco Wafers. While I can understand HP's desire to leave the overall dimensions intact, rolling the extra cells under the 2140 simply ruins the unit's otherwise elegant visual lines. It also makes removing the 2140 from its companion case or neoprene sleeve an awkward proposition (much wiggling inevitably ensues). On the plus side, the battery bump gives the unit's keyboard a nice tilt when placed on a desk or table, though I found the default angle with the more discrete three-cell battery to be perfectly adequate.

[ Apple's MacBook Pro is still the best notebook you can buy. Dell's Precision M6400 is the best mobile workstation. See InfoWorld's 2009 Technology of the Year Awards. ]

Assuming you can live with these minor nits, you'll likely find the 2140 to be a real pleasure to use. HP has stocked the unit with all sorts of clever touches, including a USB port with an integrated power extension for driving the optional external DVD/HDD media bay. But of course the real focus of the 2140 is on business users, and in this department the unit doesn't disappoint. I already noted the sleek aluminum shell. The robust build quality, with steel hinge pins (rated at over 200,000 open/close cycles) and a glossy, edge-to-edge screen cover, add to the 2140's overall solid feel -- and its ability to survive more than a few hard miles. Factor in HP's Quick Charge, for rapidly recharging the battery while on the run; 3D Drive Guard technologies; and a full-sized ExpressCard 54 slot, and the Mini 2140 seems right at home on a corporate RFQ sheet.

One particularly thoughtful feature, which I used frequently while writing this article, is the track pad disable button. A quick press and this centrally located button (placed just below the space bar) lights up red to indicate that the 2140's track pad is inactive, allowing me to touch-type without fear of accidentally brushing the cursor halfway across the screen or injecting some random click event into the typing stream -- always a problem with devices this small.

In terms of performance, the Intel GMA 950-equipped Mini 2140 delivered OfficeBench times on par with similarly configured netbooks, outpacing the much more expensive Asus N10Jc even though the latter unit features a discrete Nvidia 9300-series GPU. HP's new HD display option, which swaps the much-maligned 1,024-by-576-pixel LCD panel of the first-generation 2140 for a higher-resolution, 1,366-by-768-pixel screen, makes viewing large spreadsheets or navigating long Web pages a much more pleasant experience, but comes at a slight cost in terms of readability; the panel's size hasn't changed, but more data is squeezed onto it. Battery life was uniformly excellent, with the three-cell (28 watt) unit delivering just over three hours of continuous use during OfficeBench battery rundown testing. The six-cell (55 watt) unit yielded nearly 6.5 hours of use under the same test.

Overall, the HP Mini 2140 is the quintessential business-class netbook and the clear leader of this emerging market segment. A slightly taller track pad and a better-integrated six-cell battery are the only things left on this reviewer's wish list for the 2140's successor.

MSI Wind U123

MicroStar International (MSI) is another in a growing list of Asian PC parts manufacturers that jumped on the system building bandwagon in an effort to cash in on the netbook craze. Like Asus, MSI has always been better known as a source for the components you put into your PC than for the PC itself. However, unlike its trailblazing neighbor, MSI seems content to focus on no-frills solutions that trade homogeneity for attractive price points.

Case in point: The MSI Wind U123, which as netbooks go is as bland as they come. Sporting the most common specifications -- Atom 280 CPU (1.66GHz), 1GB of DDR-2 RAM, 160GB hard disk, 10.2-inch screen -- the U123 is the very definition of a generic netbook. And this is the general idea: MSI isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with the U123. Rather, the goal seems to be to capitalize on the pent-up demand for a low-cost solution that incorporates the best of the first-generation Atom CPU platform.

[ Business-class netbooks are blurring the distinction between consumer-oriented toys and the traditional corporate laptop. See "When does a netbook stop being a netbook?" ]

On that point, MSI succeeds admirably. With the Wind U123, MSI manages to squeeze a solid if basic netbook configuration into a reasonably sturdy, serviceable package with a price well under $400. This makes the Wind U123 an attractive option for IT shops seeking to maximize their netbook purchasing dollars. However, when viewed in light of the much more IT-friendly HP Mini 2140, the MSI's deficiencies as a business netbook become more apparent.

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