Business Netbooks: The Next Big (Little) Thing?

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For starters, the Wind U123 has no ExpressCard slot or free-fall sensor; the HP, in contrast, has an ExpressCard 54 slot and 3D DriveGuard. The unit also features a 10/100 LAN adapter (it's GbE in the HP), and the wireless card is limited to 802.11b/g (again, the HP has a/b/g and draft-n). And while it's hard to fault MSI for using the ubiquitous 1,024-by-600-resolution LCD panel -- both the ASUS N10Jc and the Acer Aspire One feature the same display resolution -- it's still difficult to ignore the loss of screen real estate when moving over from the HP Mini.

One area where I can find fault is with MSI's build quality. Simply put, the Wind U123 is not well put together. The chassis is a study in the evils of injection-molded plastic, while the keyboard is reminiscent of the first-generation Eee PC: cramped, with an awkward layout that includes the inevitable shortened right Shift key violation. (Hint: Next time hire a touch typist to test your design.) And in a page straight out of the low-budget Chinese toy factory playbook, the Wind U123 sports what has to be the worst track pad buttons I've ever had the displeasure of using. Cheap feeling and hard to depress, they make working with a click-happy UI like Windows Vista a real chore.

Fortunately, the Wind U123 redeemed itself a bit during OfficeBench testing. Its completion time of 118 seconds placed it a few seconds ahead of the Asus N10Jc, and its battery life of nearly 7 hours on a six-cell (87 watt) charge led the roundup. However, the MSI unit fell behind the Asus once we enabled the more expensive machine's discrete Nvidia graphics. Still, the fact that the Wind U123 was able to keep pace with a system costing more than twice as much is a credit to the MSI engineers. MSI seems to have gotten the basics right with the Wind U123, as evidenced by its competitive showing versus the more powerful N10Jc, though neither unit can match the HP's pace of 113 seconds.

Overall, the Wind U123 lives up to my initial assessment of the unit -- specifically, that it's a low-cost netbook with generic specifications targeted at budget-conscious buyers. However, the real question is whether a dollar saved up front in fact contributes to the long-term ROI of the purchase. In the case of the HP, features like 3D DriveGuard, an ExpressCard slot, and a sturdy aluminum case help to justify a roughly $70 higher price tag (the Mini 2140 is $449 when configured almost identically to the Wind U123). The MSI unit has no comparable value-add proposition. It is essentially a commodity device with minimal engineering, assembled using the cheapest components available at build time.

Then there is the issue of support. Vendors like MSI, though eager to make their mark in the broader system building world, are relatively new to the whole PC systems space. As such, they lack the established ecosystem of VARs and trained support professionals that help to define the boundaries between the first, second, and, in this case, third tiers of the computer hardware vendor landscape. Yes, the device is inexpensive. However, you pay for this advantage in other ways: namely, lower build quality and a less satisfying user experience.

A netbook of note: The HP Mini 2140

With a killer keyboard, stellar screen, and full suite of enterprise connectivity and expandability options, the HP Mini 2140 is the obvious choice for anyone serious about the business end of the netbook spectrum. The unit is rugged, with excellent build quality and a raft of reliability features (steel hinge pins, 3D DriveGuard) that instill confidence in IT support staff and end-users alike. Add to this a very palatable price tag, and you have a winning combination of form, functionality, and performance. My only gripe is with the track pad, which is still too short for extended use. Otherwise, the HP Mini 2140 is a nearly perfect business-class netbook.

Of the remaining competitors, only the Asus N10Jc deserves consideration as a business-class unit. Like the HP, it features exceptional build quality, though a bit less plastic would have been nice. The fact that Asus formally supports Windows Vista on the N10Jc is also a bonus, as is the integrated fingerprint reader -- an Asus exclusive in this category. Unfortunately, the system's price point of nearly $800 as tested makes it a hard sell when a superior solution is available for $300 less. This lack of value, coupled with a poor overall benchmark showing, renders the N10Jc a failed experiment.

As for the Acer Aspire One and MSI Wind U123, these units are merely repackaged consumer netbooks. Their lack of enterprise-class connectivity or expansion capabilities means they're ill suited to the rigors of corporate life. And with the HP Mini 2140 squarely in the same price range, it's hard to imagine choosing one of these glorified consumer toys to satisfy an RFQ sheet.

Comparing business-class netbooks

Acer Aspire One AOD150

Price as tested: $350

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Light weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive; No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.

Bottom Line: The Acer Aspire One AOD150 is one of the more popular consumer-focused netbooks. But as a business-class device, it simply doesn't measure up. The unit's cheap overall build quality, coupled with a lack of enterprise-caliber expandability (no ExpressCard slot) or connectivity (no GbE port), make the Acer Aspire One more of a toy than a serious business computing device.

Asus N10Jc

Price as tested: $799

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Good build quality. Integrated fingerprint reader. ExpressCard/34 slot; High price. Poor performance.

Bottom Line: The Asus N10Jc stretches the definition of a netbook by incorporating a discrete graphics processor (Nvidia 9300) and a fingerprint reader. Unfortunately, the unit lagged behind the competition in benchmark testing, and its build quality -- though better than average for a netbook -- is still inferior to the HP Mini 2140's. Add to this an inflated price tag (nearly $800 as tested) and the N10Jc is tough to justify versus a traditional corporate notebook PC.

HP Mini 2140

Price as tested: $449

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Robust design. Excellent keyboard. IT friendly features; Awkward track pad design. Only two USB ports.

Bottom Line: The HP Mini 2140 is a near perfect business-class netbook. Its excellent build quality inspires confidence, while a spacious keyboard (for a netbook) and WXGA screen (1,366 by 768) make it suitable for a wide range of mobile business productivity tasks. Add to this a plethora of IT-friendly features (3D DriveGuard, full-size ExpressCard slot) and it's easy to see why the Mini 2140 is the darling of the emerging business netbook category.

MSI Wind U123

Price as tested: $380

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Light weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive; No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.

Bottom Line: The MSI Wind U123 is the spiritual cousin to the Acer Aspire One. Both are clearly consumer-oriented designs that use way too much plastic. They also both suffer from awkward keyboard designs -- in MSI's case, some funky layout decisions -- and neither provides the kind of expandability or connectivity features that separate true business-class units, like the HP Mini 2140, from the crowd.

Randall C. Kennedy is a contributing editor of the InfoWorld Test Center, and he writes theEnterprise Desktop blog.

This story, "Business Netbooks: The Next Big (Little) Thing?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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