How to Buy a Netbook

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The term netbook, coined by Intel, conveys little useful information about this category of machines. Sure, they all have wireless networking, but so does every other laptop. What the term originally helped to identify was a class of small, ultralightweight, cheap-as-dirt mobile PCs.

Netbooks are tiny--usually between half and two-thirds the size of a garden-variety laptop--and they typically weigh around 2.5 pounds. With their cool, slim designs, they outclass some fancy ultraportables. And best of all, these diminutive laptops start at around $200 (in some cases $100, when purchased as part of a mobile broadband promotional deal).

But that doesn't mean a netbook is for everyone. These are basic computing devices that will meet only basic computing needs. If you're looking to do a little bit of word processing, maybe edit a few simple spreadsheets, and want to surf the Web, a netbook will suffice. But if you're looking to edit high-resolution photos or work with video, a netbook isn't for you: These systems have seriously limited processing power. You can listen to some tunes, but don't expect first-ratesound. And you might be able to watch a few online videos, but you'll be looking at a relatively tiny screen.

In determining what makes a netbook a netbook, and not an ultraportable laptop, we take several factors into consideration. Chief among them: price, size, and the CPU under its hood. But netbooks are constantly evolving, and we're now on the cusp of next-generation models. Soon, we'll see Atom processors outfitted with a discrete nVidia GPU (the Ion platform). And Intel isn't the only chip maker in the netbook space: AMD is half-stepping into the territory with the Athlon Neo CPU. The distinguishing characteristics are in flux. With that in mind, here's what you need to know when buying a netbook.

The Big Picture

The netbook market is new, and constantly in flux. We'll explain the options available to you today. more

The Specs Explained

Just because netbooks are cheap, that doesn't mean you have to expect poor performance. We'll guide you through the choices you need to make in order to get the most out of your mini machine. more

Netbook Shopping Tips

Sure, some netbooks are cheap. But some also cost almost as much as full-fledged laptops. Our advice well help you find the right machine at the right price. more

More on Netbooks

Here's a chart (with links to reviews), a slide show, and a discussion of the differences between netbooks and ultraportables.

PC World's Top-Rated Laptops

Keep in mind PC World's other laptop lists:

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