2009 Netbook and Notebook Buyer's Guide

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There's hardly a more popular notebook segment these days than netbooks. Frankly, they're all the rage, and they've been so ever since Asus decided to pique everyone's curiosity with the ultra-small, ultra-cheap Eee PC family. For a litany of reasons, the netbook segment is both the easiest to understand and the most difficult of which to select the perfect machine. Why? Let us explain.

For now, Windows XP is far and away the dominant operating system on netbooks. You'll find the occasional netbook with some flavor of Linux loaded on, but by and large, it's Microsoft's most previous OS taking charge. The reason for this is simple: Vista is too demanding for netbooks, which generally possess low-end, battery friendly hardware in order to come in at a price point that prospective buyers find suitable. Netbooks have been around for years now, but their specifications haven't varied much over time. One of the major reasons for that is Windows XP, oddly enough.

Gateway's LT3100 - one of the few netbooks with a spacious 11.6" LCD

Microsoft has issued a rather strict set of guidelines for what sorts of machines can still use Windows XP, given that it would greatly prefer to be selling copies of Vista. Thus, netbooks are allowed to use WinXP if (and only if) they stay within those guidelines. To that end, you can pretty much bet that whatever netbook you select will have a 1.6GHz Atom N270 or 1.66GHz Atom N280 processor, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive (or smaller), integrated graphics (usually Intel's GMA 500 or GMA 950), no optical drive, two or three USB 2.0 ports, VGA output and a 10" to 12" display. Like we said, easy to understand.

But, at the same time, this little predicament makes it incredibly tough to select a machine. After all, your car buying decision would be quite a bit tougher if every vehicle on the lot was a 4-cylinder sedan with 15" rims, no AC and power steering, wouldn't it? As it stands, netbook manufacturers are left with only three real areas of flexibility: design/aesthetics, battery life and price. Generally speaking, the average netbook runs around $299-$349. A few of the more interesting ones (Asus'
touch-screen T91 tablet netbook, for example) are more expensive, while you can occasionally find closeout deals (such as Dell's heralded $99 Mini 9) whenever companies decide to ditch one model for another.

OCZ's Neutrino - one of the few netbooks with a matte (10") display; click image for review

In other words, you'll need a darn good reason to spend over $299-$349 on a netbook. There are simply far too many excellent options out on the market in that range to justify spending more for the same set of specs. Speaking of good reasons, that brings us to the other two aspects mentioned above. Asus' Seashell line of Eee PCs are designed unlike any other netbook out today. They are sleek and dare we say sexy. And you'll pay a premium for that special design. Whether or not it's worth it is totally up to you, but we've reviewed both the Eee PC 1008HA and the Eee PC 1005HA already in order to help you make that very decision.

Asus' Eee PC 1005HA 'Seashell' - one of the sleeker netbooks out; click image for review

Lastly, there's battery life. Without qualification, we'd say this is the single biggest factor to pay attention to when purchasing a netbook. Considering that the specifications will all be generally the same, you don't need to spin your wheels long trying to find one with the quickest CPU. However, if you're looking for a netbook, chances are you care greatly about how long it'll last without needing a recharge. If so, you'll certainly want to have a look at Asus' Eee PC 1000HE and Eee PC 1005HA, as well as Lenovo's IdeaPad S10-2. All three of these machines exhibited excellent battery life in our testing, with each hanging on for well over four hours in "real-world" use. As we alluded to, we'd definitely consider an extra long battery a great reason to pay a small premium. Trust us--having just enough juice to finish off that report before boarding a long flight is priceless.

To wrap this section up, we should also mention a few of the more subtle differentiating factors to consider when mulling a netbook purchase. A few netbooks have three USB 2.0 sockets, while most have two. Obviously we'd opt for the ones with three if given the chance. Also, some netbooks have a built-in flash card reader, which is definitely handy. Most netbooks are stuck with a glossy display; to date, the only one we've seen with a matte panel (which we greatly prefer due to reduced reflections when used outdoors) is OCZ Technology's Neutrino, a netbook which
we reviewed just a few months back.

Finally, it's worth checking out the percent-of-full-size of  a netbook's keyboard. Some are around 88% of full-size, others are closer to 100%. If you'll be typing much at all, you'll want a keyboard as close to 100% as possible in order to avoid errors and curb frustrations. Also, it's worth investigating whether the trackpad is multi-touch or not. Asus' Eee PC 1000HE has a multi-touch trackpad, but most netbooks do not. A few support scrolling gestures at best, which is certainly better than nothing.

Here are a few specific things we'd look for on a netbook:
  • 1.66GHz Atom N280 CPU (currently the best you can get on a WinXP-based netbook)
  • Three USB 2.0 ports (we've yet to see a netbook with more, but we've seen plenty with less)
  • At least four hours of "real-world" battery life (it's a "netbook," shouldn't it get great battery life?)
  • An 11.6" display (and thus, a larger keyboard)
  • Multi-touch trackpad (these are productivity boosters)
  • Matte display (better for working outdoors and in brightly-lit rooms)
  • NVIDIA's Ion platform (far superior to Intel's GMA xxx graphics, which can barely handle 720p; Ion easily enables high-def content playback)
Here are a few specific things we'd prefer to avoid on a netbook:
  • Intel Z-series Atom CPU (only available in single core configuration, no HyperThreading, generally reserved for less demanding MIDs and UMPCs)
  • No multi-card reader (an onboard flash reader can come in handy!)
  • Price tag of over $400 (too many suitable options for under $350 are available)
  • Sub-10" display (no reason to strain your eyes with so many 10"+ options)
  • Super cramped keyboard (you'll be typing a lot; you'll need a keyboard you like/love)
In closing, we should mention that Windows 7 will hopefully change the landscape of netbooks in the not too distant future, but it won't happen overnight. Even if machines start to ship with Windows 7 Starter Edition in the winter, we don't anticipate any major hardware overhauls until mid-2010. And even then, upgrades like 2-3GB of RAM, faster CPUs and discrete GPUs will push the prices into the "thin-and-light" range, a segment we'll be addressing next.

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