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How to Buy a Netbook

  • Category: Buying Guides
Date:9/16/2011

By Cisco Cheng

The first batch of netbooks to hit the scene was greeted with awe and surprise. Those tiny laptops, which were once sold at a premium, could be had for half the price of a typical system seemed incredible. Since then, netbooks have taken a backseat to tablets, as the Apple iPad and countless "me-toos" have caused a lull in their production. Furthermore, full size laptops, which used to cost twice as much as netbooks, are now competing in this price range. But that doesn't mean demand for netbooks have fizzled out completely. Sure, the stakes have risen, and netbooks manufacturers are now vying for a spot in a very tight space, which is why the latest crop of netbooks have evolved to include more features, bigger screens and keyboards, and faster parts—all while slashing prices like a Walmart special.


Even though new netbooks aren't launching at a torrid pace, like they were a year ago, the choices are still mind boggling. They're available from all sorts of household names, such as ASUS, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. As a category, netbooks are such a diverse group that it's hard to come up with a single, all-encompassing definition. The best indicators that you're dealing with a netbook are a low price, light weight, and low-powered components. It's likely the system will have a screen on the smaller side and a basic feature set. Still, netbooks vary in screen size, typing experience, and specialty features. On the component side, AMD and Intel are silently going at it, though neither has launched any new chips in a while. Despite their current state, there are certainly enough netbooks that warrant further explanation. Luckily, this netbook buying guide does just that.

Larger Screens, Bigger Keyboards
It's generally easy enough to tell a netbook from other laptops, but to distinguish between systems, you'll need to do a little homework. In the past, screen sizes defaulted to 10-inches with 1,024-by-600 resolutions on almost every single netbook. These days, netbooks are breaking away from this trend. Oversized netbooks like the HP Pavilion dm1z and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e are sold with 11.6-inch widescreens, while the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Ion) and the Asus EeePC 1215B are shipping with 12-inch ones. And their resolutions, as a result, are upped to HD-capable ones (1,366-by-768).

Once upon a time, full-sized keyboards were few and far between, but now they exist in netbooks as small as 10-inches. Case in point: The Toshiba mini NB305-N600, Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3, and Acer Aspire One D260-1270 squeezed one in to their 10-inch frames. Since the vast majority of newer netbooks are launching with bigger screens (11-12-inches), a full size keyboard is guaranteed.

Usual Array of Features, Some Exceptions
Most netbooks provide an abundance of USB ports, Webcams, card readers, and built-in Wi-Fi. What they usually don't come with is an optical drive. Some, like the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t and Dell Inspiron Duo, are convertible tablets that have a touchscreen on a rotating hinge. Bluetooth is a frequently bundled feature in netbooks, while embedded 3G modems, which can use cellular signals to acquire broadband speeds, can be found in the HP Mini 5103 and Dell Inspiron Mini 10 (HD).

Atom Platform, Mostly
It used to be that the Intel Atom platform, made up of the Atom processor, integrated graphics, and memory (usually 1GB), was the most widely used in a netbook. Now AMD, with its latest Fusion APUs, has become a big presence in this space. Not only are AMD APUs faster any given Atom processor, but they're as battery efficient and have better graphics capabilities. You're also more likely to find 3GB-4GB memory configuration in AMD netbooks than from Intel ones. The AMD E-350 APU, for instance, can be found in the Lenovo Ideapad S205, Acer Aspire One 722-BZ480, and HP dm1z.

Intel is already into its fourth generation of Atom processors, the most recent of which are the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N455 and the 1.83GHz Intel Atom N475. These are single-core processors that have been updated with DDR3 memory support. The dual-core version—the 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550—can already be found in a handful of netbooks, and improves performance by up to 20% over the single-core Atoms, without impacting battery life.

What to Consider
Standard netbook batteries start with 3-cell (less than 30Wh) units, but many netbooks are now standardizing on 6-cell batteries. Our battery tests have shown that the smaller batteries will get you anywhere from 2 to 3 hours of battery life on a single charge, while the bigger ones range between 7 to 10 hours. If your activities include trips abroad and all-day classes, consider looking for netbooks that ship with 6-cell options. You'll also find two hard drive choices: solid-state drives (SSDs) and spinning hard drives. The consensus is that spinning drives offer the best gigabyte-per-dollar ratio, and most of them start with at least 250GB of storage space. While SSDs have faster transfer speeds, are durable, and have longer life spans, they command much higher premiums than their spinning counterparts. In an extreme case, upgrading to a 128GB SSD in the HP 5103 will cost you an additional $400, more than the entire price of our review system.

What You Can Do With Them
Don't underestimate the capabilities of these machines. Netbooks are not just limited to Web surfing, compiling spreadsheets, or word processing. You can offload your photos from a digital camera and edit them using a program like Adobe Photoshop Elements 9. With lots of patience, you can transcode video to another format using Windows Media Encoder 11 or edit video footage using Adobe Premiere Elements 9, or run your entire music library off of a program like Apple iTunes. A netbook can play video from sites like YouTube or a movie from an external USB drive, unmarred by distortions and lag. Businesses, too, are considering these pint-size laptops because you can run various e-mail clients, put them on a network, install a VPN client, and secure them with antivirus and antispyware suites.

At the price points we're seeing in the netbook market—namely $300 to $500—sex appeal isn't off limits either on a netbook. The HP 5103 has a sleek-looking aluminum frame, while the Toshiba NB305-N600 uses colors and textures in its favor. Though the future of netbooks remains a big question mark, what with the tablet boom and full size laptops that can be had for about the same price, the demand for them has not fizzled. There's a wide selection for those who want a pint-sized laptop that won't cost them an arm and a leg.

Check out our reviews of the latest netbooks on the market in our Netbook product guide.