A Small Business Guide to Buying a Netbook

Monday Mar 15th 2010 by Joseph Moran
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Can a netbook be a small business computer? Our guide helps you choose a netbook PC that can handle everyday business tasks at a very affordable price.

The netbook craze began back in 2007 with the Asus Eee PC. What started as a fad has grown into its own PC category. What distinguishes a netbook from a notebook? There’s no official definition, but the basic rule of thumb describes a netbook as an ultraportable notebook that weighs around 3 pounds, comes with a small screen and costs between $300 and $500 depending on specs and features.

Although they generally fall short of entry-level notebooks in terms of raw computing power, netbooks are nevertheless extremely popular because 1) they’re smaller, lighter and (typically) cheaper than full-size notebooks; and 2) they’re more capable and comfortable to work with than smartphones.

Just about every manufacturer that makes notebooks (Asus, Acer, Dell, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Toshiba – and the list goes on) also has at least one netbook. Although the majority of vendors don’t offer business-centric models, a wide array of consumer-targeted netbooks can serve as useful business tools.

 Dell Mini 10 netbook
The Dell Mini 10 netbook PC.
(Click for larger image)
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Most netbook vendor offerings come in fixed configurations (sometimes dozens of them), but a few companies such as Dell and HP do allow customers some limited options for custom configuration (both Dell and HP also offer a business netbook line as well).

At first blush the many netbook choices may seem similar, but the differences go beyond mere aesthetics. Here's what you need to know about buying a netbook -- before you part with your  hard-earned cash.

Processors and Computer Memory

The overwhelming majority of netbooks use one of Intel’s entry-level Atom processors. The Atom is a low-power CPU in every sense of the term -- performance takes a back seat in favor of minimizing battery drain. But netbooks are still powerful enough to handle most basic computing chores like Web browsing, e-mail and business productivity.

Intel’s most current Atom processor is the N450. It improves performance and battery life over its predecessors in part by combining the CPU, memory controller and graphics accelerator into a single chip. A forthcoming Atom N470 -- currently available but not yet shipping in any netbooks (though it should be available very shortly) -- will run a bit faster (1.6 to 1.83 GHz).

As of this writing, there are plenty of netbooks for sale with older Atoms CPUs like the N270, N280, Z520, and Z530. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, they have dated (nearly two year old) hardware. Unless you’re getting a particularly good deal, stick with netbooks based on the newer N4xx Atom, like Lenovo’s S10. Netbooks with older Atoms will likely be discontinued or refreshed in the near future, so you don’t want to pay top dollar for them.  

Netbooks generally come standard with 1 GB of RAM, which is sufficient (barely) as long as you stick to using no more than one or two programs at a time.  If you plan to frequently exceed that, or like to keeps lots of browser tabs/windows open simultaneously, consider a memory upgrade.

Fortunately, virtually all netbooks can accommodate 2 GB of RAM (and they typically max out there, though a few models support 3 or even 4 GB). An upgrade caveat:  many netbook models have only one memory socket and thus require you to shell out for a larger memory module than you need in order to upgrade. For example, to upgrade from 1 GB to 2GB, you may need to buy a 2 GB module to replace an existing 1GB module, rather than simply adding a second 1 GB module.

Gateway LT2014u netbook
The Gateway LT2014u netbook computer.
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The Netbook Display

As you might expect, the diminutive footprint of a netbook really puts a limit on screen size. Netbook displays commonly measure 10.1 inches and sport a resolution of 1,024 by 600, which is enough to show the full width of a standard Web page (but expect to do a lot of vertical scrolling to read long pages).

If you’re willing to tote a slightly larger and heavier netbook around (and give up a bit of battery life as well) in exchange for more desktop real estate, seek out models with 11.6 or 12.1-inch screens, which typically bump the resolution up to 1,366 x 768.

A few netbooks offer the option of shoehorning the sharper 1,366 x 768 resolution into the smaller 10.1-inch screen (Dell’s Mini 10 is one example), but you’ll need really good eyesight to view such displays comfortably as they make the pixels extremely small.

Regardless of display size, most netbooks use a basic integrated graphics chip, which is fine for business use but not for more demanding tasks like playing HD video smoothly. A small but increasing number of netbook models offer beefier graphics -- either standard or as an option -- in the form of a dedicated graphics chip from nVidia’s or Broadcom, allowing them to handle HD video competently.

Wireless Connectivity

Wi-Fi is a given on netbooks these days, though you’re much more likely to find support for 802.11g/b rather than the newer 802.11n. This isn’t a big problem unless you want to use your netbook on a home N network without having to run the network in mixed mode in order to accommodate the older standard.

 HP 5102 netbook
The HP 5102 netbook PC.
(Click for larger image)
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If you want a netbook that isn’t solely reliant on Wi-Fi for Internet access, consider a model with a built-in 3G mobile broadband modem, sometimes referred to as Wireless WAN, or WWAN. It’s an optional feature on some models like the HP 5102, and usually raises the price of a netbook by around $125.

Before outfitting a netbook with WWAN, know in advance which carrier’s network you’re going to use because Sprint/Verizon and AT&T use different 3G technologies, thus requiring different netbook modem chips. (Most manufacturers that offer a 3G option give you a choice between Sprint/Verizon and AT&T.) Also, be aware that carriers often sell 3G-equipped netbooks directly and at a somewhat discounted price, though they’re usually not the most recent models.

Whether you get a 3G-equipped netbook from a carrier or not, expect to pay $50-$60 for a monthly data plan and a two-year contract -- and be bound by a 5 GB per month limit on usage.

(Note: As of this writing, no netbook offers a built-in T-Mobile modem -- T-Mobile uses a different 3G technology -- yet the first one is reportedly due to appear in some markets by the end of March.)

Although a not all netbooks offer it, Bluetooth is a feature worth paying a bit extra for. Aside from giving you the capability to sync or transfer data from a smartphone or use a wireless headset for video/voice chat, Bluetooth also lets you use an external mouse without a bulky USB dongle. (Like everything else on a netbook, the integrated pointing device is a bit on the small side, and many people find them uncomfortable to use for long periods.)

Storage and Battery Life

Hard drive options in netbooks generally range from 160, 250, or 320 GB, which should provide adequate space, especially if the netbook won’t be your primary system. Netbooks do not come with optical drives, so any software you install must be done via download or USB storage device, but you can also connect a USB-based DVD drive in a pinch.

Lenovo S10 netbook
The Lenovo S10 netbook computer.
(Click for larger image)
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When it comes to batteries, most netbooks include 6-cell units, which are generally good for 6-8 hours of use (as always, take a vendor’s battery life claims with a pinch of salt, though they’re a lot more realistic now than in years past). If being able to run all day on a single charge is important to you, steer clear of netbooks with 3- or 4-cell batteries, which are more common on older or budget models. (Or at least budget for an extra battery.)

Operating Systems

Windows XP has long been a netbook mainstay, given that Windows Vista was incapable of running very well on such modest hardware. These days the operating system included with many netbooks is Windows 7 Starter Edition, though XP is still widely available. It’s not uncommon for netbook vendors to offer a similar model in both a Windows XP and Windows 7 version; all other things being equal, you can expect to pay a bit more ($20 or $30) for the newer operating system.

When considering a netbook with Windows 7 Starter, be aware that it has limitations compared to its higher-end brethren. For example, Windows 7 Starter doesn’t support the visual effects that enable such features as Aero Peek or the Taskbar window preview, nor does it let you customize the desktop background, window colors, or system sounds.

Windows 7 Starter also can’t join a domain-based business network, but then again, neither can XP Home Edition, which is almost always the version of XP netbooks come with.

Some vendors, including those that offer custom netbook configurations, may give customers a broader choice of operating systems, often including XP Professional, Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional, and certain flavors of Linux.

You can also upgrade a netbook from Windows 7 Starter to a more capable version via Microsoft’s Windows Anytime Upgrade, but it’s neither cheap nor simple. For example, the cost to go from Starter to Home Premium is $80, and it costs $170 to get to Professional (with the latter requiring separate upgrades from Starter to Home Premium and then Home Premium to Professional).

Netbooks can be handy business travel companions, but knowing exactly what you want, and what you’re buying, will ensure you get the most out of any netbook purchase.

A Sampling of Netbooks

Netbook Processor Screen Size/
Resolution
802.11n/
Bluetooth
OS Options WWAN Option
Dell Mini 10 Atom N280/N450/
Z520/Z530 (depending on model)
10.1/ 1024x600 or 1366x768 Y/Y Windows XP Home; Windows 7 Starter; Ubuntu Linux 8.04 Yes
Gateway LT2014u Atom N450 10.1/1024x600 Y/N Windows 7 Starter No
HP 5102 Atom N450 10.1/1024x600 Y/Y Windows XP Home/Professional; Windows 7 Starter/Professional; Windows SUSE Linux 11 Yes
Lenovo S10 Atom N450 10.1/ 1024x600 Y/N Windows 7 Starter No

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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