In 2008, sales of laptop PCs outpaced sales of desktops for the first time, according to a report by market intelligence firm iSuppli. At least part of the credit for that growth belongs to a new class of portable that emerged during the year: netbooks.
These diminutive machines are notebooks writ small. They pack a usable screen, keyboard and requisite Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity into three-pound packages you can slip into a bag and take with you everywhere. But unlike ultraportable-class laptops, netbooks dont have all the features or performance of a full-scale laptop ‑‑threeor the high price. Whereas a 3-pound ultraportable typically runs $1,500 to $2,000miniaturization costs, after allnetbooks typically cost less than $500.
|The ASUS Eee PC 1002HA has the sophisticated look of a high-end ultraportable laptop in an affordable package.|
Firstgeneration netbooks had limited appeal. Since the keyboard can only be as wide as the screen, the original eight-inch displays meant that the keyboards were equally cramped.
The limited screen real estate and resolution also meant you would have to scroll both horizontally and vertically to see a Web page or document, which quickly gets bothersome.
But the big stumbling block for mainstream buyers was the operating system. To keep prices and hardware requirements to a minimum, early machines used variants of Linux, not the more familiar Windows.
While many netbooks are still available with Linux, second-generation models offer good ol Windows XP. This not only gives you instant familiarity when using the machine, it also lets you run essential programs like Microsoft Office. Netbook makers have also moved their platforms to larger screens: 10-inch widescreen LCDs are now the norm. These typically provide 1024x600 resolution, so most Web sites fit fine side-to-side. The extra width also means that keyboards have more room to spread out; they still arent full-size, but they are comfortable to type on at least.
Before you ditch your laptop or desktop PC, however, be aware that netbooks entail tradeoffs that dont make them suited as your primary PC. For starters, their small size means theres no optical drive on board. And while a 10-inch screen seems huge compared to the 8-inchers on the least expensive models, working on a screen that small for long stretches gets tiresome. You can use the VGA port that most netbooks include to attach an external monitor for desktop use, but then youre still saddled with a relatively underpowered processor.
|The Dell Inspiron Mini 12 features a 12.1-inch screen thats easy to work on for long stretches.|
The Intel Atom and Via Nano processors that power most netbooks are fine for content consumption, such as Web surfing and reading e-mail and documents; but not content creation, such as working with multimedia files.
Yes, you can run typical productivity applications, but our tests show that heavier lifting, such as encoding an audio file in Apple iTunes, takes five times longer on a netbook than on a $599 budget laptop. Intel is rumored to be working on a more powerful dual-core processor for netbooks sometime this year, but it will be months before they work their way into production machines.
Still, a netbook might be a worthwhile investment if you often find yourself with a few minutes to spare to catch up on e-mail, polish up a document or check the Web. The larger screen and keyboard makes it more comfortable to use for such tasks than a smartphone, and the price is right. Below, we detail four of our favorite current models.
ASUS pioneered the netbook market with the original Eee PC, and it offers a wider range of models than any manufacturer. One of its most recent, the Eee PC 1002HA, is also one of the best. Priced at $499, it delivers a 10-inch screen, 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive.
Whereas early Eee PCs had a somewhat toy-like appearance, the brushed-bronze finish on the 1002HA has a sophisticated look, so you wont be embarrassed to use it at a client meeting. The machine weighs a scant 2.8 pounds and is just an inch thick, so you can carry it with you effortlessly.
|The HP Mini 2140 has sleek looks and a winning keyboard.|
The screen delivers a very bright, crisp image and even small text is sharp and legible. The keyboard has a comfortable feel, though the Shift key on the right is small and not in the standard place, which could slow you down if youre a fast touch-typist. We were also impressed with the audio quality from the front-firing stereo speakers. The battery lasted nearly three hours when we played a video loop continuously, which should translate to about five to six hours of runtime for typical use.
If a 10-inch screen is still too small for your liking, consider a netbook like the Dell Inspiron Mini 12. Starting at $549 for the model equipped with Windows XP (or $499 if you prefer Linux), the Mini 12 has a 12.1-inch screen that is exceedingly comfortable to use. Other specs are similar to other netbooks: 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 60GB hard drive.
As you would expect because of the larger screen, the Mini 12 isnt quite as compact as other netbooks. But at 2.7 pounds and 1 inch thick, it still wont weigh you down. The machine is available in sleek glossy black, white, red, or even pink, plus five designs by artist Tristan Eaton (though the latter scream student rather than business professional).
The sharp, bright screen has 1280x800 resolution, which makes it easy to see your work or the Web without a lot of scrolling. The keyboard is similar in size to those on 10-inch netbooks, which is a shame; while it feels fine, there seems to be enough room that a full-size keyboard would have fit.
The Mini 12 does have a larger touchpad than is found on most netbooks, which makes on-screen navigation much easier. The optional six-cell battery we tested adds $30 to the price, but delivered an excellent four hours of life on our harsh video rundown test, so you can expect nearly seven hours of life between charges with more frugal use.
Good looks, an excellent keyboard and a sharp 10.1-inch screen combine to make the HP Mini 2140 a standout among current netbooks. Priced at $499, the Mini 2140 comes equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP.
This Mini's aluminum shell has the look of the companys high-end EliteBook portables. The enclosure looks great, and it makes the case more resilient to smudges and scratches than the typical plastic wrap. Weighing just 2.6 pounds, the Mini 2140 is also one of the lightest 10-inch netbooks on the market.
|Samsung may be the new kid on the block, but its NC10 is one of the best all-around netbooks available.|
The bright screen and produces rich colors, though we did find small type to be a touch less crisp than on other panels weve evaluated. On the plus side, the keyboard is the best weve seen in a netbook, with a roomy layout thats easy to type on.
The hard drive features HPs DriveGuard technology, which features a system that parks the hard drive head to prevent data loss (and drive damage) should you drop or jostle the machine. The standard three-cell battery lasted just 2 hours 15 minutes on our tests, so road warriors will want to opt for the available six-cell power pack.
Samsung entered the branded notebook fray in the U.S last fall, and its netbook entry separated itself from the pack right out of the gate. Priced at $499, the NC10 delivers a 10.2-inch screen, 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XPyes, a formula common in the class.
Available in satin white or dark blue, the compact NC10 weighs 2.8 pounds. At 1.2 inches, its a little thicker than other netbooks, but just barely so; its still easy to slip in a bag. The keyboard is only seven percent smaller than a full-size laptop keyboard, which makes typing a pleasure. The bright screen delivers crisp, sharp text and rich colors. In real-world use, the standard battery delivered about six hours of runtime for Web surfing and the like before needing a charge.
Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.
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