Should You Get A Netbook?
(from the 11/09 issue of the CompuNerds Nerdsletter - sign up for it here)
What Is A Netbook?
Netbooks are a subcategory of laptop computers. A Laptop is (in the succinct and in this case accurate) words of wikipedia, "a personal computer designed for mobile use and small and light enough to sit on one's lap while in use." Laptops fold down the middle, with the screen in the lid, and the keyboard and mouse-substitute in the base, and all the guts crammed in to the space underneath and around the keyboard.
Laptops, like all computers, vary widely in terms of features and specifications available. The biggest ones pack massive 17 inch wide-screens and are intended to have all the power and features of a desktop unit.
They can also get very small. As they get smaller, more and more features have to be compromised or sacrificed to get the smaller package to work. Smaller than a laptop, a notebook is a subcategory of laptops. These very small, very light laptops are often quite expensive as manufacturers go to great lengths to maintain approximately the same utility as a regular laptop within the smaller form factor.
Somebody had the bright idea to make a very small notebook with a very limited set of features. By making these machines so basic, they could sell laptops in this very small, slim, form and keep the price point closer to $300 - $400 instead of $1,000 to $3,000.
This small, gently crippled laptop is what we call a netbook. The "net" part is in the name because the primary use for these machines is to access the internet. Netbooks usually have limited processing power and memory, and are used to access the internet and email. Most can't run more than one or two basic applications at once. They usually have wireless access built in to them, so if you are somewhere with a wireless internet connection, like a coffee shop or an airport, you can connect to the internet straight away.
Advantages and Disadvantages
To get a better idea of what a netbook is and isn't, let's look at its advantages and disadvantages. Remember, with a netbook, it's all about compromises. We'll start with the "pro" side.
The biggest benefit of a netbook is that it is so small. They're small enough to fit in a coat pocket, purse, briefcase, backpack, etc. They're very light. The average screen size is about 10 inches, although you will find some with much smaller screens and some as large as 12 or 13 inches.
You can take them with you almost anywhere, and never have to be entirely disconnected from the world, provided wireless internet access is available wherever you happen to be.
They are relatively inexpensive. Compared to their full-featured cousins, they usually only cost about half or less as much. The price range is from about $250 to $1,000, with most of the units falling in the $350 - $400 range. If all you need is to access the web, and do email while on the go, a netbook might be perfect for you.
Here are some of the drawbacks of netbooks: Because they have a slower processor and less memory, you can expect the performance to be slower than a regular laptop. If you're used to a fast laptop or desktop computer, the underpowered netbooks just may drive you nuts.
The other big drawback is that its use is limited. You can use the internet. Most have some sort of email management built in. You may be able to play some rudimentary games or use the chat feature. That's about it. Don't expect to run anything advanced or complex because the netbooks just can't handle it.
Almost all netbooks use the Atom processor as their main computer chip. It doesn't use up as much power, and, thus, is good for netbooks, because it can extend the battery life. As mentioned before, the 10.1 inch screen is pretty standard, although you will occasionally find a 9, 11 or 12 inch screen.
Battery life can range from just two or three hours to as much as eight or nine hours. Obviously, the longer the battery life, the better.
A few of the newer netbooks are offering slightly faster processors, with built-in graphics accelerators and customized chip sets. All these things are meant to improve the performance, but you can expect to pay substantially more for these souped-up netbooks.
Up to now, most laptops have been using Windows XP or a stripped down version of Vista. There are exceptions, usually versions of special custom systems with Linux running underneath. Windows 7 was recently released, and you will see more and more of the netbooks using Windows 7 as your operating system. This is just fine. Stick to Windows 7 for a newer netbook and Windows XP for an older one.
Almost all netbooks have a hard drive with 160 gigabytes of storage, and 1 gigabyte of RAM. If you've been paying attention, you know that there are exceptions, some have 250 GB and 2 gigabytes of RAM. Some more expensive units have flash memory instead of a hard drive. This is lighter, and faster, with less moving parts, but is more expensive.
Netbooks generally do not have CD or DVD disk drives, but some do, and you can play a DVD disk in them.
The names and types of netbooks, along with the general specifications change very rapidly, so it is hard to give you precise recommendations as to model and brand. The December 2009 issue of Consumer Reports does review the category, so they have done some of the legwork for me. If you want all the specifics, I recommend you pick up the issue. I'm a big fan of Apple and Apple laptops, but because they don't have a product in the netbook category or price range, I'm not including them in this discussion.
First, in terms of brand reliability, the top three manufacturers chosen by Consumer Reports were Toshiba, Sony, and Compaq. The bottom of the pack is HP, Gateway, Dell and Lenovo.
The highest rated, according to Consumer Reports, are the Samsung N120-12GBK, the Toshiba Mini NB205-N210, and the Asus Eee PC 1008 HA. Personally, I've also heard some good feedback about the HP Mini 110, which is #10 on the Consumer Reports list.
The very bottom spots on the list were occupied by the older HP minis, the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, and the Averatec Buddy N1030EA1E-1.
It's important, if possible, to get your hands on the netbooks you are considering purchasing to play with them for a bit, and see how you like them. Subtle differences in keyboard ergonomics, behavior of the trackpad, screen glare and usable angle can make or break your experience, and there's really no way to tell what you prefer until you try. DO trust your feelings: if you like the way a netbook feels, then it is the right one for you, regardless of what a reviewer or anybody else says.
Lastly, if you need to do more than just the internet and email, you may want to consider a laptop instead. For a few hundred dollars more, you can get a full-featured laptop with much more power and speed.
Now you should have a better idea about what a netbook is, and whether or not you are a good candidate to appreciate it. They can be a real boon if you need a very portable solution for internet access, and provided your expectations are set properly.