Netbook Buyers Guide

What is a Netbook?
Simple question you might argue, but an important thing to cover given the variety of options on offer.  In short, a netbook has been defined by a screen size of less than 10 inches, and typically a lower powered Intel Atom or Via processor.

10 inches, we argue, should be the absolute maximum size of a netbook. Anything with a screen larger than this shouldn’t really be considered a netbook, even if it does use an Atom processor or some other equivalent. Ironically this was a limit originally imposed by Microsoft for the use of Windows XP, other limitations including a low-power single-core processor, a maximum 80GB hard drive, 1GB RAM and limits on SSD sizes.

Earlier in the year some of these restrictions were relaxed, with the upper limit on hard drives increasing to 160GB and screen size to 14.1in, but the others remain. Thus, rightly or wrongly, it’s Microsoft of all companies that’s dictating the standards for netbooks. This obviously spells trouble for anyone wishing for a dual-core Atom netbook given that no manufacturer seems brave enough to abandon Windows altogether just yet. Nonetheless, in the context of netbooks most of these limitations are pretty sensible really, since one thing a netbook really ought to be is portable and cheap.

What can you do?
Seeing as netbooks are exclusively small, light and lower power, there are some limitations on what you can do on one. Of course a clue is in the name: it’s a netbook, it’s meant for browsing the Internet! But the internet isn’t all they’re capable of, not by a  long shot.

Their size also makes them ideal portable media players. Even a 10in netbook can be easily used in economy class on planes and trains.  Whether you have a small SSD, or a massive 160GB hard drive, it’s easy to carry around with you a pretty sizeable collection of videos and music, especially when you utilize the media slots found on most netbooks. Likewise, if you’re a keen photographer, all that storage space can be well utilised for backing up your memory cards and uploading photos to Facebook, Flickr or another online service.

This is another reason why HSDPA, popularly known as mobile broadband, is such a logical accompaniment to a netbook. If you’re constantly on the go then matching a highly portable and inexpensive machine with Internet access, often at very high speeds, anywhere a mobile phone signal can be found is a very attractive idea.

What can’t you do?
In short: lots. Very basic image editing, such as cropping and re-sizing, can be performed in small numbers but batch processing is something of a no-no. Likewise video editing, unless from one of the many “YouTube” camcorders, is out of the question. Ultimately while netbooks are dominated by the single-core Atom processor, such intensive tasks aren’t feasible.

This obviously rules out gaming short of the occasional game of solitaire, a flash game or maybe an ancient point and clicker or two – did someone say Grim Fandango? Multi-tasking is also a bad idea, not least given the usual 1,024 x 600 resolution screens that make using multiple applications awkward to say the least. It might be fine for looking at web pages, but roomy it certainly isn’t. This resolution restriction also makes the likes of Excel spreadsheets problematic given most seem designed for desktops the size of a small town.

All the above means you have to think carefully about what you want from your netbook. If you have a desktop or large notebook PC at home and just want something to throw in a bag from time to time a netbook is great, but if it’s going to be your only or primary PC you’ve got to think carefully before buying. Indeed, what follows is focussed on what each netbook does best, rather than which one is the best, so read on for all the information you need to make an informed decision.

Keyboard & Mouse
Going hand in hand with the design are the primary input devices, the keyboard and mouse. If you’re looking for an example of a great keyboard then the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC is again our first port of call, but the MSI Wind is an equally good example.

HP Mini Keyboard

HP Mini Keyboard

Important things to note here are the size and proportion of the keys themselves, as well as depth of travel and response. We don’t need ThinkPad X300 levels of quality here, but in this day and age it shouldn’t be that hard. Other things to avoid include putting the Shift keys in stupid places (ala Eee PCs) and poorly placed cursor keys (Eee PCs again). In fact, just avoid Eee PC keyboards altogether!

Trackpoint Netbook Keyboard

Trackpoint Netbook Keyboard

As for the mouse, why on earth has no-one opted for a track point yet? It seems the obvious solution for a small machine like a netbook, since they’re easy to use and create more space for that roomy keyboard we all desire.

Screen
Screen size and resolution is a tricky one. To my mind nine inches is the sweet spot form factor wise, it is part of the reason I still love the Eee PC 901 so much despite its suspect keyboard. However, though I’ve welcomed the 1,024 x 600 resolution, if we could push this closer to 1,280 x 800 then I’d be even happier – the HP Mini-Note is the model here yet again! Another key point here is no glossy finishes! We all want to use these things outside, so we can’t have everything reflecting back at us when we’re out and about.

asus-eeepc-10-inch

One other issue to consider here is: do we want touchscreens? Once upon a time Eee PCs were touted to be having them, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside and I fully understand why. As the iPhone demonstrated, if you want a touchscreen device to work it needs the interface to match and this means a lot of work. Moreover, touchscreens are more the realm of your budding MID (Mobile Internet Device) than a netbook.

Processor & Memory
Memory is pretty straightforward, though power users might desire 2GBs of RAM, at the moment at least there’s little reason to need more than the 1GB that’s the standard at the moment. Processors, on the other hand, are less straightforward. Despite the Intel Atom CPU being more or less the de facto netbook CPU, that’s largely because it’s the only one readily available at the moment. Many have touted the potential of the VIA Nano platform and Edward was suitably impressed when he took a look at it, but what we’ve yet to see is a netbook class version of the Nano and given Intel’s stranglehold on the market, it might take a while.

intel-atom-logo1

So, sticking with Atom for the moment, the other issue is: do we need dual-core? Ideally I’d say yes, but things aren’t as simple as that. First, Intel has stated that dual-core Atoms are meant for nettops, not netbooks; secondly, what impact would a dual-core Atom in a small netbook have on thermal performance and battery life? Bearing these as yet untested concerns in mind the Atom N270 remains the logical choice and for the moment it does the job just fine and if someone shows dual-core Atom can work in a netbook, then all the better.

Graphics & Sound
Keep it simple! Do I need to play games? No. Do I need to decode 720p video? No. Do I need to decode 1080p video? Definitely not! All I really need is something that’ll ouput to an external screen at 1,920 x 1,200 or less, while making sure everything displays smoothly and without fuss.

As for sound, the Eee PCs have led the way here with some very good integrated speakers. This is great but if some money can be saved here to spend on something more important, so be it!

Storage
While we’ve seen plenty of netbooks with mechanical drives, I’m pretty adamant that solid state storage, generally in the form of flash memory as opposed to an actual SSD, is the netbook ideal. Though some might lament the limited capacity, the lack of moving parts and minimal heat produced by flash memory means better battery life and cooler running – two fundamentals for any ultra-portable laptop. Moreover, solid state memory takes up less space, so helps keep the chassis as small, light and portable as possible.

acer-aspire-one-d250

How much do you need? Well, I found the 20GB found in the Linux version of the Eee PC 901 to be more than sufficient, but I’d go further and say that internally 16GB is all you really need. This is more than enough for an operating system, all relevant programs and plenty of files and odds and sods. I’d then take an innovation used on the Acer Aspire One, adding a dedicated SDHC card reader that merges seamlessly with the internal memory. This, combined with a USB external drive and a regular multi-card reader, should ensure plenty of flexibility.

Connections & Networking
For the most part there’s very little I’d add to most netbooks when it comes to connections. Three USB ports, VGA, Ethernet, headphone and microphone jacks and a memory card reader are pretty sufficient for the usage. My only other desire would be for HDMI, since it makes playing video on a TV that bit easier.

As for networking, despite Apple’s best efforts you still need wired Ethernet – so that’s a given. For Wi-Fi I’d happily settle for 802.11b/g instead of Wireless-N if it meant saving a few bob, though if I were offered N I’d happily take that, too. Bluetooth, however, is an absolute must. There was something else, too, but I can’t quite remember what it was just now…

Operating System & Software
Windows XP or Linux? If the latter, what kind? There are a few potential solutions:

1. Windows XP - Unlike its much maligned successor, Windows XP is a mature, fast and familiar operating system that already works very well. People like it, there are thousands of freely available applications for it and it has vast hardware compatibility. This makes it a safe choice.

windows_xp_logo

2. Linux - Since the beginning netbooks and Linux have been together, yet of late Windows XP seems to have garnered a foothold in the market as people demand more flexibility. What is needed, then, is a Linux OS that has the ease of use of current distros (ala Eee PC/Acer Aspire One) but with a little more freedom. A potential answer is the extremely promising Ubuntu Netbook Remix, but until it’s more widely used it’s hard to come to a conclusion. Most vitally, however, what is needed is an iPhone Application Store type platform so that users can add new programs quickly and easily, without recourse to the often tortuous installation processes used in Linux.

3. Both - Then there’s the compromise solution of Windows XP with a small instant boot Linux element available as well. This may well tick many people’s boxes in terms of flexibility and knowing Asus’ use of this technique in the past, one can reasonably expect it to do something similar in future netbooks and for others to follow.

netbooklinux1

So, what about my Ultimate Netbook? Well, logical though the final solution is my heart says Linux only is the way to go. It is, after all, the original netbook OS. What we need, however, is as suggested before, a development community and platform into which many weird and wonderful applications can proliferate. Applications designed specifically with netbooks in mind and with easy one-click installations. And if not Ubuntu Netbook Remix, is there a place for a Google Android for netbooks? I’ll leave that one up to you…

Battery
This is a no brainer. One of the abiding advantages Eee PCs have had of late is the use of six-cell batteries, when all others have relied on just three-cells and four-cells. Having a six-cell battery more or less guarantees, at the very least, four hours of battery life and with prudent use this can go as high as six, seven and allegedly eight hours, too. This is the kind of battery life an ultimate netbook needs, so six-cells is the way to go.

Size & Weight
A nine inch screen settles the size aspect fairly simply, so then there’s weight. Having a six-cell battery probably rules out a sub-1kg figure, but as close to this figure as possible should always be the aim and less than 1.3kg the minimum requirement.

Price
This, of course, will always vary depending on region, but for the UK £350 or less is the benchmark. In an ideal world I’d say less than £300, but if you want the best netbook possible, you’re probably going to have to pay a little more.

To summarise , the recipe for the Ultimate Netbook, by Andy Vandervell:

  • Take HP Mini-Note and Sony VAIO TZ. Mix thoroughly and season with colourings to taste.
  • Add track point mouse to make room for well proportioned keyboard.
  • Add nine inch screen with 1,280 x 800 resolution.
  • Insert 1GB RAM module and Intel Atom CPU. Sprinkle lightly with graphics and sound that do the job, but move on quickly or netbook will become bloated and expensive!
  • Add solid state memory for storage and expandable memory options to taste.
  • Throw in basics like USB ports, then add HDMI port and whisk for five minutes.
  • Add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules, but don’t forget Ethernet too!
  • Install custom Linux OS and create community and development to help make it thrive. Ensure all essential software and codecs are pre-installed.
  • Insert six-cell battery to avoid premature deflation, but ensure netbook remains light and fluffy.
  • Add the magic ingredient, HSDPA.
  • Bake for three months, slowly increasing temperature through a prolonged campaign of deliberately leaked blurry products shot and proposed spec sheets.
  • Finally, release and sell for less than £350.