A Quick Guide to Netbooks

Asus Eee PC What a difference a year makes. It was only 10 months ago when the first true netbook, the original Asus Eee PC 701, hit the market. The Eee was a ground-breaking little computer but had a few flaws, the biggest being the limited 800×480 display. Today there’s an overwhelming array of low-cost but highly portable and efficient little laptops.

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Each is a full-featured notebook with displays in the 7- to 10-inch range and all are easy to tote around. Nearly all offer several USB ports, a webcam, LED backlit screens, integrated speakers, Wi-Fi and more, so there are very few differentiators. But the many choices in this nascent netbook market can overwhelm, so below is a quick hit list of popular models along with some basic information to help you decide which one might work best for you.

  • Asus Eee PC: The one that started it all has blossomed into over a dozen models, ranging in size and features. You can pick and choose between hard drive-based units or those that offer limited-capacity, Solid State Disk flash modules. Asus offers a simple and effective custom Xandros Linux build, but supports and offers Windows XP as well. Early models use Intel’s Celeron CPU but Asus is transitioning to the newer Intel Atom, which is becoming the de facto netbook standard. Expect to pay between $299 and $599 for a netbook from the Eee PC line.
  • HP Mini-Note: As you can see in our video review, we were very impressed with this 2.8-pounder from HP. Although it’s the one non-Intel netbook available, the VIA C7-M processor handles most tasks fairly well. And while the Mini-Note comes in a single size, it’s not one size fits all: You can configure the hard drive capacity, processor speed, memory and operating system. SUSE Linux, Windows XP and even Windows Vista Business can be had. The HP stands out from the pack with its higher resolution screen; it fits 1280 x 768 pixels into the 8.9-inch screen. Current prices range between $499 and $829.
  • Acer Aspire One: This 2.1-pound netbook approaches more of a sweet spot in terms of pricing: The Linux version is $329, while the XP model is only $20 more. Acer includes a lite build of Linpus Linux, which I found to be great for quick, out-of-the-box computing, but most people would be better served with the XP edition. The incremental extra price also includes twice the memory (1 GB vs. 512 MB) and a faster 120 GB hard drive instead of the slower 8 GB of flash memory. Even at this low price, there’s plenty to like about the Aspire One.
  • MSI Wind: The 2.6-pound Wind from Taiwan is very similar to the higher-end Asus model; in fact, the specifications are nearly the same, as is the price. For $599, you’ll get a 10.2-inch display, Windows XP and a 6-cell battery, which should offer double the run-time over most other netbooks as they use a 3-cell battery. Only this model and the Acer Aspire One offer a full-sized and correctly placed Right-Shift key, something very important to touch-typists. I personally returned my Acer and ordered a Wind partly for this reason, as well as for the fact that the Wind includes integrated Bluetooth for my wireless mouse.

There are other netbooks on the horizon as well. Lenovo has already announced their Ideapad S10 and Dell is expected to enter this market with a small Inspiron model rumored to start at $299. Essentially, these models are very similar to what’s currently available. In fact, there are very few differentiators amongst the crowd. Price is probably the most compelling, followed by the feature set. In my own experience, I’m finding that the Linux implementations are a third factor. While many netbook makers are offering custom Linux builds for simplicity, they have to balance that with the ability for the everyday consumer to add, extend and customize their own experience. Regardless, after using a low-powered computer and just the web for 60 days, I’m convinced that netbooks are well on their way towards becoming personal cloud computers.

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