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5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Netbook

A netbook as we’ve come to know it is a small laptop that is cheap. That’s about it, although the term can be confusing, as larger notebooks are sometimes called netbooks, since that is currently the hot buzzword.  So you want to get a small, cheap notebook (or netbook) if you will, what are the five things you should know before plunking down your cash?

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1. How are you going to use your device?

This may be the most important thing to determine prior to a netbook purchase as it plays a role in the things covered in this article. The term netbook implies you will want to do web surfing and work with email, and all netbooks can do this well. However, netbooks are full laptops and can be used for a lot more than that, and many purchasers want to do a lot of the same things they do on other computers. Netbooks can be used for word processing, spreadsheet work and the like, and these can be factors in which operating system to select, as well as the size of the screen and keyboard. Many users want to use iTunes with their iPhone or iPod; that means you need a netbook that runs Windows XP. [digg=]

2. How much screen do you need?
Netbooks come with three different size screens, and it’s important to think about how big a screen you need. The smallest screen found on netbooks is 7 inches — that’s small! — and these display at a resolution of 800 x 480 which doesn’t show much on a single screen.  The next size up is 8.9 inches and these often run at 1024 x 600, which is a big step up in screen real estate.  The largest screen size — 10.2 inches — is rapidly becoming the standard for new netbooks, and these also run at 1024 x 600.  A good rule of thumb is: Get the biggest screen you’re comfortable carrying around if you intend to be highly mobile.

3. How small of a keyboard will you tolerate?
When you’ve purchased computers in the past, you probably didn’t give a lot of thought to keyboard size, but it can be a critical factor for many netbooks users. Netbooks small size means scaled-down keyboards that fit the  width of the device. This can have a tremendous impact on your ability to comfortably type for extended periods. Netbooks with 7-inch screens are the narrowest, and these keyboards can be as small as 80 percent of a full-sized one.  It is almost impossible to touch type on these tiny keyboards. The bigger netbook keyboards (ones with 10 inch screens) are usually 90 percent the size of a full one, and the key spacing of most of these is fine for normal typing. A lot of netbooks on the market are produced outside the U.S. and many have non-standard key placement, so be sure you take a good look at this, as it can negatively impact fast typists.

4. Do you need the (heavier) extended battery?
Some people just want a netbook to surf the web in front of the TV at home; for those folks battery life is not that important. But if your needs are more mobile, then it’s worth considering the battery life of your options. Netbooks usually ship with either standard or extended batteries, which are usually 3-cell or 6-cell batteries respectively. Battery life can be as short as 2 hours or less with the standard batteries, so get the extended battery if at all possible. These can typically provide 4 hours of mobile juice which is a lot better than the 3-cells. Remember that the bigger the battery the heavier the netbook will be as you carry it around.  An extra half pound of weight doesn’t seem like very much but when you add that to an already packed gear bag it can get awfully heavy by the end of a long day.  Of course, your battery will last for more of that long day too.

5. Can you walk away from Windows?
This was originally not a decision factor as early netbooks only shipped with the Linux operating system.  This was fine with geeks, but everyday customers soon began to demand a more familiar OS. Some netbooks shipped with Windows Vista early on, but the performance on the hardware typically used in netbooks was not good enough. OEMs have since shifted to include Windows XP on most netbooks currently available, and this has become the de facto standard.  If you want a standard environment or want to install any Windows software you already own, XP should be your choice of OS. There are many different variants of Linux in use on netbooks, and it can be daunting to get familiar with an operating system you haven’t used.

71 Responses to “5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Netbook”

  1. I am also a linux fan. But I am not a software geek and I am strictly a Graphical User Interface kind of user. And I only use free linux operating systems. I have three installed on three different machines. One of those machines is too old even for XP to run well yet the linux version I put in it has given that machine new life.

    Vista inspired me to learn about linux because vista bogged down the new laptop I bought last year. Vista was still new to the market and didn’t work well with a lot of programs I use too. I also had a problem with the way vista defaulted to saving documents in a format that required you to install the new version of Word in other computers. Then I discovered that a lot of the software like Word that comes packaged with vista expires after a few months. You have to spend more money to keep those programs activated! That was the last straw for me and I decided to explore linux.

    There are many very good ‘distros’, (versions of linux), that are completely free! And the support you get from forums is better than windows because the source code is open for all to see. The real geeks are eager to help people get off windoze. The only thing that linux does not do well is play fancy games. (You would be a fool if you bought a netbook for gaming anyway.)

    Don’t be afraid of Linux.

  2. pherricoxide

    Ubuntu can be troublesome to run strange software on, but for a netbook that simply surfs the web and uses a few common applications, it is just as simple as Windows. If you run Linux, you won’t have to deal with viruses, will have a more secure system, and probably a faster system.

  3. “Can you walk away from Windows?”

    Hell, yes I can and already have on my notebook. Disappointed the author implied can’t use a IPod with Linux and someone already mentioned Songbird.

    Sometimes I hate to lug around my notebook when only will be using to browse the internet so a netbook would fit the bill. I think they need to hit the $200 price mark since can only be used as a secondary PC.

    Hacking the Machine – Trying to take back control in our increasingly technology driven world

  4. #1 is completely wrong about iTunes.

    iTunes works fine with Vista (e.g. Dell Inspiron Mini 12), not to mention OSX running on the MacBook Air.

    Also, there are several Linux apps that allow iTunes-like functionality, such as Songbird, which many people believe is better than iTunes.

  5. I just got my ACER Aspire. I run three businesses from my home and needed to go mobile. This little sweetheart fits in my purse. I went with a wireless mouse because I admit I am a mouse person. I am a Realtor/Freelance Writer/Interior Redesign specialist and this netbook is everything I need to conduct business all over the USA and the world. I did get the 6 cell battery and the only problem I have had so far is I do occasionally hit caps lock when writing.

  6. If you plan to carry Notebook often, than it should weight below 2 kg. The good option is to have a “large” 15,4 inches laptop for home and “small” 10,2 inches notebook for frequent field usage.

  7. These 5 concepts to consider before buying a netbook are
    concepts I needed to research.
    Battery life is important to me because without that I’m
    not getting work done until I find a power outlet.
    The other four I will need to be compare.

    thanks from tony

  8. @ian
    agreed that manufacturers are losing the plot. ideal specs for me:
    – 9 inch (1024×600) screen
    – as much connectivity as possible (wireless abgn, bluetooth, wwan)
    – small ssd
    – at least 6 cell battery
    – power sipping processor (can’t wait to see ARM bring it to netbooks)
    – less than a kilo, less than $400
    – native ubuntu support

  9. I’m writing this on an eee 701 – which I have used as my primary computer since I got it in February this year. Competition in the netbook market has got to the point where I’m ready to buy a new one… so this is something I’ve really been thinking about. A few things I would have mentioned:

    How much storage do you need?

    This probably comes in under “what you intend to use the device for”. As you say, most people want a netbook to surf the net and go mobile. For me that means using a small capacity SSD with a 2.5″ external HDD. Why?
    – wieght
    – power consumption
    – durability… spinning disks…
    – i have an ipod (music/video/pics are not on the eee)
    – mobile data is cheap: 8GB SD card and/or an 8GB pico drive


    Certainly agree that tethering is the way to go for WWAN access… also might be worth considering wireless n and bluetooth options

    Other comments…

    Yep, a new OS might be daunting, but Ubuntu is REALLY easy to learn, and this is the perfect platform to give it a go. If all you want is the net, email and document editing, Ubuntu on one of these is almost certainly less hassle than windows. Beyond that, rhythmbox and the GIMP work fine on my machine. I also wanted to note that the keyboards are getting bigger, better and less toy-like. Either way, after using a smaller keyboard for a few days, muscle memory works it out.

  10. Hi

    I use a eeepc when out and about, One reason is that its solidstate, so no worries that it will suffer from the knocks that always happen when on trains and the underground.
    But Im not new to this size of machine, I still use a Toshiba Libretto , A laptop no bigger than a VHS cassette box. and also have a IBM T240 which is about the same size as the new Dell.
    BUT both of these have harddrives so are susceptible to bangs, Knocks and drops, Which is main point of the orignal Netbooks, They are robust. I think now many have lost the plot, they are just small screen laptops now.

  11. Recently purchased a 10″ netbook with a 40 GB solid state drive (SSD). 32GB of the SSD uses flash memory with a very slow write speed, and can seriously affect performance if you are using applications that perform much I/O. Most users will find that the hard drive versions of the netbooks have much better performance.

  12. James, don’t forget we’re up to 12″ screens now with the Dell Mini 12 Inspiron. FWIW I believe the best netbook out there just now is the Samsung NC10. Great keyboard, 160Gb HDD, LED backlit screen and great build quality. Also, crucially, has an easy upgrade to 2Gb Ram.

  13. I disgaree about the OS Part. I’m running Vista on my Wind with merely 1.25 GB of Ram and it does the job for me pretty well.In fact I found it to be a lot more usable than XP. More importantly Vista has resulted in a better battery life and with SP2 coming soon I would be on it only increasing.

  14. Most of the Linux user interfaces I’ve seen on Netbooks are simple and intuitive. My wife and two of my sons (ages 8 and 10) use an Asus Eee PC netbook with Linux and never asked me “Where’s Windows?” They found their way around with NO problems. They just assumed since it was a smaller device the software was somewhat different.

  15. Very few people I discuss netbooks with care nor want integrated 3G. There’s a big cost involved (compared to total netbook price) and that ongoing $60/month data plan is off putting for many. Most folks indicate that WiFi is all they need. Me I like my 3G but not embedded so I can use my modem with multiple devices.

  16. @James,

    You’ve missed a HUGE elephant in the room, embedded broadband capabilities. ;-)

    You’re number one reason is Internet access, hence how ’bout high speed access. Perhaps this was implied?