In the Market for a Netbook? Watch the OS Developments

Due to their favorable price points, and how very mobile they are, netbooks — small, light portable computers — remain one of the hottest hardware categories. If you’re in the market for one, I posted some shopping tips on them back in early March. Since that post, there have been quite a few developments on the operating system front, which may affect any planned netbook purchases you may have. Here are some of the key issues that you should factor in if you have your eyes on a new netbook.

Having used netbooks for more than a year now, I have found them to be particularly ideal for mobile writing tasks, and I often tote one in favor of a larger, heavier laptop. That said, I still wouldn’t use a netbook as my primary portable computer, because they don’t have fully stocked local resources. They are best thought of as adjunct systems, when ultra-mobility really matters.

Since my March post on how to shop for a netbook, there have been many announcements related to the two primary operating systems that run on netbooks: Windows (s msft) and Linux. (Apple (s aapl) continues to stay out of the category, perhaps because of its long-standing focus on premium hardware categories.)

On the Windows front, of course, the big news is Windows 7. It is slated to arrive in the fourth quarter of this year, and will be the operating system found on a slew of netbooks shortly after it arrives. Microsoft’s latest offering is also getting many good reviews, including positive comments about its mobile features. There is every sign that Windows 7 will arrive early in the fourth quarter, so if you are looking to buy a netbook, you may want to wait to try it out.

I made the point in my previous post on netbook shopping that it’s best to try one out in a very hands-on way before buying. That’s especially true for a new Windows 7-based netbook. It’s also likely that Microsoft and OEMs will work in tandem to offer Windows 7 netbooks at good price points.

There has also been much hubbub surrounding Linux-based netbooks. While it may not be immediately apparent, both the Intel-backed (s intc) Moblin operating system and Google’s (s goog) upcoming Chrome OS are based on Linux. Intel has handed the keys to Moblin over to The Linux Foundation, and it’s being squarely aimed at netbooks.

There’s a good chance that Moblin-based netbooks will arrive by the end of the year. Moblin is getting notice for its very fast boot times and its performance, and because it’s an open-source operating system, it may arrive in ultra-inexpensive netbooks. If you aren’t planning to get a netbook for a few months, it’s worth keeping on your radar.

In the longer term, systems based on Google’s Chrome OS may also disrupt the netbook space. That said, Chrome OS is getting a lot of hype for a platform that hasn’t arrived yet, and it won’t arrive until 2010. It’s squarely aimed at netbooks, but it faces many uphill battles as a new operating system. If you’re in the market for a netbook now or will be soon, I wouldn’t recommend waiting for Chrome OS. That’s especially true because of how immediately useful netbooks are, and how inexpensive they are. If Google’s Chrome OS is a runaway hit in the space immediately upon arrival — and I think that’s unlikely — you can still get a lot of good use out of a system between now and when it’s delivered.

While many people summarize the decision-making process surrounding netbooks as consisting of little more than deciding whether you can do without some local hardware resources, there’s more to it than that. As we move toward the end of this year and next, which operating system is on your new netbook promises to be an important issue to pay attention to.

Are you delaying a netbook purchase for Windows 7, or waiting for Moblin?