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8 Timely Tips for the Netbook Buyer

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Netbooks, low-cost portable computers optimized for web usage, are continuing to sell at a torrid pace, with Acer expecting 50 percent growth in the global netbook market in 2010, to 42 million units. In the meantime, standard technologies, operating systems and other options in these diminutive systems are undergoing rapid shifts. Here are eight up-to-date tips to keep in mind if you’re in the market for a new netbook.

Don’t Settle for a Tiny Display. As Om has pointed out, netbook specifications continue to encroach on standard laptop specs, to the point that the real differences between them are blurring. And as The Register and market researchers at Canalys report, in 2010, many netbook manufacturers will be emphasizing systems with 12-inch displays, to possibly broadly replace those with screens of just 10 inches. You can already find systems with larger displays, and indeed, you’ll likely have a better experience with them.

Don’t Go for a Tiny Keyboard. Many netbooks come with chiclet-style keyboards that can make typing difficult, but this is rapidly changing. As notes, many new netbooks, such as the Toshiba mini NB205, come with full-size keyboards. I’m also a fan of the keyboards on the Acer Aspire One and Dell Mini 10v systems. Get a keyboard that won’t cramp your style — that’s where the market is headed.

Consider the OS Up Front. Linux-based netbooks continue to offer low price points and often come with good open source applications. Next year, Google (s goog) will attempt to redefine the netbook with its Linux-based Chrome OS, focused on cloud applications. In the meantime, Microsoft’s (s MSFT) new Windows 7 operating system is squarely aimed at the netbook market, and netbook manufacturers are reporting that it’s ushering in strong sales.  As always, consider what types of applications you’ll use as you weigh various operating systems.

Free Apps Can Improve Your Experience. When evaluating a netbook’s platform and what you’ll do with it, don’t forget that there are many free and open source utilities and applications that make navigating, handling hardware resources and other tasks easier. You can find 10 good ideas here.

Complement Low Local Storage With a USB Drive. Netbooks typically make many compromises in terms of local resources when compared to larger laptops, with storage among the most common. You can complement low local storage with an inexpensive, external USB Flash drive, however. There are also useful web sites, especially PortableApps, that you can use to stock up your Flash drive with useful, free applications.

Check the Battery Life. Many netbooks offer outstanding battery life — in some cases, all-day power — but not all of them. Make sure to check reviews of the netbook you’re considering for battery life tests. And once you’ve become a netbook owner, remember to follow best practices — especially turning the brightness down — in order to maximize its battery life.

Take a Hands-On Test Drive. While there are many good deals online for netbooks, if possible, I recommend going to a retail outlet to do a hands-on test drive. Because netbooks are practically defined by the compromises they make, this can help you identify any problems that you might find intolerable over time.

Pointing Devices Matter. Speaking of personal preferences, people always vary widely in terms of the pointing devices they favor. For example, I’ve tried many netbooks that I would never buy simply because the highly sensitive trackpads on them bother me. This is another reason why a hands-on test drive makes a lot of sense.

7 Responses to “8 Timely Tips for the Netbook Buyer”

  1. As a ‘long time’ netbook user, I feel I can comment on this article.
    I still have my 7″ ASUS, now running Jolicloud, as my ‘coffee shop machine’.
    My 10″ HP Mini runs Win7 Starter – all you need for a netbook. I added an extra gig of RAM and a Broadcom Crystal HD card and have enough battery life to watch several .avi movies on a 9 hr. flight.
    I considered going to an 11.6″ or 12″ machine for the faster processor and higher res. screen, but, after some ‘hands on’ testing at local shops, I’ve decided to stick with the 10″. The real-world difference between a 10″ and 12″ display is minimal – I still have to wear my reading glasses!

  2. My netbook buying advice is simple: Don’t worry about the specs or minor differences… get the one with the longest battery life for the least expensive price. The only exception being if you want to play games. In that case, wait for the dual core processors and ion2 graphics.

  3. TIMELY – means useful now:
    12 inch netbook screens don’t really exist commonly right now. Certainly not at netbook prices. Did you mean people should ignore the 7-8″ netbooks? (which are much less common now anyway). Google OS? Is that timely talk?
    Battery Life: People are getting netbooks for portability. All day batteries and significantly to size (they often protrude like parasites latched onto the machine – keeping them from slipping into seat pockets and such). Do you really need more than 3 hours? 6 hours? 9 hours?

    Seriously, your advice reads like the wish list of someone who doesn’t really want a netbook. You want a regular laptop. Many small laptops are out there for cheap.
    Write an article on small laptops!