8 Timely Tips for the Netbook Buyer

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 PCMag.com 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.