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What to look for when buying a Netbook

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  JDBiersdorfer's Photo
Posted Sep 08 2009 11:02 AM

With every computer and gadget company coming out with its own take on the netbook, you can get overwhelmed by all the models. Size is the first factor to consider. The smaller the netbook, the less it weighs. But make sure you factor usability into the mix so you don't end up with cramped hands and a permanent James Dean squint from staring at a tiny screen.

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A good netbook is the sum of its parts, and here are the major parts to consider:

  • Screen. While the first netbooks sported 7-inch screens too small for even a guinea pig to use comfortably, current models have expanded their screen dimensions. Common netbook screen sizes are a diagonal 8.9 inches (like HP's smallest HP Mini 1000 Mi) and 10.2 inches (like Lenovo's IdeaPad S10). At 12.1 inches, Dell's Inspiron Mini 12 pushes the screen size almost into notebook screen territory. A smaller screen means a smaller, lighter netbook and less LCD real estate for the battery to power—but imagine trying to work on a complicated spreadsheet on a screen that can hide behind a piece of copier paper.
  • Keyboard. Sure, a nine-inch netbook fits well in a purse or manbag, but can you type comfortably on a keyboard that's 85 percent the size of a normal laptop's? If the computer is for a child or a petite-fingered person, keyboard size may not matter as much. If you have large hands or a heavy typing workload, you may want to consider a netbook with a more normal-sized keyboard or also purchasing a folding, full-sized USB keyboard.
  • Processor. Low-power, low-cost processors are the heart of a netbook's motherboard. Intel's Atom and VIA's Nano are the two most common, with other chip shops like AMD developing versions as well. While these processors are generally not robust enough for high-def video-editing or graphic-heavy games, they're just fine for tasks like surfing the Web, watching YouTube videos, emailing, and word-processing.
  • Battery. With their energy-minded processors, lack of disc drives, and smaller screens, netbooks generally consume less power than their larger laptop cousins. But because the computer itself is shrunken, the battery is smaller, too. A smaller battery equals a shorter time between charges. Depending on the netbook model, battery life can range from under two hours to over seven hours. If you expect to be traveling a lot and don't want to fight other passengers for airport recharging stations or the spare wall outlet at the gate, pay attention to battery life. Batteries are often described by the number of cells they contain. A 3-cell battery provides around 1.5 to 2 hours of power, a 6-cell battery can go up to 4 hours between charges, and some 9-cell batteries can last 7 hours or more. And guess what? A bigger battery adds more weight to the netbook.
  • Operating System. Most netbooks come in either Windows or Linux flavors. (See the next section for the pros and cons of both.)
  • Hard drive. Regular motorized, spinning hard drive or state-of-the-art solid-state drive? Read on to see which is best for you.


Note: Although lesser-known Taiwanese companies made the first netbooks, most major manufacturers—Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo—have jumped aboard the netbook train. If you have a computer from one of these big players and you're happy with it, you may feel more confident buying a netbook from the same company. But don't overlook the smaller manufacturers like ASUS, Acer, and MSI. They may be smaller and lesser known, but they often offer friendlier price tags.

The Operating System: Windows vs. Linux

Along with size, a netbook's operating system has a big impact on your productivity and pleasure. When it comes to netbooks and their low-powered processors, you have two choices: Windows XP Home Edition or Linux. Linux is a free, alternative operating system that, on the surface anyway, looks an awful lot like Windows or Mac. You can use Linux by pointing and clicking or by typing old-school commands like a real-live programmer.

Linux has been in continual development since 1991, when a young Finnish programmer named Linus Torvalds first shared his hobby with other computer enthusiasts. It's grown into a serious operating system that now runs websites, corporate servers, and university networks all over the world. (Linux is also at the heart of Moblin and Android, two up-and-coming netbook operating systems.)

Both systems have their strong points, but most people will automatically choose Windows XP for one main reason: They're used to it. Still, Linux has its advantages (especially for people who loathe Microsoft) and, despite its übergeek command-line roots, Linux now comes in easy-to-use versions designed especially for netbooks. Here's a quick look at what you get with each system.

Windows XP

Introduced in the fall of 2001, Windows XP went on to become the Operating System That Refused to Go Away. In the summer of 2008 when Microsoft forcibly retired XP by refusing to offer it for new desktop and laptop computers, netbook manufacturers brought Windows XP back as a preinstalled option. The rationale was that netbooks were too underpowered to run XP's burly, power-hungry successor, Windows Vista, but people needed an alternative besides Linux.

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Running Windows XP on a netbook has many advantages:

  • Hardware compatibility. Peripherals like printers and external CD drives work predictably on Windows XP, thanks to years of companies designing products just for XP.
  • Software compatibility. Need to run Microsoft Word or Picasa on your netbook? No problem for Windows XP. The programs may just run a bit slower than on a powerful desktop machine.
  • Human compatibility. Most people, except for die-hard Mac fans (and you know about them), have used Windows XP at some point—in an office, school, or Internet café. Many folks find Windows XP easier to learn than Linux. For Vista refugees, coming home to XP is like slipping on a comfy pair of slippers (that don't demand your password every time you want to adjust their settings).
But on the flip side:

  • Cost. Linux, an open-source system developed over the years by thousands of volunteers, is free. This means manufacturers don't pay for the software as they do with Windows XP—and can pass the savings along to you.
  • Size. Windows XP is user-friendly, but it's large and hogs more processor power than many versions of Linux. As a result, an XP netbook may seem a bit poky compared to a Linux system that's been fine-tuned for running on a netbook.
  • Security. More than a million viruses and other pieces of malicious software prowl around the Internet, waiting to infest unprotected machines. Almost all of them are designed to attack Windows computers, so you'll need to spend time and money implementing security software.


Linux

Linux excels in the very places Windows XP falters—cost, system size, and general security. Compared to Windows, Linux generally saps less of your netbook's power, starts up quicker, and takes up less hard drive space.

However, Linux isn't for everybody. Most Windows software can't run on it without some techie wrangling, certain hardware peripherals lack Linux compatibility, and the system can be harder for new users to troubleshoot than good ol' XP.

If you're looking for the cheapest netbook possible and plan to do most of your netbooking, well, on the Net, Linux might be a good choice for you. Web-based applications like Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Facebook, and Flickr work just fine on the Linux edition of the Firefox Web browser. (Firefox is actually included with many versions of Linux.)

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The various flavors of Linux are called distributions in geekspeak. Ubuntu, for example, a popular user-friendly distribution that's free to download at www.ubuntu.com, is available preinstalled on Dell's netbooks. Ubuntu includes OpenOffice.org, a business software suite that rivals Microsoft Office, plus email and instant-messaging programs, photo editing and organizing software, Firefox, and several games.

Choosing a Netbook Internal Drive

In addition to your choice of operating system, most netbook manufacturers let you choose between different types of internal drives for storing your programs and files. Your usual options are a regular disk-based hard drive or a solid-state drive, but a combo of the two called a hybrid drive is emerging as well.

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When deciding what kind of drive to get, take into account where you plan to use your netbook. For example, if you want to carry tons of files with you, go for a regular hard drive. Or are you on the go with more opportunities for the netbook to get banged around? Perhaps a durable solid-state drive would be a better choice. Can't decide? Get a hybrid.

Hard drive

Ah, the humble hard drive. Your netbook can rely on the same motorized device that's been storing stuff on regular desktop and laptop systems for decades. Traditional hard drives have a number of advantages over their solid-state rivals:

  • Hard drives are cheaper. Byte for byte, you can get more storage bang for your buck with a regular hard drive because the technology has been around for a long time and manufacturers know how to make them for less money.
  • Hard drives copy big files faster. When it comes to copying big chunks of data on and off the netbook, the hard drive can do it quicker than most solid-state drives can (due to the way hard drives write data).
  • Hard drives hold more stuff. Solid-state drives are getting bigger, hitting 64 GB and beyond, but a 160 GB hard drive, common in netbooks, is more economical.


But on the downside, traditional hard drives—made of a motor, spinning magnetic platters, and read/write heads—are more fragile than solid-state drives. First, the drive's motor and ball bearings eventually wear out. As the old saying goes, "It's not if your hard drive dies, it's when." Second, one unfortunate long fall onto a hard surface can kill that poor hard drive for good—and take all your files with it. And finally, a constantly spinning hard drive drinks a fair amount of battery juice.

Solid-state drive

A solid-state drive is a cousin to those ubiquitous flash-memory drives that dangle from key chains. Although it's tucked inside the machine instead of plugged into the USB port, a solid-state drive works on the same principle. Your files are electrically stored in memory cells without the need for spinning platters, magnetic heads, and other moving parts. And unlike memory chips that need electricity to retain information (like the RAM in your computer) flash memory is non-volatile, which means it doesn't need a steady supply of power to remember stored data. (That's why pocket flash drives don't have power cords.)

The advantages of a solid-state drive include:

  • Solid-state drives are more energy efficient. Since it doesn't need all the motorized spinning, a solid-state hard drive consumes much less of your netbook's battery power, giving you more time between charges.
  • Solid-state drives are more durable. With no moving parts, a solid-state drive is less vulnerable to breaking or crashing if the netbook is dropped, banged, or bumped.
  • Solid-state drives start up faster. Since it doesn't have to sit around and wait for its motor to start spinning up the disk platters, a solid-state system wakes up much more readily.


The two main disadvantages of solid-state drives are high price and low capacity—just the opposite of a conventional hard drive.

Hybrid drive

Like automakers, computer manufacturers are experimenting with hybrid drives that combine the best features of hard drives and solid-state drives. MSI's Wind U115 netbook was one of the first to come with a hybrid drive. The Wind's hybrid drive mainly runs on its 8 GB solid-state side to save battery power, but its 160 GB hard drive side offers plenty of room to store files.

Tip: Even if you choose a system with a small internal drive—8 GB, 16 GB, whatever—you can always add several more gigabytes of storage space with external USB memory sticks, Secure Digital cards, or even external USB hard drives.

Netbooks: The Missing Manual

Learn more about this topic from Netbooks: The Missing Manual.

Netbooks are the hot new thing in PCs -- small, inexpensive laptops designed for web browsing, email, and working with web-based programs. With this Missing Manual, you'll learn not only which netbook is right for you, but also how to set it up and use it for everything from job-related tasks like working with spreadsheets to hobbies like gaming and photo sharing.

See what you'll learn


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  alankegan's Photo
Posted Jan 27 2013 12:48 PM

Recently I bought a netbook and I changed it`s hard drive with a Solid State Drive, I knew the differences are going to be huge but when I saw Windows loading in 10 seconds I remained shocked. What I don`t like about the notebook are the poor manuals and driver CD which comes included, I wanted to find out some information about the battery and thought I will find it very easy because the manual was written in plain English but there was no information about the battery.