As the new school year arrives and many students find themselves needing a new computer, notebook systems are often high on the shopping list, given space considerations and the need for portability.
Notebooks have always been available in a pretty wide range of capabilities, sizes, weights, and price tags, but this year marks the advent of a new class of portable computer known as a “netbook,” a basic notebook that’s designed to be especially light, compact, and inexpensive. Those attributes could be appealing to just about anybody, but they’re particularly so for a student on a tight budget that needs a computer to tote all day from class to class.
What are the characteristics of a netbook? There isn’t really an official definition, but netbooks generally have diminutive footprints (generally not taller or wider than an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper) and are extremely lightweight, tipping the scales at only two to three pounds. That’s much smaller—and anywhere from half to a third of the weight of a standard-sized notebook. Small and light notebooks are hardly a new concept—look at the MacBook Air or Lenovo X300, for example– but what makes netbooks unique are their relatively low price tags of $300-$500, (though some netbooks can easily exceed the high side of that range depending on how they’re configured).
Before you can determine whether a netbook makes sense for you (or the person you’re buying for), it pays to keep in mind some of the compromises they require. To keep size and weight down and battery life up, netbooks use components built for low power consumption rather than high performance, so you won’t find things like dual-core CPUs or fancy graphics chips in them. That makes them unsuitable for things that requires moderate-to-high computing horsepower, especially games, but, that said, netbooks can be more than sufficient for the core computing tasks that most people do most of the time, such as Web browsing, keeping in touch via e-mail or IM, working with documents, or basic multimedia playback.
Given their petite dimensions, netbooks sport small and relatively low-resolution displays–from 7 to 10 inches in size and often with 1024 x 600 resolution compared to 14 or 15 inches and 1280 x 800 for a typical notebook. In addition to 512 MB to 1 GB of RAM system memory, many netbooks come with standard hard drives, albeit not spacious ones by notebook standards. Some netbooks use SSDs (Solid State Drives) instead of hard drives for storage or offer them as an optional feature because they’re lighter and faster than hard drives and the lack of moving parts makes them more reliable and resistant to damage from shock (if the device is dropped, for example), but they’re also more expensive and offer less capacity than hard drives.
When it comes to operating systems, many netbooks run versions of Linux, since it’s less expensive than Windows and Linux tends to run better on modest hardware. These devices come with the software needed to handle the basic computing chores mentioned above, but if you’re more comfortable with Windows or want to install Windows software, you can get netbooks that come with XP instead. (Netbooks don’t currently have the oomph to run Vista well, though one of the products listed below, the HP Mini-Note 2133 does offer it as an option.)
Finally, many higher-end netbooks can cost as much or even a bit more than entry-level notebooks, which is fine if portability is your main concern (the difference between lugging around a netbook versus a five to six-pound notebook can be like night and day), but if you think you might ever need more horsepower and are willing to haul the extra weight, a conventional notebook may be a better choice.
But, in an era in which computing increasingly revolves around run-of-the-mill tasks and ubiquitous Internet access via Wi-Fi (b/g support is a de rigueur netbook feature), netbooks can be a worthwhile option for anyone that doesn’t need the capabilities or bulk of a regular notebook.
In the past six months or so, the nascent netbook market has grown considerably and new manufacturers and models are sprouting faster than weeds in an empty lot, so the following list only represents an overview of some of the more noteworthy models available now. (At least one major vendor, Dell, has yet to jump into the netbook fray, though a product announcement is expected any day now.)
Acer Aspire one, starting at $329
Available in four glossy hues and with a generous 120 GB hard drive, the Acer Aspire comes in both a Linux and Windows XP version.
Asus Eee PC, starting at $299
One of the first netbooks to hit the market, the Asus Eee PC now includes a diverse (you might even say bewildering) collection of different models. The flagship 1000 model boasts 802.11n wireless and an extended-capacity battery, but weighs in at a bit over 3 pounds and rings up for about $600. [Read our review here.]
Everex Cloudbook CE1200V/1201V, $399/$449
The Cloudbook’s 7-inch, 800 x 480 display is one of the smaller and lowest-res out there, though at two pounds the unit’s also one of the lightest. The CE1200V comes with Linux, while the 1201V gets you XP instead plus more memory and hard drive space.
HP Mini-Note 2133, starting at $499
HP’s Mini-Note 2133 (pictured, right) is indeed pricey (the highest-end model flirts with $800), but it’s got one of the highest resolution displays (1280 x 768) found in a netbook and is the only one we know of that offers Windows Vista as an option.
Lenovo IdeaPad S10, starting at $429
Although not yet shipping as of this writing, Lenovo is taking S10 orders now. All models come with Windows XP Home and sport a spacious (for a netbook) 10.2-inch display.
MPC TXTbook PC, starting at $499
Based on Intel’s Classmate PC, which was one of the first netbooks and one designed for developing countries, the TXTbook has a built-in handle and is aimed specifically at kids in grades K through 6 (or more accurately, their parents).
MSI Wind, $549
MSI offers a half-dozen versions of its Wind netbook, mostly with cosmetic differences– it comes in white, black, and pink– but they all include a 10-inch screen, an 80 GB hard disk, and XP.
Sylvania G Netbook, $399
This is essentially a rebadged version of the Cloudbook 1200V, albeit with 1 GB RAM standard instead of 512 MB.
For more on netbook PCs, read “Opinion: Mini Mobile PCs: Now Comes the Hard Part,” “Review: Asus Eee PC 4G Laptop,” “Eee, Atom, Aspire, Wind: It’s a Small (Notebook) World at Computex.”
For more for Wi-Fi and schools/students, read “Big WLAN on Campus,” “Schools Incorporate Wi-Fi into Disaster-Response Plans,” “Wi-Fi Schools of the Future.”
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology journalist and reviewer who makes his home in Florida.