Four Favorite Netbooks

In 2008, sales of laptop PCs outpaced sales of desktops for the first time, according to a report by market intelligence firm iSuppli. At least part of the credit for that growth belongs to a new class of portable that emerged during the year: netbooks.

These diminutive machines are notebooks writ small. They pack a usable screen, keyboard, and requisite Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity into three-pound packages you can slip into a bag and take with you everywhere. But unlike ultraportable-class laptops, netbooks don’t have all the features or performance of a full-scale laptop–or the high price. Whereas a three-pound ultraportable typically runs $1,500 to $2,000—miniaturization costs, after all—netbooks typically cost less than $500.

ASUS Eee PC 1002HA
The ASUS Eee PC 1002HA has the sophisticated look of a high-end ultraportable laptop in an affordable package.

Dell Inspiron Mini 12

Yes, you can run typical productivity applications, but our tests show that heavier lifting, such as encoding an audio file in Apple iTunes, takes five times longer on a netbook than on a $599 budget laptop. Intel is rumored to be working on a more powerful dual-core processor for netbooks sometime this year, but it will be months before they work their way into production machines.

Still, a netbook might be a worthwhile investment if you often find yourself in need of a second, more portable system, on which to catch up on e-mail, polish up a document, or check the Web away from your desk. The larger screen and keyboard makes it more comfortable to use for such tasks than a smartphone, and the price is right. Below, we detail four of our favorite current models.

ASUS Eee PC 1002HA

ASUS pioneered the netbook market with the original Eee PC, and it offers a wider range of models than any manufacturer. One of its most recent, the Wi-Fi-enabled Eee PC 1002HA, is also one of the best. Priced at $499, it delivers a 10-inch screen, 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive.

Whereas early Eee PCs had a somewhat toy-like appearance, the brushed-bronze finish of the 1002HA has a sophisticated look, so you won’t be embarrassed to use it at a client meeting. The machine weighs a scant 2.8 pounds and is just an inch thick, so you can carry it with you effortlessly.

HP Mini 2140
The HP Mini 2140 has sleek looks, integrated Wi-Fi, and a winning keyboard.

The screen delivers a very bright, crisp image and even small text is sharp and legible. The keyboard has a comfortable feel, though the Shift key on the right is small and not in the standard place, which could slow you down if you’re a fast touch-typist. We were also impressed with the audio quality from the front-firing stereo speakers. The battery lasted nearly three hours when we played a video loop continuously, which should translate to about five to six hours of runtime for typical use. [Read a review of the Asus Eee PC 4G laptop here.]

Dell Inspiron Mini 12

If a 10-inch screen is still too small for your liking, consider a netbook like the Dell Inspiron Mini 12. Starting at $549 for the model equipped with Windows XP (or $499 if you prefer Linux), the Mini 12 has a 12.1-inch screen that is exceedingly comfortable to use. Other specs are similar to other netbooks: 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive, and, of course, built-in Wi-Fi.

As you would expect, because of the larger screen, the Mini 12 isn’t quite as compact as other netbooks. But at 2.7 pounds and one inch thick, it still won’t weigh you down. The machine is available in sleek glossy black, white, red, or even pink, plus five designs by artist Tristan Eaton (though the latter scream “student” rather than business professional).

The sharp, bright screen has 1280×800 resolution, which makes it easy to see your work or the Web without a lot of scrolling. The keyboard is similar in size to those on 10-inch netbooks, which is a shame; while it feels fine, there seems to be enough room that a full-size keyboard would have fit.

The Mini 12 does have a larger touchpad than is found on most netbooks, which makes on-screen navigation much easier. The optional six-cell battery we tested adds $30 to the price, but delivered an excellent four hours of life on our harsh video rundown test, so you can expect nearly seven hours of life between charges with more frugal use.

HP Mini 2140

Good looks, an excellent keyboard and a sharp 10.1-inch screen combine to make the HP Mini 2140 a standout among current netbooks. Priced at $499, the Mini 2140 comes equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP.

This Mini’s aluminum shell has the look of the company’s high-end EliteBook portables. The enclosure looks great, and it makes the case more resilient to smudges and scratches than the typical plastic wrap. Weighing just 2.6 pounds, the Mini 2140 is also one of the lightest 10-inch netbooks with integrated Wi-Fi on the market.

Samsung NC10
Samsung may be the new kid on the block, but its NC10 is one of the best all-around netbooks available.

The bright screen and produces rich colors, though we did find small type to be a touch less crisp than on other panels we’ve evaluated. On the plus side, the keyboard is the best we’ve seen in a netbook, with a roomy layout that’s easy to type on.

The hard drive features HP’s DriveGuard technology, which features a system that parks the hard drive head to prevent data loss (and drive damage) should you drop or jostle the machine. The standard three-cell battery lasted just 2 hours 15 minutes on our tests, so road warriors will want to opt for the available six-cell power pack.

Samsung NC10

Samsung entered the branded notebook fray in the U.S last fall, and its netbook entry separated itself from the pack right out of the gate. Priced at $499, the NC10 delivers a 10.2-inch screen, 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, Wi-Fi, and Windows XP—yes, a formula common in the class.

Available in satin white or dark blue, the compact NC10 weighs 2.8 pounds. At 1.2 inches, it’s a little thicker than other netbooks, but just barely so; it’s still easy to slip in a bag. The keyboard is only seven percent smaller than a full-size laptop keyboard, which makes typing a pleasure. The bright screen delivers crisp, sharp text and rich colors. In real-world use, the standard battery delivered about six hours of runtime for Web surfing and the like before needing a charge.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services. Article courtesy of

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