All netbooks come with Wi-Fi, but before buying, take a closer look to see which type you’re getting.
As the peak PC buying season approaches, the enormous popularity of netbooks shows no signs of abating, as they remain an attractive option for those seeking an inexpensive, compact, and lightweight system for Internet connectivity.
That connectivity primarily comes in the form of Wi-Fi, but given the need to keep costs down, the wireless chipsets found in many netbooks often support only the older 802.11g technology—not the newer and more capable 802.11n draft standard.
How important is it to have a netbook that supports 802.11n? To be sure, at a Wi-Fi hotspot an 802.11n-capable netbook won’t work any better than one that only supports 802.11g. On the other hand, anyone with an 802.11n network at home (or plans to upgrade in the near future) should seriously consider a netbook with 802.11n support. Otherwise, the 802.11n network will need to run in backward compatibility mode to accommodate 802.11g devices, which may crimp performance for all your wireless devices.
Depending on the netbook vendor, 802.11n may be included on specific fixed-configuration models, available as an upgrade option for build-to-order configurations, or it may not be offered at all. We’ve done the legwork for you for nine popular netbook brands, so read on to find out which ones will or won’t fill the bill when you’re looking for 802.11n. (Note: the 802.11n netbooks cited here support only the 2.4 GHz version, not the 5GHz variety.)
Acer Aspire One
There are currently five main Acer Aspire One models—the A150, D150, D250, 531h, and 731h—and numerous sub-models for each depending on configuration and how and where it’s sold. Unfortunately, the one thing that all Aspire Ones have in common is that they come with 802.11g, and 802.11 is nowhere to be found.
Asus Eee PC
The Asus Eee PC was one of the first modern netbooks, and the product family is probably the most prolific—there are no fewer than seventeen distinct Eee PC models listed on the Asus’ Web site, though a number of them are not commonly available for sale anymore (at least not in the U.S.). 802.11n is well represented in the Eee PC line, however. You’ll find it on the soon-to-be-released and top-of-the-line 1101HA, most of the mainstream 1000 series models (except the 1000HA and 1000HD), as well as on the 901, T91, and S101. Asus doesn’t always make it obvious when a model includes 802.11n, so this comparison chart may come in handy. (As a general rule, if an Eee PC comes with Bluetooth, it has 802.11n, as well.)
802.11g is the standard offering on all three of Dell’s Mini netbooks–the $299 Mini 10v, $349 Mini 10, and $399 Mini 12. When customizing either Mini 10 or 10v, you can upgrade to n by substituting the standard 1397 Wi-Fi module for the 1510 model for a reasonable $25.
Strangely enough, the high-end Mini 12 currently lacks an n upgrade option. It does offer integrated 3G mobile broadband (using either AT&T or Verizon’s technology) as a $125 option. (The 3G add-on is also available on the Mini 10, but only the Verizon flavor, and not on the budget-minded 10v.)
All of HP’s consumer-focused Mini netbooks—the $280 Mini 110 Mi, $330 Mini 110 XP, and the stylish (and at $699, extremely pricey) Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam model come with 802.11g and don’t offer 802.11n as an upgrade. The latter model will let you add a side of Bluetooth to your g for $25, and for $125 you can add AT&T/Verizon 3G to either the 110 XP or the 1000.
HP’s business-oriented Mini 1101 netbook also lacks an n option, though one will be available on HP’s forthcoming Mini 5101. (Pricing and availability for the 5101 weren’t available at the time of this writing.)
Lenovo IdeaPad S
Lenovo doesn’t offer much in the way of customization options—Wi-Fi or otherwise–for its IdeaPad S series netbooks. Whether you go for the original $399/$409 (depending on color) S10 model, the newer and slightly lighter/slimmer S10-2 model, or the $499 S12, g is standard and n upgrades are not on the menu.
MSI currently offers a whopping thirteen different Wind U Series netbook variants ranging in price from $299 to $499. Five models in this baker’s dozen give you 802.11n in lieu of the standard g, and all throw in Bluetooth for good measure. They are the $430 U100-279US, U100-280US, U100-432US, and U123-003US along with the $500 U115-021US.
You’ll have to settle for 802.11g with Samsung, because you can’t get 802.11n on any of the company’s four netbook offerings—the $419 NC10, $549 NC20, or $439 N110 or N120. If you live in one of the few areas with the service, the $519 NC10-12PWBK does supplement its Wi-Fi with built-in WiMAX.
Sony VAIO P Series Lifestyle PC
Sony doesn’t actually refer to its P Series Lifestyle PC as a netbook, but for all intents and purposes, a netbook it is (albeit one that’s especially small, light, and expensive). You’d probably expect 802.11 to be included given the P Series’ breathtaking $899 (and up) price tag, and you’d be right—it’s a standard feature on all P Series models, as is support for Verizon 3G. Sony’s forthcoming Vaio W will also come with standard 802.11n (and a $499 starting price tag) when it debuts in August.
Toshiba Mini NB205
The only configuration option you get with Toshiba’s $399 Mini NB205 is the color. 802.11g is standard on all models, and no 802.11n upgrade is available.
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology reviewer and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet.