The joys of netbooks: Our shoulders like the lightweight. Our wallets like the price. And under-powered is a relative term.
But are they too small? Do they make too many sacrifices and compromises?
One way you can get a feel for netbooks reduced screen size is to open Firefox and enter this command in the address bar
This tells the browser to resize its window to the standard netbook resolution. Windows users will find that Internet Explorer interprets this differently, if at all.
But this only goes so far, so what follows are my observations and opinions based on using five assorted netbooks. The vast majority of computer reviews deal with new machines and their assorted features. Not this article. This is more about living with a netbook well after the new toy high has dissipated.
Perhaps the two most striking things about any laptop computer are the screen and keyboard. The screens on netbooks, while small, have all been great.
That said, there is a big difference between screens with a glossy and matte finish. There is no one right answer here, but if youre buying a netbook the screen type should be a big consideration. Interestingly, I didn't notice a difference in the underlying technologies. Most netbook screens are back-lit with LEDs, except for the Samsung NC10 which is lit by the more common (at least on full size laptops) CCFLs. All look great.
The news on the keyboard front is just the opposite almost all bad.
Many reviews note that netbook keyboards take some getting used to, which is a nice way of saying they stink. I often switch between a normal, stand-alone keyboard, a full sized laptop and a netbook. The best thing there is to say about netbook keyboards is that the computers are small and cheap.
Asus, in particular, stands out for its decision to put the right shift key in the wrong place. They finally addressed this in their new 1000HE; beats me why it took so long.
However, the keyboard on the Samsung NC10 felt great. It was, by far, the best of all the netbooks I've used and should be just fine for normal work. I wouldn't write a book on the NC10 however. The Acer Aspire One also has a good keyboard, but it's much too small for my adult hands.
There is a huge variation in netbook keyboards, so if you're buying one site unseen, look into the return policy. Many netbook keyboards have flat keys and reviews have been positive. I much prefer scultped keys, but this a matter of personal preference.
A pet peeve of mine is the Page Up/Down buttons. On most netbooks these are not primary keys, that is, you have to first press and hold the Function key. The Samsung NC10 and the Acer Aspire One have the Page Up/Down keys as primary.
Trackpads support a variety of features, the one on the Asus 1000HE, for example, lets you scroll using two fingers on the trackpad. This may be fine for many, but I'm an old dog and resistant to some new tricks.
Tim Higgins, over at smallnetbuilder.com has used an ultra-portable laptop for a long time and thus compares netbooks to his tried and true Fujitsu P7120 laptop. He puts a lot of emphasis on the keyboard and has returned every netbook he's ordered. His reviews make for interesting reading because he's a skeptic.
Check out his latest netbook review, of the HP Mini 2140.
There are links at the bottom to his reviews of the Dell Mini 12, Samsung NC10, MSI Wind U100 and Lenovo IdeaPad S10.
Another problematic area for netbooks is the metal plate that substitutes for a mouse. I'll admit my prejudice up-front: I like the red eraser-head found on Thinkpads. No netbooks, not even those from Lenovo, yet sport an eraser-head pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard. All netbook trackpads tend to be short, but the real problem is with the mouse buttons. The worst models have the buttons on the side of the trackpad. This may be okay for your dominant hand, but works poorly for your other hand.
But even the models with the buttons under the trackpad aren't as easy to use as those on full size laptop computers. Some netbooks have both buttons as a single button (which takes getting used to), but even those with two buttons make them hard to distinguish just by touch. That is, there is little space around the buttons and they tend to blend into their surroundings both by feel and by sight.
A client of mine deals with this by using the Logitech V450 cordless mouse (Amazon.com sells it for $30).
The transmitter, which plugs into a USB port, is very small and fits in a storage compartment on the bottom of the mouse. It also auto-installs under Windows XP, so theres no software to deal with. The mouse has great rubber grips on the sides, but is a bit small for my taste. Still, it's a huge step up from a trackpad and should travel well.
If you're not after the cheapest, smallest netbook, you can get a model with outstanding battery life. Netbook battery life will of course vary but the best models, like the Samsung NC10 (especially the new Special Edition) and the Asus 1000HE, can get 6 or 7 hours.