Users' needs and vendors' hardware configurations are different enough so that you rarely hear someone try to pick a single "best" desktop or notebook PC. But the netbook category is so clearly defined -- with so many compact, convenient mini-laptops with cookie-cutter specifications -- that there's a battle for bragging rights constantly rocking the red-hot market segment.
The champ as of this writing? It's the system seen here, the $399 Eee PC 1000HE from netbook pioneer Asus. By the time you read this, or a week or two later, it might be something else ... in which case, all Asus would have to do is cut its price a tad, and the 1000HE could be the winner once again. It's that good.
The 12.1-inch Dell Inspiron Mini 12 and Samsung NC20 and new 11.6-inch Acer Aspire One beckon shoppers with larger screens, but the netbook sweet spot for now is a 10- or 10.1-inch display size. Indeed, Asus is so sweet on this spot that our first word of caution about the 10-inch model 1000HE is to make sure you're not getting one of its glut of near-twin netbooks -- the Eee 1000, 1000H, 1000HA, 1000HD, 1002H, or 1002HA -- by mistake. (Asus has just announced an eighth entry in this class which we'll get to in a moment.)
When we say cookie-cutter, the 10-inch, 1,024 by 600-pixel screen is just the start of the recipe: Add an Intel Atom processor and integrated-graphics chipset, 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard disk, WiFi, and Windows XP Home Edition, and you've got one very familiar netbook spec sheet. (Like all netbooks, the Eee has no onboard optical drive.) So what, if anything, differentiates the 1000HE from its closest competitors?
Well, the CPU isn't the usual Atom N270 running at 1.6GHz; it's an Atom N280 running at -- wait for it -- 1.66GHz, for a performance increase unnoticeable by humans but measurable in benchmark tests.
The Eee's PCMark05 CPU score tops that of the N270-powered HP Mini 2140 we tested in March by 1,518 to 1,293 (although its overall PCMark05 score trails, 1,539 to 1,493). Using the single-core Atom's Hyper-Threading Technology to simulate a dual-core environment, it rendered Cinebench R10's sample screen in 17 minutes and 6 seconds -- 38 seconds quicker than the 8.9-inch Aspire One we reviewed last August.
If the N280's extra 67MHz aren't enough to get your motor racing, an Asus feature dubbed Super Hybrid Engine (S.H.E.) adjusts processor performance based on application demand -- or a manual toggle to Super Performance mode, which overclocks the CPU by 5 percent for another imperceptible edge. Note that none of Asus' tweaking helps the performance handicap familiar from other Atom netbooks -- the antiquated Intel 945GSE chipset and GMA 950 integrated graphics adapter's inability to play any game more intense than Solitaire or Minesweeper.
For real-world launching and usage of the undemanding applications that netbooks specialize in -- browsers, Web apps, e-mail, word processing, music, YouTube -- you'll be perfectly content to let S.H.E. do its (her?) thing and leave the Eee in its Auto High Performance and Auto Power Saving modes when on AC and battery power, respectively. Indeed, battery life, not speed, is the 1000HE's main claim to fame.
Asus boasts that the system can last for 9.5 hours on battery power with screen brightness slashed and peripherals like the 1.3-megapixel webcam and WiFi radio switched off. More realistically, our MobileMark 2007 simulated work session stretched to seven hours, and we regularly managed six to six and a half hours of hands-on work, even with stunts such as plugging in our USB-powered DVD±RW drive to watch a 90-minute movie. The Eee has the best battery life of any netbook we've tested to date.