Netbook Smackdown: Compare the Six Top Netbooks

The netbook race is on, with units from Asus, Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo and MSI. Who makes the best netbook?
Posted November 17, 2008

James Maguire

James Maguire

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(Comment at the bottom of this page: What's the best netbook?)

Also see: Top Netbooks Compared: the Eight Best Netbooks (May 2010)

And: Top Netbooks: the Eight Best Netbooks Compared (April 2009)

And: One Guy, Three Netbooks (a review of three netbooks)

Among the six top netbooks, what’s the best choice? It all depends.

Regardless of brand name, most netbooks are close cousins. Most come with the Intel Atom chip, have screens that are 9 or 10 inches, and cost about $349-$399. Sure, there are variations, especially on cost (more on that later) but the makers are obviously aware of each other specs.

But – and it’s a big but – despite all the sameness, two critical factors separate the top units from the also-rans.

First, will it connect to the Web, quickly and consistently? Is its Wi-Fi capability really up to snuff? After all, these units are worthless without the Web. Look for units with expansion slots to add mobile broadband, or a maker who has put a lot into the wireless feature.

Second, is it comfortable to use? These mini laptops are cramped, but has the netbook you’re considering been designed to compensate as much as possible? Some units boast of a (somewhat) larger keyboard and screen, which helps if you expect to use your netbook for hours on end.

For example, look at two comparable models:

compare netbooks

(Photo courtesy of Michael Horowitz.)

On the left is the Asus 1000 with a 10-inch screen; on the right, an Acer Aspire One with an 8.9-inch screen. Clearly, the difference between small and really small is significant.

Oh, and a possible third key comparison: the battery. The joy of these units is their toss-‘em-in-your-bag portability, and a 6-cell battery marches a whole lot further than a 3-cell.

Although $399 is a popular benchmark, cost varies based on the usual options like hard drive and RAM. As netbooks have evolved from hobbyist’s novelty to must-own unit for professional/student, they’re just a ghost of their former selves. The lowly 7-inch Asus kicked off the trend in ’07, but now Dell and HP let you lather on the luxuries. Have credit card, will travel. So you can spend up to $700 on a mini, enough to buy a nice full-size notebook.

Or, you can stay true to the netbook ethic and buy cheap. One way to do this is to choose Linux rather than Windows XP. Finding the Linux option might take a tad more shopping, but it’s out there, and you’ll shave a nice piece of coin off the total price. (Here’s a discussion of Windows XP vs. Linux on the netbook.)

A note about prices: they seem to change daily, even hourly. They’re falling ever downward. Wait until after the holidays when retail desperation sets in. Someday these units will be priced like cell phones, and sooner rather than later.

Whichever unit you select, rest assured your netbook will be the ultimate fashion item. Men will envy you, women will adore you, and those small, yappy dogs will never stop barking when you’re around. But you’ll just smile and, lifting your unit with a mere two digits, stride confidently from the room. Who was that masked man?

The Six Leading Netbooks

The question of which netbook is “The Best” depends, of course, on your needs. If you’re a professional who’ll be using it as a companion on high-powered sales calls, the nicer options are worth the extra cash. If you’re a student who wants to take notes in class (and surf YouTube while doing do) a basic unit might suffice. Then again, maybe you want to edit video while sitting in class.

So, ultimately, one size doesn’t fit all. It’s only been in the last few months that all the major manufacturers have entered the race. The winner remains unclear.

And the six top choices are…

6) Acer Aspire One

compare netbooks

Base Price: $399

Check prices:



Acer Aspire product page

Full review

This is a sweet netbook. As I surveyed the market, this unit tempted me personally (but I’ll stick with my beat-up full-size laptop until it crashes.)

The Aspire is small even for a netbook, but it’s packed with features. The 1 GB of RAM and the large hard drive means it can be a real workhorse, letting you do more than just just email and Web surfing. The Aspire has an impressive three USB ports to hook in a DVD drive or other peripherals, and the 6-cell battery keeps chugging for about five hours. It includes a 1.3 Megapixel camera.

One thing users are complaining about: the mouse buttons, placed on the left and the right, can be cumbersome. Apparently this takes some getting used to.

Still, this little box might even replace your full-size laptop – for $400. (You know this unit is striking terror into the hearts of full-size laptop makers everywhere.) With a blue gloss case, it even looks pretty.

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 8.9 inches

Hard Drive: 160 GB

Memory: 1 GB

Weight: 2.2 pounds

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Tags: wireless, Dell, netbooks, HP, asus

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