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Netbooks are a new category of laptop computer, defined mostly by their small size and cheap price. The category started only a year ago and has evolved drastically since. I tried the first netbook, an Asus Eee PC with a 7-inch screen and didn't like it; the keyboard and screen were much too small. But many disagreed with me, and the popularity of that first Eee PC led to dozens and dozens of imitators.
Netbooks don't have nearly the horsepower of current full-size laptops, but they have more than enough for most of the things most people do most of the time.
Linux-based models will appeal to non-technical users with minimal computing demands. Windows XP models appeal to the millions of people already comfortable using Microsoft's now 7-year-old operating system. Not interested in Vista? Netbooks are the easiest (although not the only) way to get a new computer with XP.
The small size will appeal to some, the low price will appeal to others and the combination was, to me, irresistible.
As an adult techie, my interest in netbooks is mostly for traveling. Any laptop computer that gets dragged around on trips is sooner or later going to be lost, stolen or broken. When that befalls one of my machines, I want it to be a netbook. That is, I don't want to carry around a heavy, expensive laptop with all my applications, files and email on it. Rather, I want to travel with a machine that has only minimal software installed and has only the files I need while traveling (if nothing else, that makes securing those files easier). And, if something bad happens to the computer, better it be a cheap one rather than an expensive one.
Someone who travels all the time has different needs, but I only travel occasionally and can make do with a somewhat limited machine when I'm on the road. Plus, if there is a safe in my hotel room, the small size of a netbook increases the odds that it will fit.
But which netbook? A smaller one with a 9-inch screen or a larger one with a 10-inch screen? Windows XP or Linux? How big a battery? A traditional hard disk or solid state?
While high-end netbooks cost more than low-end laptops, I chose to focus on lower-end netbook models. For one thing, I find the value to be amazing. That you can buy a usable ultra-portable computer running Windows XP for $350 is truly a breakthrough.
Also, I think the growth will be in the cheaper models. Spending well over $500 for a laptop computer with a very small screen and keyboard doesn't seem like a choice many people will make. Spend less, get less, however, should be very appealing - assuming the machine is judged good enough.
From left: The Acer Aspire One, The MSI Wind, and the Asus Eee PC 1000.
Are they good enough? To answer that question, I purchased three netbooks. That wasn't my initial game plan, what follows is how the experience of each netbook led to another.
Acer Aspire One
While researching netbooks (a field that changes very quickly) Acer dropped the price of their Aspire One, making it the cheapest machine running Windows XP. I paid $350 at a time when the next cheapest XP based netbook was $400. The Aspire One is popular, gets reasonably good reviews and at that price, I couldn't resist.
It came with an 8.9-inch screen, an Intel Atom processor and a gigabyte of RAM. The majority of netbooks ship with an Atom processor and a gigabyte of RAM but the field is split between screen sizes of roughly 9 and 10 inches.
Almost all netbooks have a screen resolution of 1024x600, which means that 9-inch screens, with the same amount of information crammed in a smaller space, are a bit harder to see. Much of my initial use involved dealing with the small screen. For example, I set the minimum font size in Firefox 3 (Tools -> Options -> Content tab -> Fonts and Colors -> Advanced button) and told Windows to display larger sized icons (Control Panel -> Display -> Appearance tab -> Effects button).
Netbooks screens, like all LCD screens, come with either a glossy or matte finish. I prefer matte, but the glossy screen on the Acer Aspire One didn't turn out to be a problem. I was afraid of being able to comb my hair looking at the screen but that wasn't the case. Perhaps this is due to the LED back-lighting (most full size laptops use cold-cathode fluorescent lamps as their light source) or perhaps it's simply because the computer is small and easily moved around. I don't know.
This was my first experience with the Atom processor and I was glad to see that it has more than sufficient horsepower. At no time did the Acer Aspire One feel slow or sluggish. That said, I only used it for email, web browsing, playing audio files and word processing. The 120GB traditional hard disk is plenty for a secondary computer and it, too, didnt cause any performance problems.
The 3-cell battery, however, proved to be annoying. As netbook batteries go, three cells is bottom of the line, 6-cell is top of the line (very few models offer any other sizes). Three-cell batteries are small and cheap but usually don't deliver much more than two hours of run time.
I didn't expect this to matter, but it did. The battery was insufficient for even a short visit with a client that involved using Wi-Fi, and, when I took the computer to a meeting to take notes, I nervously watched the battery indicator sink all too quickly.
Audio was also a disappointment. The speakers are underneath the machine and not very powerful, even judging them with the reduced expectations that come with a cheap computer. I listen to voice recordings rather than music and, at times, the volume would just not get loud enough to be easily heard.
The keyboard is a huge issue with all netbooks. Since they're so small, they all entail compromises. Netbooks with a 9-inch screen, such as the Acer Aspire One, necessarily have smaller keyboards than models with 10-inch screens. Chances are that people who try a netbook and don't like it will cite the keyboard as the biggest reason.
While the keyboard on the Acer Aspire One is very small, it's well laid out and I found it reasonably usable. That said, it does take some getting used to and its probably not appropriate for an adult who writes a lot on their computer (I can't judge how a child, or anyone with smaller hands than mine would feel).
One excellent choice Acer made regards the Page Up/Down keys - they are direct keys. That is, you don't have to hit the Shift or Control or Function key to activate Page Up and Page Down. I use these keys very often and, considering the vertical pixel resolution of all netbooks is only 600, I suspect many netbook owners will also be very dependent on these two keys.
Other reviewers have been disappointed with the small touchpad and the placement of the mouse buttons on the sides rather than underneath the touchpad. This is less than optimal, but I didn't find it a big deal.
My first reaction to the Acer Aspire One was shock at how small and light the thing was. Even after living with for a while, I'm still amazed at the size and weight. It can easily fit in any briefcase (and some pocketbooks) and not be noticed, a huge difference from my 14-inch ThinkPad. The picture below shows the largest netbook, the Asus Eee PC 1000, next to a normal sized ThinkPad with a 14-inch screen. The Aspire One is noticeably smaller than the Asus netbook.
The Asus Eee PC 1000, the largest of the three netbooks, next to a ThinkPad T42 with a 14-inch screen.
But, speaking as an adult male, I don't need my netbook to be that small. I can't point to any particular problem with Acer Aspire One, but after living with it a while, it seems better sized for a child rather than an adult. I wouldn't be happy with such a small computer, so I set out find a model with a 10-inch screen.
Asus Eee PC 1000
I wanted my second netbook to offer as different an experience as possible. In addition to the larger screen, that meant Linux instead of Windows XP, a solid state hard disk rather than a traditional one with spinning platters, a more powerful 6-cell battery and a screen with a matte rather than glossy finish.
The Asus Eee PC 1000 offered all this and more. Unlike the Acer Aspire One, it's a relatively high-end netbook, offering Bluetooth, Wi-Fi N and off-site storage. It also has the mouse buttons under the touchpad rather than on the side. The only downside was the price. When I was shopping around it was selling for $500, which seemed a bit much for a netbook. But, one day I stumbled across a sale and picked one up for $450.
At first sight I knew that the 10-inch screen was the way to go. My regular laptop has a 14-inch screen screen, but I could tell, even with the Asus netbook off, that 10 inches would be good enough. In terms of total real estate, the screen on the Acer Aspire One is roughly 7.5 inches by 4.5 for a total of 33.75 square inches. The Asus Eee PC 1000 screen is approximately 8.5 by 5 inches, for a total of 42.5 inches. Since both machines run at the same, standard 1024x600 resolution, my aging eyes appreciate the roughly 21 percent larger screen on the Asus.
The first thing I noticed when holding the Asus machine was how well made it felt. Then there was the keyboard, which, like the screen, was significantly larger than the one on the Acer Aspire One. The combination of the larger sized machine and the larger 6-cell battery meant the Asus Eee 1000 was noticeably heavier than the Acer Aspire One. Still, I wouldn't call it heavy by any means, especially compared to a full size laptop.
An old Sharp PC-UM10M laptop with a 12-inch screen next to the Asus Eee PC 1000 with its 10-inch screen.
Another difference I wasn't expecting: the Asus netbook came with a padded zippered carrying case. The Aspire One included a thin vinyl sleeve with no padding, useful as a dust cover, but not for any protection while bouncing around in a briefcase.
In the end however, the machine was a total disappointment.
My problems started with the keyboard. It made a great first impression, it didn't feel small at all and was easy to type on. But Asus made some questionable design choices.
To begin with, the Page Up/Page Down keys are Function keys. That is, you have first press and hold the Fn key and then press either Page Up or Page Down. I use these keys all the time as, I suspect, many netbook users will. Then there is the oddly placed and sized right shift key. Many reviews commented on this, but it's hard to explain how annoying this can be to a touch typist like myself.
The third strike was the touchpad. It makes a great first impression, being large and with the buttons underneath rather than on the sides. But it's too sensitive. While typing the cursor would often jump around randomly, which is seriously annoying. I've used my share of laptops over the years and this was the first one that acted this way.
Linux too proved to be the wrong choice for me, at least this version of Linux.
There are many versions of Linux, called distributions. Too many perhaps. Linux has an awful lot going for it. Like OS X on Macs it's immune to almost all malicious software. In addition, it's free and some distributions mimic the look and feel of Windows. Anyone moving from Windows to Ubuntu should have no trouble using the operating system. Xandros even goes as far as including a My Documents folder to make Windows users feel at home.
For whatever reason, Asus didn't install one of the many existing Linux distributions, rather they started with Xandros and customized it for newbies. Rather than offer a standard desktop environment, much like Windows and OS X, they built a simplistic set of tabbed windows with big icons from which you chose an application to run. Great for a child, but not for me. I wanted the real Linux experience.
Unfortunately, Asus chose to lock users into their simplistic interface. There isn't an option to run the normal Xandros that underlies it and a quick search online didn't turn up anything. People have tweaked earlier models of the Eee PC to break out of the limited user interface, but the 1000 model is relatively new.
The final straw was Firefox. Every time I encounter a new Linux distribution, I try to update Firefox to the latest version. It shouldn't be hard but often I find it impossible, without resorting to the command line. Considering how popular Firefox is, a Linux distribution that can't update it with a GUI interface doesn't strike me as ready for prime time. The software update application on the Asus Eee 1000 was not aware that there was a newer version of Firefox 2, let alone the existence of Firefox 3. And, that wasn't the only problem: the update application repeatedly failed to install an Asus system update.
Perhaps this is the Linux experience -- having to chose and install your own distribution. I installed the Ubuntu 8.10 Live CD onto a USB flash drive and booted from it to try out the new Ubuntu without clobbering the existing copy of Linux. It ran fine, but failed to recognize the wireless network. I'll see if I can find and install drivers. Then again, there's a customized version of Ubuntu just for the Eee PC that's built from the earlier 8.04 edition.
Interestingly, almost everyone who loved the Asus Eee PC 1000 at Amazon.com installed another operating system on the machine.
I'm going to keep a netbook with Linux because I want to learn more about the OS. But, at least for now, I'll go with XP to get any real work done. That sent me searching for an XP based netbook with a 10-inch matte screen.
Initially, I had hoped to get a netbook with a solid state hard disk but, like a box of chocolates, you never know what performance you're getting with SSDs, and it varies drastically. While some are faster than traditional hard disks, the SSDs used in cheaper machines are slower than traditional hard disks at writing data.
You probably won't find any performance specs for the SSDs used in netbooks, which, in and of itself, tells us something. Even outside of netbooks, SSDs almost never publish comprehensive performance specs. For example, have you ever seen one advertise its worst metric, random write speed? Probably not. They typically advertise their best metric, sequential read speed.
No doubt, SSDs are the future, probably the near future, but for now, I'm going with a traditional hard disk. I found the performance of the hard disk-based Acer Aspire One perfectly acceptable, whereas the SSDs in the Asus Eee 1000 occasionally felt sluggish. Interestingly, the 40GB SSD in the Asus Eee 1000 is actually two SSDs, a faster 8GB model and a slower 32GB model.
The MSI Wind is another popular netbook, and it met my personal specs. It had been a bit more than I wanted to spend but the price of a low-end model (U100-420US) recently fell to $350. This model omits Bluetooth networking, Wi-Fi N and gigabit Ethernet, which was fine by me. Unfortunately, it includes a 3-cell battery rather than a 6-cell, but it seemed like such a bargain that I ordered it anyway. As I write this, the Wind model U100-053US with a 6-cell battery and smaller capacity hard disk sells for at least $50 more.
Like the other netbooks I tried, the Wind comes with an Intel Atom processor and a gigabyte of RAM. The hard disk is 120GB and the mouse buttons are under the touchpad. More accurately, I should say the mouse button the Wind features a single button rather than two physically separate buttons. Clicking the left side of the button is a left mouse click and likewise clicking the right side of the button is a right click.
The keyboard feels just a bit smaller than that on the Asus Eee 1000 and the keys are flatter. The right shift key is, thankfully, in the normal expected place. The Page Up/Down keys are both Function keys, but this isn't nearly as bad as on the Asus machine because the Fn key itself is in the bottom left corner of the keyboard, making it very easy to find. Overall, Acer did the best job of keyboard design, it's too bad the size of the Aspire One mandated that the keyboard be so small.
If there is anything to learn here it's that being able to return a netbook may be the most important thing to look for when making a purchase. There is no way to know how you'll like something so new until you've lived with it a bit.
To make a small cheap computer, netbook designers had to throw some things overboard. None include an optical drive, a PC card slot or a telephone modem. Very few have ExpressCard slots. On the other hand, almost all include a Webcam and none of the Atom based machines I tried got hot at all.
Finally, let me point out that the Acer Aspire One and the Asus Eee 1000 have power cords with two prongs, while the MSI Wind power cord has three prongs. Electricians may favor three prongs, but if you buy a netbook for traveling, a three-pronged cord may limit the outlets where the machine can be plugged in.
As a long-time ThinkPad user, I'm still waiting for the first netbook with a red eraser-head pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard.