The netbook revolution is upon us—possibly due to the gotta-have-it factor more than anything else. After all, netbooks practically scream “buy me” from store display tables as a result of their featherweight designs and low prices.
Since Asus kicked off the category in the U.S. with the original Eee PC 701 in October 2007, netbook sales have skyrocketed. Both consumers and business users seem to find their virtues irresistible—that is, at least as second computers. Netbooks are generally too limited, particularly in keyboard and screen size, as well as storage space, to function well as main laptops.
Still, the category has also diversified, as versions with roomier 8.9-inch and 10-inch LCDs, and solid state and traditional hard disks, have appeared alongside the original 7-inch products. (Unfortunately, Asus seems to have overcapitalized on the opportunity, adding dozens of new models with virtually identical names and specs; I’ll cut through the clutter and make some specific recommendations below).
Netbooks usually come with one of two main operating systems. Unlike more expensive mainstream and ultralight notebooks, which typically offer either Windows Vista or Mac OS X as their primary operating system, netbooks tend to sport either Linux or Windows XP—mainly due to their lower CPU and power requirements.
On the surface, the OS distinction doesn’t look all that important. After all, the very definition of “netbook” precludes the OS as being the most important factor. The point is to do most tasks in the browser while connected wirelessly to the Internet—not through locally installed applications on the machine itself.
Some are even viewing this as a threat to Microsoft, but that’s probably overblown. To be sure, no one is predicting that the venerable Redmond-based company will disappear tomorrow due to some wholesale rejection of Windows. But the widespread availability of netbooks with different operating systems signals that the OS is gradually becoming less important—particularly since Windows PC stalwarts HP, Dell, and Lenovo have jumped in the fray with Linux as well as XP-based options.
That’s another can of worms, however. Instead, my focus here will be on what factors to consider when making that crucial operating system decision in purchasing a netbook.
While the browser remains the single most important piece of software on a netbook, there are plenty of other factors to consider. One caveat: I’ll be staying far, far away from the OS flame wars. Instead, I want to focus on a couple of specific, practical things I hope most folks will find reasonable when weighing the two operating systems.
Linux is a free, open-source operating system that runs well on older computers as well as less powerful new ones. That makes it an ideal choice for today’s low cost, lightweight machines.
In day-to-day use, Linux-based netbooks are reliable, boot quickly, usually don’t crash, and are compatible with tons of free software. Due to its open-source nature, Linux is available in dozens of varieties (usually referred to as “distributions”), many of which come bundled with plenty of applications right from the start; that certainly is the case in the netbook category. Plus, several manufacturers are developing in-house software that extends the open-source OS and further tightens up the user interface.
For example, consider the 8.9-inch Eee PC 900 ($549). It comes with a Xandros Linux build that features a tabbed interface grouped into categories, such as Internet (for Web links), Work (for OpenOffice 2.0 and a bundled PDF reader), Learn (for a dictionary, paint software and so on), and Play (for games and basic media playback).
Out of the box, The Eee PC 900 is capable of streaming YouTube videos, uploading photos to Flickr, and even checking Microsoft Outlook Web Access, which is great for corporate mavens who fear losing access to their Exchange e-mail accounts with a Linux machine.
However, a recent MSI executive has gone on record as saying that customers return Linux-powered netbooks to the store nearly four times as often as Windows-based models. Whether that’s due to anything inherent to MSI’s Linux builds or to the OS in general is impossible to determine.
Still, the various kinds of Linux interfaces available today, while simple on the surface, remain a challenge for folks who spent the last decade or two using Windows PCs. A process as simple as installing a new program, while not difficult, is completely different than it is on a Windows XP machine.
Plus, external device support under Linux is iffy, even for basic tasks such as playing back a DVD (remember, nearly all of these machines lack built-in optical drives). Many Linux netbooks also can’t read Office 2007 documents (such as Word files with the .docx extension).
Regardless, Linux is a good choice if you’re looking at in the lower-priced range ($300 to $400) for netbooks, if you already use the Web for document editing (such as with Google Docs or Netvibes), and if you don’t have any specific applications in mind that you have to run.
If possible, look for models with Intel’s new Atom processor, which is significantly more powerful than prior Intel Celeron or VIA-based netbooks. Examples include the 8.9-inch Acer Aspire One ($399), the 10-inch HP Mini 1000 ($379), and the 8.9-inch Dell Inspiron Mini 9 ($349).
Some to watch out for include the MSI U90X ($369), which includes a SUSE Linux build with some known driver issues at the time of this writing.
Windows XP netbooks
Windows XP netbooks have the benefit of familiarity—practically everyone who has used a computer during this decade has touched a Windows XP machine at one time or another.
The OS means you can install copies of Microsoft Office applications (including Outlook), as well as (in a pinch) run iTunes, Windows Media Player, or other media applications that synchronize with portable devices. You can plug in printers, external hard disks, and other common peripherals, confident that they’ll work just as well as they usually do with regular Windows XP desktops and laptops.
Finally, if your work requires a certain specific application that’s not available on Linux, an XP netbook is your only practical option.
On the other hand, Windows XP, while not nearly as bad as Windows Vista, still requires more CPU power and memory than Linux in day-to-day operation. To cite one real-world example, in my own personal tests I found that a lower-end Asus Eee PC running XP wasn’t capable of maintaining a two-way video call in Skype, even when no other applications were running.
The jerky video feed would freeze on occasion, and the audio stream would continually drop packets as well, which rendered the application unusable. (It worked fine with audio-only calls in Skype, as well as when sending video in just one direction.)
Plus, Windows XP laptops don’t come with the same bundle of free software that the Linux machines do. Free options are available, but remember that if you’re expecting your comfortable XP experience to extend to third-party software (such as Microsoft Office), you’ll need to purchase that as well if you already don’t have licenses.
Finally, you’ll need to buy a security suite subscription to protect your XP laptop against spyware, viruses, and other forms of malware, just as you do with a regular desktop or laptop PC.
A practical recommendation would be to bump up the budget—say, to the $450 or $500 range—in order to ensure the machine you buy is powerful enough to run Windows XP. Again, an Intel Atom-based netbook is a wise choice here now that they’re widely available.