The 10-Minute Netbook Guide

Buying a netbook? Here’s everything you need to know to make the right decision.


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The term “netbook” has only recently come into widespread use, but it’s not a new idea. Various manufacturers took stabs at it over the past 20 years; Gateway's popular, DOS-based Handbook 286 from the early 1990s comes immediately to mind.

But today’s full-featured netbooks have struck a chord for folks wanting something more powerful and comfortable than a smartphone, but less bulky than a traditional laptop.

Netbooks are highly portable, shrewdly priced, and can – in a pinch, with external peripherals – function as a secondary desktop PC. Plus, there's the "oops" factor. I'd never call a $400 purchase expendable – that's still a lot of money. But if the worst were to occur, and your netbook was lost, stolen, or sat on, it wouldn't cause nearly the trauma a $2,500 MacBook Pro would in the same situation.

That makes a netbook desirable for everyday use. Throw one in a bag or briefcase and you’ll never be without access to e-mail, the Web, or important files again.

As with most computer-related purchases, there are plenty of options to consider when buying a netbook. To help, we’ve put together a 10-minute guide that covers all the basics. While we don't have the space to examine every possible machine and configuration in depth, we'll give you everything you need to know to make an informed decision – from the specs you need, to the models, brands, and even some stores you should consider.

Here’s what you need to know when buying a netbook today:

Screen size:

Let's start here, since most netbook manufacturers divide their product lines by screen size. 10-inch is pretty much the norm at this point. While manufacturers experimented with 7-inch and 9-inch screens, in our opinion, you really need at least a 10-inch screen for the machine to be practical.

That size affords a relatively roomy 1024-by-600-pixel resolution on nearly all models. It’s also wide enough to accommodate a decent sized keyboard (see below).

asus eee pc 1000 netbook, netbook buying guide
We consider a 10-inch screen, like the one on this Eee PC 1000, to be a workable compromise between portability and size, at least for a light-duty machine dedicated to Web browsing, document editing, and e-mail.


Fortunately, netbooks fall in at the bottom end of the pricing scale. Just $279 will get you in on the ground floor with an 8.9-inch model. $349 to $389 is a more workable range, and is good enough for a 10-inch model running Windows XP with 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard disk, and Windows XP.

More than that will buy luxury features like a stylish case design or a built-in cellular data modem (though the latter also requires a monthly data plan in order to work).

Keyboard and mouse:

This is a place you want to pay particular attention. Not only will you be typing and using the trackpad all the time, but the small size, shape, and cost of netbooks force manufacturers to be particularly stingy in these areas.

Asus Eee Pc 1000 netbook next to a Macbook Pro, netbook buying guide
Even when compared to laptops on the smaller and lighter end of the scale, netbooks look puny in comparison. Here is the same 10-inch Asus Eee PC 1000 positioned next to an Apple MacBook Pro with a 15.4-inch screen.
Look for keyboard flex, chintzy feeling plastic, and smaller-than-normal keys (92-percent of full size is probably okay; anything below that will feel cramped).

For the mouse, note the trackpad layout. HP, for example, has a thing for side-mounted buttons that make clicking and dragging a royal pain. Other manufacturers install cheap-feeling plastic buttons that click loudly.

Operating system, Windows XP or Linux:

The two main options here are Windows XP and Linux. Without delving too far into the Linux vs. Windows on a netbook OS war , Windows XP offers compatibility with apps you are already familiar with, plays nice with external peripherals, and works just like a desktop PC. But it requires a security software subscription, takes more system resources to run well, and doesn't come with an office suite or other useful software.

Linux machines cost less, come with lots of free open-source software preloaded, and don't need a security suite. But they work differently than XP machines, require extra setup for some external peripherals (depending on the Linux distribution), and don't run important third party apps—such as QuickBooks or most already-written internal corporate software.

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Tags: Linux, Windows, netbooks, netbook, asus

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