As you might expect, these cheaper netbooks often lack the performance and security features you'll find in higher-priced models. Fortunately, you can overcome many of these limitations without spending an extra cent by turning to open-source software.
In fact, the open-source philosophy has been at the heart of the recent trend towards less expensive laptops from the very beginning. In 2005, MIT faculty founded the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization with the goal of producing $100 laptops that could be used by children in earth's poorest countries.
Free and open-source technology helped make it possible for OLPC to create the XO, a rugged, low-power, extremely inexpensive laptop. In 2007, Taiwanese maker Asustek took this concept from its philanthropic roots and made it commercial when it debuted the Eee for $349. As consumers rushed to snap up the Eee, other manufacturers followed suit with their own so-called "mini" or netbook models that trade features for portability and low cost.
IDC predicts netbooks will account for 12.3 percent of the laptop market with sales of 21 million units this year, and Gartner anticipates that all mobile PC sales will be up 9 percent, with mini notebooks accounting for most of that growth. And the availability of these low cost options has led to lower price for other, more traditional laptops as well.
The down side? Any low-cost laptop you buy will probably be missing something. It might be underpowered, fall short on RAM, lack hard drive space, and/or come without a CD/DVD drive. And it's almost certainly missing key security features. (Here's a list of 10 open source security apps.)
The solution? Open-source software. In many cases, manufacturers of these lower cost notebooks are already relying on open-source technology as a means to lower the price.
Compared to its commercial counterparts, open-source software generally requires fewer resources and provides greater security. By going with open source on your laptop, you probably won't feel the effects of a slower processor and less memory, and you'll be less likely to be victimized by hackers.
Some may argue that the availability of Web apps and cloud computing means that you don't need software on your laptop at all. However, if you ever want to use your laptop when an Internet connection isn't available (and after all, the point of a laptop is that you can use it anywhere), you really need installed software.
If you've already purchased a low-price laptop or are now considering it, here are open-source software to "fill in the holes" and overcome the slower performance:
2) Operating System: Ubuntu
Unless you're buying your laptop second-hand, it's going to come with the OS pre-installed. If you haven't yet made your purchase, you may want to consider one of the many models that uses Ubuntu Linux. It uses dramatically fewer resources than Windows (the other most common operating system option on low-cost laptops) and it's generally considered more secure. In addition, Ubuntu includes many of the most popular open-source applications, such as OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and others.
2) Browser: Firefox
Even if you purchase a Windows-based laptop with Internet Explorer pre-installed, you should consider switching to Firefox. It's more secure (which helps if you're using a laptop that lacks security features), and it's fast and easy to use.
Security (Here's a list of 21 open source security apps with commercial support.)
3) Anti-Virus (Linux): ClamAV
ClamAV is one of the world's best anti-virus scanners and forms the backbone of many commercial security products. If you have a Ubuntu-based notebook, you already have ClamAV in your universe repository, and most of the other desktop Linux distributions include ClamAV as well. To make sure ClamAV is running on Ubuntu, install the clam-avdaemon package.
4) Anti-Virus (Windows): ClamWin
To run ClamAV on Windows, you'll need to download and install ClamWin. This app will not automatically scan incoming files, but it does integrate with Windows Explorer and Outlook so that you can easily scan files manually.
5) Anti-Spam: SpamAssassin
The self-proclaimed "#1 open-source spam filter" has won numerous awards for outstanding capabilities in filtering out bulk e-mail. It comes in many flavors, and on the home page, you'll find links to a single-user installation for Linux/Unix users and a Windows installation.
6) Firewall: Firestarter
Many of the other open-source firewalls are suitable primarily for creating do-it-yourself network gateways and require a separate PC to use as an appliance. Firestarter can be installed directly on your laptop, and the GUI is simple enough for novices to use.
7) Password Protection: KeePass Password Safe
It really is dangerous to use the same password for all of your accounts, and it's even more dangerous to store all of your passwords unencrypted on your laptop. KeePass lets you store all of your passwords in an encrypted database that you can unlock with a single master password.
8) E-mail Client: Thunderbird
Made by the creators of Firefox, Mozilla's Thunderbird offers outstanding security, customization, and organization features. However, it does not include a calendar, which some Outlook users may miss.
9) Email Client: Zimbra
If you like having a calendar and to-do list integrated with your e-mail, Zimbra might be a better option. Zimbra also makes it easy to access all of your e-mail accounts in one place, and unlike web-based mail apps, it lets you access your e-mail even when you're offline. On the downside, it's still officially in beta, so you may find a few bugs.
10) IM: Pidgin
At last count, Pidgin lets you instant message with friends on 16 different networks, including AIM, GoogleTalk, MSN, and MySpace. It runs on both Linux and Windows, and has a number of add-ons available that extend its features.
11) File Transfer: FileZilla
Available for both Windows and Linux, the FileZilla client software lets you download ftp, ftps, and sftp files. It's easy to use and is available in a number of different languages.
12) Office Suite: OpenOffice.org
It's a given that any laptop under $400 isn't going to come with Microsoft Office, which starts around $150 for the Home and Student Edition. OpenOffice.org lets you create and read Office files and includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, database, graphics, and scientific notation software.
13) Document Management: Inforama
While it's designed for enterprise use, the community version of Inforama can be deployed by a single user to create templates, merge with databases, add bar codes to documents, and create customized PDFs.
14) PDF Reader: Sumatra PDF Reader
Sumatra is an open source, extremely lightweight alternative to Acrobat Reader on the Windows OS. The installed files take up just 1.1MB of space (ideal if your laptop has a small hard drive) and files open very quickly. Unfortunately, it may take longer to print files from Sumatra if your printer doesn't have a lot of memory.
15) PDF Creator: PDF Creator
Adobe's PDF software is notoriously expensive, but PDF forge's alternative is available for free. It allows you to create PDFs (as well as JPG, TIFF, BMP, and other graphic files) from any program that is able to print.
16) Compression Utility: 7-Zip
If you ever need to e-mail large files, compression software can help you avoid problems with mailbox limits. 7-Zip can pack and unpack archive files with the most common file formats, and it offers a higher compression ratio than most alternatives.
17) Audio Editor: Audacity
Audacity makes it easy to record your own podcast, convert audio files from one format to another, mix sounds, and perform basic audio editing. With more than 56 million downloads, it's one of the most popular open-source applications, and it runs on both Linux and Windows, as well as OS X.
18) Music Player and Manager: aTunes
Much like a more well known "Tunes" program that also starts with a vowel, aTunes lets you play music, create playlists, view and edit tags, and rip CDS. And because it's Java-based, it runs on any platform.
19) Video player: VLC Media Player
The VLC Media Player lets you view DVDs, CDs, and streaming video, as well as listen to audio files. You can also use it as a server to stream your own video feeds. It runs on both Windows and Linux.
20) Graphics Editing: Inkscape
Similar to programs like Freehand, Draw, or Illustrator, Inkscape lets you create and edit vector-graphics. In other words, you can use it to create your own logo or simple drawings for a web site, but it doesn't edit photos.
21) Photo Editing: GIMP
The open-source answer to Photoshop, GIMP lets you retouch pictures, crop, adjust color, and much more. It supports multiple file formats, and as a bonus for laptops with limited hard drive space, you can set it to automatically compress photos.