Netbooks: Everything You Want In A Notebook, But Less?

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When AsusTek Computer Inc. first unveiled its Eee PC in late 2007, it was intended to be a sub-$300 device that could provide basic Internet access and productivity software in a very light form factor. Kids could use it. Travelers could stuff it in an airplane carry-on bag instead of lugging a second case for a notebook.

The market, including some high-profile bloggers, got its first look at the thing and went bananas. When Asus, Taipei, Taiwan, quickly sold out of its first generation of netbooks based on Intel Corp. processors, other manufacturers saw a new market taking off and didn't want to be left out. One of technology's newest product segments was born.

And that's when complexity began to set in. The simple, popular equation that the Eee PC first embodied has shifted dramatically in a very short amount of time, about a year. The netbook pipeline now includes everything from inexpensive, but adequate, Web access devices to what might be confused as cheapened-down notebooks. The Test Center has evaluated a number of netbooks over the past year and has seen several key trends begin to emerge:

  • Devices that have been preloaded with Ubuntu generally have come to market cheaper and score higher benchmarking results than similar systems preloaded with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP.
  • "Feature creep" has begun to show itself, with manufacturers stuffing more into netbooks, including biometrics, wide-screen displays, higher-performing Webcams and better acoustics.
  • Some of the earlier features of netbooks that drew the most complaints appear to be on their way to being phased out. Two manufacturers whose netbooks we've recently looked at—Hewlett-Packard Co. and Asus—have come to market with keyboards that are nearly full size, providing relief to weary typing fingers that have contended with Chiclet keys, non-standard keyboard configurations and, occasionally, cramps from uncomfortable typing.
  • Battery life in netbooks is rarely able to beat battery life in full-blown notebooks, defeating a large purpose of the new segment of mobile PCs—that they can be taken around and used remotely much more easily.
  • While VIA Technologies Inc., Taipei, Taiwan, initially was viewed as a primary beneficiary of the buildout of a netbook market, Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., has been very aggressive with its Atom processing platform—even though the Atom may actually be better geared for smartphones or household appliances than PCs.
  • Pricing is all over the map, to the point where some netbooks are priced higher than lower-end (but full-function) notebooks.
  • In the end, VARs may often find themselves having to explain to confused customers differences in performance, use patterns, pricing and life cycles, all with the industry at large not yet providing a clear definition of where netbooks stop and notebooks begin.

    What follows is a look at some of the netbooks we've evaluated in the Test Center lab over the past quarter. They all work as they're supposed to—they provide at least baseline functionality to write, access the Web and integrate with projectors for presentations, and all have significantly reduced performance compared to notebooks or desktop PCs and have a wide range in pricing.

    Dell Inspiron Mini 9

    The Dell Inc. Inspiron Mini 9 is a decent, nice-to-look-at, easy-to-carry netbook. It works as advertised. The unit the Test Center lab looked at was preloaded with Windows XP, built with an 8-GB SSD, a half-GB of memory and an Intel Atom processor at 1.6GHz. It rang up a score of 869 on Primate Labs' Geekbench 2—putting it on par with other netbooks we've looked at this year.

    Using the Test Center's standard battery-life test, which is to turn off all power-saving features and run a video from the hard drive until it shuts down, the Mini 9 ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes before it turned off. The 8.9-inch LCD was fine, as was the small keyboard, which is a little clunky but, frankly, that's the trade-off you make when you opt for a netbook in the first place. (And, if you can type on a BlackBerry or an iPhone, and see the screens on those devices, you shouldn't have a major protest with the Mini 9's LCD or keyboard.)

    It weighed in at just less than 2 pounds, 5 ounces.
    The Mini 9 grew a little warm after a couple of hours. While the keyboard and touchpad were fine, the bottom of the unit heated up to about 103 degrees—warmer than feels comfortable. It's not a deal-breaker, though.

    The real problem with the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, as is the problem with other netbooks in this class, is that it's not a full PC even though it looks to be in the same species. It's slower. Trying to do more than two things at once—like type a document on while listening to Internet radio—is really pushing the system's limits. The Mini 9 has a pretty nice built-in 1.3-megapixel Webcam. The problem: Activating that Webcam on Skype took 11 minutes. That's not a typo: 11 minutes.

    Many of us have become spoiled. High-end, dual-core or quad-core systems with 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM allow us the luxury of being inefficient. PCs with those hardware specifications can allow you to have 10 applications running at the same time, including a browser with 72 tabs open and music playing. While your boss might think that multitasking like that is efficient, it's really the PC that takes care of all the superfluous memory and other resources that you're consuming.

    With netbooks like the Mini 9, you're not allowed to be inefficient. Click on a browser and open two tabs, click open a word processor and the Mini 9 throws a warning at you that you're out of virtual memory. ("Two applications at a time, Buster, or we're shutting this whole thing down.") So you must learn to be efficient all over again: Open up and allow it to set cookies; make good use of bookmarking and cache in your Web browser; and if you're going to use multimedia, really, keep it to one application at a time.

    Round Rock, Texas-based Dell is now pricing the XP-based Inspiron Mini 9 at $399 (the Ubuntu Linux version is about $50 less).

    The Dell Mini 9, like many netbooks, is great to keep on a nightstand next to your bed, to throw in a bag for an overnight trip or to carry around on a college or office campus between classes or meetings. It won't replace a notebook. It won't even replace a smartphone. But for one task at a time, it'll work—even if you have to relearn how to use a PC.

    Asus N10Jc

    Asus should get credit for inventing the netbook space, as it was the first manufacturer to officially hit the market with its Eee PC in late 2007—and saw it take off in sales and become a smashing success.

    Since then, one manufacturer after another has raced to get to market with similar devices and get a piece of the action, while Asus has focused its efforts on building out its lineup. The company's N10Jc netbook features both higher performance than previous versions and—with street pricing between $630 and $680—a higher price tag as well.

    The Test Center had an opportunity to take a look at the N10Jc. The system came to us with an Intel Atom N270 chip at 1.60GHz, 1 GB of RAM and preloaded with Windows XP Home Edition Service Pack 2. Immediately, you have to notice the size of the system compared to previous Asus netbooks: It has a 10.2-inch screen and on our scales weighed in at 3 pounds, 8 ounces. That makes it bigger and heavier than other models.

    What do you get for $630 or so?

    You get a mobile PC that performs OK; it scored a Geekbench 2.1 rating of 888, which is on par with systems in its class. It also provides the option of boosting performance with an Nvidia Corp. GeForce 9300M graphics card and several software-based options for regular, "super" or gaming performance. Its screen is one of the best, brightest netbook displays the Test Center has ever seen and, combined with the graphics capability, makes movie viewing or delivering multimedia presentations (it also has a VGA port) a wonderful, top-notch experience.

    We ran our standard battery life test on the N10Jc. Turning off all power-saving options and running a video from its hard drive continuously until it shut off, the N10Jc ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes before stopping.

    For a consumer, the device seems fine but expensive. But Asus is billing this as a corporate netbook; examining it through the prism of business use requires a separate checklist. How portable is it? It's heavier than most netbooks, but its design, fit and finish make it as easy as carrying a textbook. Battery life is a drag, though, even with the capability of turning on power-saving options.
    Asus says the warranty goes a step beyond what we've seen for netbooks in that it provides accidental damage coverage. It's also one of the first netbooks we've seen with biometric security (in the form of a fingerprint reader as well as facial recognition), and it has an Express Card slot and a Webcam.

    It's fashionable with a glossy, gold- and chrome-colored clamshell with rounded corners. Its keyboard, at 10 inches, provides a nice, comfortable, full-size feel to it. At the vents, it runs a hair less than 90 degrees, which is noticeable but not uncomfortable.

    Were the N10Jc closer in price to previous netbooks, it would be a home run. Were it closer in performance to similarly priced notebooks, it would be great. But the device fits into an awkward place in the market that makes it difficult to recommend.

    HP Mini 2140 Notebook PC

    Netbooks continue pouring into the market at a brisk pace, and the market's leading notebook maker—Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif.—is making sure people know it's not sitting on the sidelines.

    The company's new HP Mini 2140 Notebook PC, unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is an aggressive entry into the space. HP provides a netbook with a number of key features that other manufacturers have had difficulty delivering: a nice, comfortable keyboard, decent performance and wide-screen viewing.

    In addition, HP brings the Mini 2140 to market below the $500 price point (listed at $499), ensuring it will fight and claw for every point of share in the mobile PC space even as it scales down to the netbook space.

    The Test Center reviewed a Mini 2140 that came to the lab loaded with Microsoft XP Home Edition, Service Pack 2 and built with an Intel Atom processor at 1.60GHz and 1 GB of RAM. The system also came with a 160-GB hard disk drive.

    Using Primate Labs' Geekbench 2.1 benchmarking software, the Mini 2140 scored 877—not the best-performing netbook we've seen but far from the slowest, either. We installed the six-cell battery that came with the system rather than the three-cell and ran our standard battery life test. Under this test, the six-cell battery lasted a full 5 hours almost to the second. That's among the best we've seen in this class.

    The six-cell battery, it should be noted, is designed to tilt the unit slightly up toward the display. That's not really obtrusive and, actually, the slight angle makes typing a little easier. HP lists the weight of the Mini 2140 as 2.6 pounds, but we found that it came to 2 pounds, 15 ounces with the six-cell in. That still makes it light and comfortable enough to carry around all day or slip into a carry-on bag for air travel.

    The keyboard is one of the areas where HP engineering makes a noticeable difference. Compared with other netbooks, the Mini 2140's 10-inch-wide keyboard is nice and comfortable and feels like a normal, "full" keyboard. It's not missing any shift keys, nor are any traditional English keys placed in a weird spot to make everything fit. HP says it's 92 percent of the size of a normal, QWERTY keyboard, but it's hard to notice the missing 8 percent.

    HP also added what it calls DuraKeys engineering: a clear coating over the keys to preserve them and keep the lettering from wearing over time. It also gives it nice feel. Since tiny, uncomfortable keyboards have been a major complaint of first-generation netbooks, HP's effort pushes it to the head of the class in this segment.

    The 10.1-inch, wide-screen LED screen is very bright and easy on the eyes (for someone with 20/20 vision) and makes moderate multitasking or movie viewing much easier than even displays that are just an inch smaller.

    Other features: Sound through its built-in speakers is fine, as is its built-in Webcam. Neither is overwhelming, but both are enough to get the job done on the go.

    There is one glitch: HP has preloaded Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2, but the system was unable to immediately log onto wireless networks that presented WPA2 encryption. The problem was solved by downloading and installing Microsoft's hot fix for that OS. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is an annoying step HP itself might have taken before shipping the systems.
    If HP and other vendors continue to improve netbooks at their current pace, netbooks could really start doing what they failed to do last year, which is eat into sales of full-blown notebooks.

    Regardless of the market positioning or overall trends, the HP Mini 2140 starts the company off in 2009 with a nice entry into the space and one that gets four out of five technical stars for its effort.

    Osram Sylvania g Netbook Meso

    Although traditionally known for its electrical and lighting products, Osram Sylvania Inc., Danvers, Mass., has also licensed its name to other manufacturers to expand its product lines. The latest entry is in the rapidly growing market of netbooks.

    Produced by Digital Gadgets, New York, which previously specialized in various mobile electronics and accessories, Sylvania's g Netbook Meso is similar in many ways to its more well-known competitors. Measuring 9 x 7 x 1.25 inches, it weighs approximately 2.2 pounds without the battery.

    Like the majority of netbooks currently available, the Meso is powered by the 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. Although standard with 512 MB of RAM, our test unit had 1 GB. Storage space is provided on an 80-GB, 5,400 rpm SATA hard drive.

    The small 8.9-inch LCD screen displays clear, 1,024 x 600 images, driven by a 64-GB Intel 945 Express Graphics chipset. A 0.3-megapixel Webcam is centered above the screen, which works well enough, but reviewers were a little disappointed (though not surprised) with the washed-out picture quality. The same can be said for the two speakers below the display, which produced surprisingly loud, but expected, tinny sound.

    As with most current netbooks, the Meso's keyboard is probably its biggest drawback. Small and cramped, the surface area of the keys is reduced even further with a beveling down the sides. While this does make accidentally tapping an adjacent key less likely, it also adds to the uncertainty of connecting with the correct one. In addition, the lack of a right-side shift key quickly became a pet peeve.

    Our test unit was loaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, but Windows XP Home Edition is available as an option. The interface of the operating system is nicely laid out and easy to navigate, even for Linux novices.

    Available in the Crayola-inspired colors of onyx, snow, solar and blossom (black, white, yellow and pink), the Meso supports Wi-Fi 802.11b/g and has a 10/100 Ethernet port. Other ports include three USB connections, a VGA out and a Multi Card reader, as well as one each of headphone/line-out and microphone/line-in mini-jacks.

    The four-cell battery is rated at 4 hours, and our standard battery test yielded a life of a little more than 3 hours. Charging the unit back to 100 percent, under the same conditions, took almost the same 3 hours.

    Using Primate Labs' Benchmarking utility Geekbench 2.1, the Meso scored a reputable 1,020. Although we've noticed that Linux systems tend to garner slightly elevated scores, as does the latest 2.1 version of Geekbench (vs. the 2.0), the unit's score is still the highest our lab has seen a netbook reach.

    Although it's available for just less than $300, the Sylvania g Netbook Meso has an MSRP of $399. Like most of the netbook contenders, the Meso won't likely become anyone's primary laptop. But for when space and time are limited, it is adequate for short bursts of use and is reasonably priced.

    The bottom line: Of all these vendors, HP has done what seems—to us—the best job of differentiation between netbook and notebook. The Mini 2140 provides reasonable performance, new engineering and features to eliminate first-generation netbook annoyances, and a sub-$500 price point that nicely avoids a big problem with feature creep. All of these netbooks are fine for limited purposes, with Osram Sylvania and Dell offering the most sensible combination of functionality and pricing. Asus, which will eternally get the credit for developing this space, seems to have been caught in midstride with its N10Jc and is just a hair out of step. We think there's a good chance that will change with Asus' next generation of devices and we look forward to putting it to the test.

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