2008
09.08

March of the Netbooks

Small, light and cheap, they’re great for school

You may have heard about Dell launching your new best friend late last week: the Mini 9. It’s the latest in a stream of “netbooks”, small, cheap laptops whose main purpose is to tap into the cloud” wherever and whenever you want. They’re small, light and cheap, well-suited to note-taking duties on-campus though unfit for much above that. One of these little buys won’t be your main computer, but it could certainly be a nice accessory.

So let’s compare the ones available now. All come either with their own flavor of Linux or with Windows XP (except for the HP MiniNote, which can be had… slowly… with Vista).

  1. The Asus Eee PC is probably the most well-known example of the netbook phenomenon. It has been available for the longest, starting with a seven-inch screen and a low-powered Celeron processor and working up to a 10-inch-screen model with both solid state and magnetic storage options. They’re the most widely available of any netbook, and with the new Intel Atom processor (which most other netbooks have) can last long enough on a charge to get through even the longest of school days. On the other hand, the higher-powered Eee PCs are more expensive, costing as much as $600, and the keyboard on the Eee PC is small enough that, on a 9-inch model I tried, it was impossible to touch-type. The Eee PC started off with Asus’ own version of Xandro Linux but has increasingly turned to Windows as the operating system of choice. Reviews can be found here.
  2. Sylvania, Everex and a few others have slapped the gOS operating system on a reference design from Via called the Nanobook. With a seven-inch screen, a hard disk drive and a tiny touchpad, it’s best to avoid these systems, despite their very low price, which can run around $300. If you don’t believe me, check this review.
  3. The HP MiniNote was HP’s answer to the Eee PC shortly after the Eee came out. The computer uses a Via processor and has a hard disk powered option. Its features mirror a standard laptop with a low-power processor more than they do a netbook, as does the price: the computer ranges from $500 to $800, a big premium over other models of similar size. However thee slow processor holds this computer, which can run either SuSe Linux or Windows Vista Business, behind when it comes to regular laptops, and the price premium may be just too much to deal with. For more information, here are a few reviews.
  4. The MSI Wind was heralded as the amazing next-generation netbook, and was the first one to include an Intel Atom processor, though the Asus Eee PC quickly followed suit. It has many of the regular-laptop-class features of the HP MiniNote, but has a 10″ screen and costs around $500. It comes with Windows XP, but Vista seems to run as well or better, something that can’t be said of most netbooks. On the other hand, battery life isn’t good and it’s hard to find the Wind to buy it. For more info, here’s a review of the Wind.
  5. Acer’s Aspire One is cheaper than any other Intel Atom-based netbook out there. It also has a few unique features, like dual SD card slots: one for quick card reading, the other to augment main storage for the system. It runs Linpus Linux Lite (say it three times fast) or Windows XP, and can be had with either a solid state disk or a hard drive. As a warning, the lowest-end $330 model only comes with a 3-cell battery, so battery life won’t be more than a few hours, especially if you want to, say, watch video on the unit. There is, however, a model with a 6-cell battery; it’s just more expensive. Here are some reviews of the unit.
  6. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9, with its mid-mounted function keys (but no F11 and F12) is the latest entrant into the Netbook market. It gets a good bit over three hours on a charge doing relatively heavy work, so its four-cell battery should hold out longer in lighter-use situations. The operating system, other than Windows XP, is a Dell-customized version of Ubuntu Linux, a more mainstream variant than the other manufacturers use, one that Dell has used with other, larger, computers before. The computer ranges in price from $350 to $500, depending on features added, and is the easiest to upgrade of all the netbooks. One more thing: you can get the lowest-end model for just $100 with purchase of a higher-end Dell laptop at the moment, though by the time you read this the promotion may have changed. The keyboard is small, and options on the system don’t get very high-end, but the Mini 9 seems to be a very promising entrant into the field. For a review, go here.

That’s it for the current lineup of netbooks. Expect Gateway to come out with one shortly, and Apple to sit on their hands for awhile. Then again, tomorrow Apple intros some new products, I’m told maybe something in this vein (bigger than the iPod touch) will surface….

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