Has the netbook had its day?

With Apple's iPad making its presence felt in homes and offices, it's time to ask the question: who needs a netbook?

Netbooks originally addressed the need for affordable and highly portable devices aimed at basic computing — email, web surfing and light productivity work. Some would argue that Apple's iPad now fills that niche, and with Apple selling two million units in the first two months since launch, it's worth asking whether netbooks are still relevant.

The netbook phenomenon kicked off in October 2007 with the launch of the ASUS Eee PC 701, a 7in., 900MHz Celeron-M-based system weighing 920g and costing £219

To help shed a little light on this question, we asked Asus, Dell and Acer to supply us with three netbooks — at the high-end, mid-range and low end respectively — to spend some time with and discover whether any or all of them remain suited to that universal, go-everywhere computer role.

We define a netbook as a device that uses an Intel Atom or equivalent processor, has a screen no bigger than 12in., delivers extended (>4h) battery life and costs no more than £400 (inc. VAT). Note that the Apple iPad costs between £429 and £699 (inc. VAT) depending on configuration.

Low end
Acer Aspire One AOD250-0Bw

Price: £210.97 (inc. VAT)

With its white lid, Acer's Aspire One D250 echoes the style of Apple's white notebooks — not entirely successfully, but well enough. You can order it in black, red and blue too.

Built around a 1.6GHz Atom N270 and 1GB of RAM, the slim 2.54cm-thick Aspire One D250 runs Windows XP Home from a conventional 160GB hard disk and uses the integrated GMA 950 graphics in the Mobile Intel 945GSE chipset.

Despite its entry-level specification, Acer claims only 3.15 hours' battery life for the Aspire One D250. This is down to its use of a small three-cell 2,200mAh battery, presumably to keep the weight down to 1.18kg. Bigger 6-cell batteries are available that boost battery life to 6h (4,400mAh) or 7.5h (5,200mAh), but you'll have to accept some extra bulk and weight (1.27kg).

The Aspire One D250's 10.1in. high-brightness (200-nit) display offers an adequate 1,024-by-600-pixel resolution, while its LED backlight contributes a degree of power economy.

One consequence of this system's small form factor is a cramped (89 percent of standard size) keyboard whose Fn key is annoyingly placed to the right of the bottom left-hand Ctrl key. There's a two-button touchpad that supports circular motion scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and page flip.

The 10.1in. Aspire One D250, which comes in white, black, red or blue, has an 89-percent-of-standard-size keyboard and weighs 1.18kg with a 3-cell battery

Despite some limitations, the Aspire One D250 offers a good degree of connectivity, with three USB 2.0 ports, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) with a hard switch, optional Bluetooth (2.0+EDR), optional HSPA mobile broadband (7.2Mbps down, 2Mbps up) and a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port. There's also a VGA-resolution webcam and a multi-format flash card reader.

The Aspire One D250 comes with a one-year international traveller's warranty.

Mid-range
Dell Inspiron Mini 10
Price: £329 (inc. VAT)

Dell's Inspiron Mini 10 tries to shake off the conventional clamshell appearance with funky colour schemes — it comes in white, black, red, blue, pink, green and purple — and a design that sets the screen hinge a couple of centimetres in from the back of the base.

The bright red screen housing of our review sample encases a 10.1in. 'HD' (1,366-by-768-pixel) display. This is offset by a white base, making the system look a bit like a 1950s tea-tray. Inside is a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450, the NM10 Express chipset and 1GB of RAM. Storage is provided by a 250GB Seagate hard disk spinning at 5,400rpm. The Mini 10 comes preloaded with the netbook-oriented Windows 7 Starter.

The 1.25kg Mini 10 has three USB 2.0 ports, VGA-out, a 1.3-megapixel webcam, plus 10/100Mbps Ethernet and a pair analogue audio jacks. We did miss charging and wireless indicators though — the latter is useful when you're out and about, as switching off unnecessary radios boosts battery life. You get Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) as standard, with mobile broadband (Dell Wireless 5540) a £100 option.

You can get the Inspiron Mini 10 with a 3-cell or 6-cell battery, the system weighing 1.25kg and 1.37kg with the respective options. Dell makes no battery life claims, but our colleagues at CNET US recorded an impressive 7.65 hours in their video playback battery drain test with the 6-cell battery (note, though, that this was with a lower-resolution 1,024-by-600-pixel display).

The Inspiron Mini 10 has a good-sized keyboard with plenty of feel and key travel, although we dislike the Ctrl key's location in the bottom left-hand corner, where most other notebooks site the Fn key.

The 10.1in. Dell Inspiron Mini 10, which comes in a choice of seven colours, has a decent-sized 'chiclet'-style keyboard and weighs 1.25kg with a 3-cell battery, rising to 1.37kg with the bigger 6-cell battery

Compared to the cheaper and lighter Acer Aspire One D250, the 2.68cm-thick Mini 10 feels relatively bulky and heavy. Other than that, it's reasonably nippy, expecially considering it uses the Intel GMA 3150 graphics module that's integrated in the Atom N450 processor package to drive its high-resolution 10in. screen.

The Inspiron Mini 10 comes with a one-year warranty as standard, which you can extend to two years for £19 or three years for £29.

High-end
ASUS EEE PC 1201N
Price: £383.83

A glossy black case and screen give the otherwise conventional ASUS Eee PC 1201N an upmarket feel, despite its tendency to accumulate fingerprints. It's bigger than both the Acer Aspire One D250 and the Dell Inspiron Mini 10, thanks to its 12.1in. 1,366-by-768-pixel screen. In fact, at 29.6cm wide by 20.8cm deep by 3.33cm at its thickest and 1.4kg, it could pass for an ultraportable notebook for size and weight. You won't get one at this price though.

The 1201N is powerful for a netbook, driven by a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Atom N330 coupled to 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard disk. Another bonus is the discrete Nvidia Ion graphics subsystem. The operating system is Windows 7 Home Premium.

Wireless connectivity runs to Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and Bluetooth, but there's no mobile broadband option. You get three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and VGA out, a VGA-resolution webcam, plus 10/100Mbps Ethernet and a pair of analogue audio jacks. For storage expansion, there's a reader for SD-compatible flash cards.

Like the Dell Inspiron Mini 10, the Eee PC 1201N has a 'chiclet'-style keyboard that's pretty comfortable to use. The Ctrl key is in the bottom left corner of the keyboard with Fn to its right, but the keyboard itself offers a good level of tactile feedback. The touchpad is flush with the wrist-rest area, and uses small bumps to distinguish the live area from the otherwise smooth surface.

The battery on the Eee PC 1201N is an impressive-sounding 6-cell, 5,600mAh unit, for which ASUS claims 5 hours' life. However, in CNET US's (relatively demanding) video playback test, the system managed just 3.42h. This is not too surprising, given the 1201N's dual-core CPU, high-resolution screen and discrete graphics subsystem.

The 12.1in. ASUS Eee PC 1201N, which comes in black or silver, has a comfortable 'chiclet'-style keyboard and weighs 1.4kg with its 6-cell battery

Thanks to its high specification, the Eee PC 1201N is as much a lightweight multimedia/gaming system as a personal productivity tool. And despite the inevitable hit on battery life, it's worth the extra cost. Whether this notebook still conforms to the original idea of a netbook is a moot point.

Conclusion
All three of the netbooks we examined offer desirable features — the Acer Aspire One's light weight, the Dell Mini 10's HDMI port and mobile broadband option, and the ASUS Eee 1201N's high-performance graphics, for example. All come in under £400, with the cheapest (Acer Aspire One D250) costing just over £200. Of course, there are many other netbooks available, but these are representative of the range of functionality on offer.

If your priority is portability, you'd have to plump for the Acer Aspire One D250, despite its use of the ageing Windows XP (which Microsoft plans to stop updating in 2014). Performance fans will opt for the heavier ASUS Eee PC 1201N, although you might be tempted to pay a little more and buy a full-blown ultraportable notebook. The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 is the most visually striking of the three netbooks, and its main claim to fame is very decent 7+-hour battery life from its 6-cell battery (see performance and battery life figures from CNET US below).

In terms of value for money, the Aspire One is clearly the winner — but beware its poor battery life with a 3-cell battery. If performance is your main concern, buy the Eee PC 1201N. And if battery life is paramount, the Dell Mini 10 is your best bet.

So, do you need an iPad? Any of these machines will do just fine as a 'sofa computer': they have better connectivity than the iPad, you can load a vastly wider range of applications, you can fit new batteries and other accessories to your requirements, and they're cheaper. Enough said.

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