The biggest surprise of 2008 was the arrival of netbooks. Asus was the first in the pool with its Eee PC, and after some initial hesitation, the big guys were forced to jump in as well. Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo are all among a long list of companies now selling netbooks.
In terms of size and weight, netbooks aren't really new--we used to call them sub-notebooks. The difference is that subnotebooks cost more--sometimes a lot more--than a typical notebook, while netbooks typically start around $400. Two things helped make this happen: Intel launched the tiny and inexpensive Atom processor, and Microsoft decided to keep Windows XP around at a cut-rate price. Put it together and netbooks are suddenly a hit with an increasingly mobile population. Already this year more than 6 million netbooks have been shipped, according to market researcher Gartner.
Since the definition of a netbook remains a bit fuzzy, I want to clarify what's eligible for my shopping list. First, I'm only including models with displays that are 10-inches or less. I know, there are 12-inch netbooks out there, but for that price most users will be much better off with a mainstream notebook. All of these picks are based on an Intel Atom processor because, well, that's all there is--AMD doesn't have a netbook solution and Via's new Nano will most likely be relegated to smaller brands in Asia. Some models offer small solid-state disks (SSDs), but most users will be better off with a good, old hard drive. Similarly, most customers have opted for Windows XP over various flavors of Linux.HP Mini 1000
HP's first foray into netbooks, the 2133 Mini-Note, was a mixed bag. It looked great and boasted the best keyboard in its class, but HP built it around an older Via processor that hobbled performance. It was only a matter of time before HP fell back into the arms of Intel, and the result is the HP Mini 1000--same great design, better performance. It's too bad that HP dropped the sleek metal case for a run-of-the-mill plastic one, but it does trim the weight down to 2.5 pounds.
The Mini 1000 starts at $400 with an 8.9-inch LED-backlit display (1,024x600), 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 8GB SSD, three-cell battery and Windows XP Home Edition. HP is currently offering a free upgrade to 1GB of memory--which is a no-brainer--but I'd also recommend the 10.2-inch display and the 60GB hard drive, which together add $100 to the cost of the netbook. HP will soon start selling a Vivienne Tam Edition of the Mini 1000, and in January, it plans to release a version with Linux using an HP-designed MIE (Mobile Internet Experience) interface.Acer Aspire One
The aptly-named Acer Aspire One may well be the one for many customers with its attractive, functional design, solid performance, and great features for the price. Its 8.9-inch LED-backlit display (1,024x600) hits the sweet spot for netbooks, and the Aspire One starts at just $329 with the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 512MB of memory, an 8GB SSD and Linux. But for only $20 more, you can get 1GB of memory, a 120GB hard drive and Windows XP Home Edition. Step up to $400 and you get a 160GB hard drive and a six-cell battery good for up to 5.5 hours, according to Acer.
In addition to the usual ports, Acer includes a multi-format card reader, which is handy for quickly transferring digital photos on the road. All of this in a sleek, good-looking case that is actually thinner and lighter than many other 8.9-inch netbooks including the Asus Eee PC 910 and Dell Mini 9. The only major strike against the Aspire One is that it lacks both Bluetooth, for tethering with your cell phone, and an Express Card slot for a wireless modem, which limits your options for mobile broadband access, though it does come with integrated 802.11b/g.Lenovo IdeaPad S10
Lenovo was a little late to the game--its first netbook, the IdeaPad S10, didn't ship until late September--but it was worth the wait with its simple design, thin profile and decent keyboard. The ExpressCard slot is also a nice touch since it means you can easily add a mobile broadband modem. All configurations include a 10.2-inch display (1,024x600), 1.6GHz Atom N270 and Windows XP Home Edition.
The IdeaPad S10 starts at $400 with 512MB of memory and an 80GB hard drive. You can choose more memory or a larger hard drive--as well as the color of the case--but that's about it. Lenovo doesn't offer an SSD or Linux--though most won't miss either--and the battery life is only a little more than two hours, which is typical for a netbook with a three-cell battery, but there's little to complain about with this nicely-equipped netbook.Dell Inspiron Mini 9
Dell's first netbook is based on a smaller, 8.9-inch display but with the same resolution of 1,024x600 pixels. (Dell now offers a version with a 12-inch display, the Inspiron Mini 12, as well) and the usual 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270. The Inspiron Mini 9 starts at a very aggressive price of $350, but this configuration includes only 512MB of memory, a 4GB SSD and Ubuntu, a Linux distribution. A version with a 16GB SSD and Windows XP Home Edition, which currently sells for $439 direct, is a better choice for most users.
Oddly, Dell doesn't offer any hard drive options on the Mini 9, perhaps to draw a clear distinction with its Inspiron laptops--after all, the 15-inch Inspiron 1525 starts at $479. The design of the Mini 9 isn't going to stop traffic, but it is highly functional. It has all the ports you'd expect and the keyboard is second only to that of the HP Mini 1000. In short, it's exactly the sort of solid netbook you'd expect from Dell.Asus Eee PC 901
Since it first created the category, Asus has cranked out so many netbooks, in so many different sizes, and at some many different prices that it's become hard to tell what to buy. You can still find the Asus Eee PC 4G on Amazon.com for as little as $250, while the sleek, new Eee PC S101 comes in at $700. But the current sweet spot is the Eee PC 901. Like the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, the Eee PC 901 is built around an 8.9-inch display (1,024x600) and, of course, the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 (the older, but similar, Eee PC 900, used a 900MHz Intel Celeron M).
There are two basic models: one has a 12GB SSD and Windows XP Home Edition and the other has a 20GB SSD and a Linux-based operating system. Both include 1GB of memory and come in either white or black. Though it weighs just 2.4 pounds, the Eee PC S901 has a six-cell battery that is good for up to 8 hours under Windows XP. The keyboard isn't as large and comfortable as those of the HP Mini 1000 and Dell Mini 9--it's more like one you'd see on an ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) than a laptop--but that's the price you pay for a system this small.