Living with a netbook: The performance penalty

Living with a netbook: The performance penalty

Summary: No one claims that netbooks can match the performance of laptops that cost hundreds or even thousands more. The real question is whether the performance of a netbook is good enough.

TOPICS: Mobility, Hardware

No one claims that netbooks can match the performance of laptops that cost hundreds or even thousands more. The real question is whether the performance of a netbook is good enough.

Over the past few weeks, I've been doing some testing on five netbooks with 10-inch displays: the Acer Aspire One, HP Mini 2140, Lenovo IdeaPad S10, and Samsung N110 and N120. These five netbooks have nearly identical specs--1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of memory, Windows XP--and consequently they turned in nearly identical performance scores.

It's no surprise that they can't match the performance of a premium thin-and-light such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X301. But I also wondered how they would stack up against more direct competitors such as the HP Pavilion dv6 series, a mainstream laptop, and especially the Pavilion dv3, a low-cost 13-inch thin-and-light. Though these both cost more than netbooks, they still come in well under $1,000 and offer significantly more features.

There are several reasons why netbooks don't perform like notebooks. First, the Atom chip has a single processing core and it runs at a slower frequency (1.6GHz) than most mobile processors. (The exception would be some of Intel's low-voltage and ultra low-voltage chips, such as the 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400, used in relatively-expensive ultraportables.) Atom is also based on a simpler microarchitecture--it has about the same number of transistors as the Pentium 4 circa 2001--so it lacks many of the enhancements in later designs such as the Core microarchitecure. Second, netbooks top out at 1GB of memory, while the average PC has around 2.3GB of memory, and even low-priced laptops often include 3GB.

Compare this typical netbook configuration to a mainstream notebook such as the Pavilion dv6. You can get the dv6 for as little as $580 with an AMD Athlon X2 dual-core processor, but the retail model I used for comparison, the Pavilion dv6-1030us, has a 16-inch (1366x768) display, 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400, 4GB of memory, Intel GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics and a 320GB hard drive. At $750, it costs significantly more than a netbook, but it also offers a lot more. The Pavilion dv3z, a 13-inch thin-and-light, is closer to the netbooks in terms of portability, if not price. The $980 configuration used here included a 2.3GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 ZM-84, 4GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD3200 graphics and a 320GB hard drive. Recently HP seems to have shifted to an Intel-based configuration of the Pavilion dv3 which currently starts at $650 (after rebates) with a 2.0GHz Pentium T4200, 2GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive.

My first set of tests involved relatively large Excel 2007 spreadsheets performing tasks such as Monte Carlo simulations (used to determine pricing of stock options), pivot tables (for visualizing data), and other common arithmetic and statistical analysis functions. Some of them are custom tests and others were provided by Intel for use in benchmarking processors. On most tests, the netbooks took more than twice as long as the dv6-1030us and dv3z to complete the same calculations.

Multitasking is another area where the performance of netbooks pales next to notebooks. In this basic test, Word 2007 compares two versions of a large document in the background while PowerPoint 2007 saves a presentation as an XPS file, a Microsoft Office 2007 file format similar to Adobe's PDF. I've also run this test with other tasks, such as image editing and audio encoding, going on in the background, but in this case, it's unnecessary. The difference is already pretty clear. This lends some support to Microsoft's assertion that Windows 7 Starter Edition will only run three concurrent apps because netbooks don't have the muscle for heavy multitasking.

Finally I compared the audio encoding performance of netbooks to a premium ultraportable, the ThinkPad X301. The simple test measures the time it takes for iTunes to convert 20 audio files (a total of 527MB) from MP3 to AAC format. Despite its relatively high price ($2,000 and up), the ThinkPad X301 isn't an especially powerful laptop because of its low-voltage processor, the 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 and integrated graphics, but it still handily beats netbooks on this test. (By the way, the fastest system I've tested, a $999 Dell Studio XPS desktop with a Core i7 processor, was able to encode all 20 files in less than 10 minutes, compared with more than an hour for a netbook.)

In the past, I've also run some tests using Adobe Photoshop CS3 to auto-correct a batch of high-resolution images and convert them for use on the Web, as well as benchmarks such as CINEBENCH and POV-Ray that take advantage of multi-core processors and discrete GPUs. Netbooks aren't designed for these applications, of course, and I didn't even attempt to run these tests, but this gives you an idea of some of the limitations. Then again, you may be able to find workarounds for some tasks. For example, you can run Adobe Photoshop Elements on a netbook, or use an online photo editing package such as Picasa, Picnik or Photoshop Express, and these probably meet the needs of most users. But anything involving real 3D graphics or gaming is pretty much out.

Granted, these are all fairly intensive tasks, but they illustrate the real performance difference. More anecdotal testing is probably closer to typical netbook usage. I'm sure that all of these netbooks are a bit slower to boot up, shut down, and open and close applications, but not to the extent that I really noticed it during weeks of regular usage. I did, however, notice that it took netbooks longer to open large spreadsheets or Word documents. Aside from that, all of these netbooks felt sufficiently responsive on basic productivity tasks using Office 2007, as well as e-mail and Web browsing. They also handled standard-definition video using both Adobe Flash (YouTube, and Microsoft Silverlight (CBS Sports, NBC Olympics) just fine, but immediately choked on high-definition video. As far as editing video, technically netbooks can run entry-level editing packages such as Windows Movie Maker (included in Windows XP), Corel VideoStudio and Pinnacle Studio, but I wouldn't recommend it.

If you've already decided on a netbook, performance is a non-issue. Since nearly all netbooks use the same Intel platform, there is virtually no difference in performance. But if you are choosing between a netbook and a laptop--even a budget laptop--you should know there's a significant performance penalty. That's on top of all the other differences such as display size and other features.

Having said that, it's overstating the case to argue--as Intel does--that netbooks are for viewing and sharing content, while notebooks are for creating content. The reality is that the performance of netbooks is "good enough" for the documents, spreadsheets, blog posts and even standard YouTube clips that most users need to create or upload. That's one big reason for their surprising popularity.

Go back to intro: Living with a netbook: Toy or tiny notebook?

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Surprising popularity

    quote: That?s one big reason for their
    surprising popularity.

    I guess you are surprised, because you work in
    the stratosphere of "gimme the latest toy"
    gadget journalism.

    Out in the real world, people (aka Jane Public)
    run their PCs for years, mainly use them for
    real world tasks like mail, web stuff etc (what
    Intel called the content review).

    It's only you and other journos who are
    surprised by Netbooks popularity.

    Looking at the posts on here about Netbooks, I
    see the following:
    - Real people appreciate the ability to
    purchase an additional machine due to their low
    - They are bought for their real portability
    coupled with low cost, so the perceived risk of
    loss/theft/damage by such portability is

    As I have said before in posts, they are fit
    for purpose, and their purpose isn't to replace
    a desktop or high end laptop, why anyone would
    seriously consider editing video with a
    1024x600 display is beyond me. But the Wind
    clone I am writing on now is perfect for this,
    sitting and writing, away from home as I am

    • Agreed!!

      "I guess you are surprised, because you work in
      the stratosphere of 'gimme the latest toy'
      gadget journalism."

      Agreed. Totally agreed.

      I think it's also because ZDNet is partially a media company that they place sooooo much heavy emphasis on media editing.

      But the truth? Most people couldn't care less. Your average Joe doesn't edit media. Maybe the occasional photo touchup of family pics, but that's as far as most people get. Nobody I know of really wants to edit video or audio.
      • I do.

        I do know quite a few people who are into editing audio, video and image files. OTOH, I know most of them through helping them set up and maintain their computers. With quite a bit of word of mouth reference being done, this likely gives me more contact with a relatively small group than the average joe. This may skew my perception of how people use their computers but I do try to allow for this.

        Hmmm... some of the specs for the last system I setup. 8 cores, 16GB RAM, 4 TB external (6 x 1TB drives in a RAID 6 configuration), 2TB internal, Intuos tablet, 30" monitor, etc.

        The owner says the system will pay for itself in about 6-9 months with the time she'll save.

        It skews your perception almost as badly as hanging with hard core gamers.
    • Agree 100% (NT)

      Agree 100% (NT)
  • I'm confused!?!

    "The reality is that the performance of netbooks is ?good enough? for the documents, spreadsheets, blog posts and even standard YouTube clips that most users need to create or upload."

    Then why do you need XP and why would you want to run max 3 concurrent applications on Windows 7?

    I don't get it. First we here about the Linux netbook returns which turned out to be bogus, then we here how customers want XP because they want to run all their Windows apps. and now you're telling us that you can't even decently run those apps.

    I don't get this!?!

    P.S: A cookie to anyone who can guess why netbooks are capped at 1gb ram.
  • Top Out At 1GB?

    "Second, netbooks top out at 1GB of memory . . ."


    Uhm, maybe the machines you tested top out at 1GB. However, my Dell Mini 9 with 2GB begs to differ, and probably runs quite a bit more smoothly than those machines tested here as a result.

    Granted, I didn't get this thing for the screaming performance, so much as to have something cheap I can toss in my bag to hit the net, do a little writing, watch the occasional in-flight movie, and keep a few small client databases handy. Basically, stuff I could largely do with a handheld, except in a form factor that is more usable, yet still portable. But that extra gig does seem to make a difference, even with these basic tasks, keeping everything seamless and smooth. Heck, for grins and giggles, along the lines of your Adobe CS3 test, I even installed City of Heroes on it. It required dropping the video settings to Performance, but it actually ran acceptably once this was done, though the small screen made it too much of a eye-squint experience to be practical.
    • Same here. My 2GB Dell Mini 9 zips along nicely.

      32GB STEC SSD, 2GB RAM, Windows 7 RC, virtual memory turned off. 2GB Sandisk Extreme III SD card in the slot (for temp files, downloads etc).
    • Top Out At 1GB?

      M$oft charge less for Windows XP installed on netbooks than they do for XP on laptops. They don't want to cannibalize their laptop Windows market, so they stipulate in the license that the PC manufacturers have to cripple performance by only supplying Windows XP on netbooks with a maximum RAM size of 1GB.

      Seriously... for what people *want* to do with netbooks, Ubuntu isn't that difficult to learn, why go with a half-hearted effort from Microsoft?
    • MS mandates 1 Gig max.

      Their "netbook rules". You can purchase the Dell and HP Linux models with 2 gig, but you can't select more than 1 gig at purchase times due to MS's restrictions if you choose XP.

      • Oh, Sure . . .

        Oh, NOW you're going to start listening to what Microsoft tells you that you can and can't do . . . ;)

        Seriously, though, if the author of this article had said that netbooks purchased with a Windows operating system could only be sold with a maximum of 1GB, then, absolutely, I'd have no argument there. No such differentiation was made, though, as if this was a hardware limitation of all netbooks, or some ambiguous standards board someplace said that, if it has more than 1GB, it has to be reclassified as some other kind of device, and not a netbook. Granted, with how Dell and others seem to be falling lock-step in with Microsoft's imposing of their own ideas for a netbook "standard" -- see Dell Mini 10m with its SMT memory and no expansion slot for more -- it may not be long before this does BECOME true. (How many Microsoft employees does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None! They just make darkness the new standard.)

        For now, though, the assertion that netbooks are limited to 1GB, as a hardware standard, is false, as there are quite a few out there running with more than this, no matter what Microsoft says.
      • 1gb?

        Then why does my S10-2 have 2gb?

    • 1.5gb

      My Acer Aspire One came with 1.5gb of RAM even though it says 1gb on the box. Nice surprise.

      Like others, I didn't buy it to do powerhouse applications on a tiny screen. It's for field email, browsing, note taking, map work, auxiliary storage of photos to offload/backup the camera card, and so on. For $250 this is a bargain!
    • Not maxed at 1GB

      All of the netbooks I've looked at can be upgraded to 2GB. Hard drives can be upgraded too.

      I want a netbook because of its size. I'll probably push it to its limits, but I know I'll use a smaller netbook more than a larger laptop. While my PC is processing edited videos or something like that, a netbook will still fit on my desk, and I won't have to clear things out of the way. Plus, my monitor has two inputs - DVI and VGA. My PC uses the DVI. Hook up the netbook to VGA and switch the input on my monitor.

  • Why not express the netbook performance in calendar years?

    What I mean by this is how many years ago would a mainstream machine's performance be matched by current netbooks. It seems that if you look at it this way netbooks might be equivalent to mainstream notebook of about 6-7 years ago.

    I recall a computer mag once screaming "RED HOT BARNBURNER" when describing a 33MHz based IBM desktop. Of course that was some time ago.
    • Smartsuite user

      I have been looking for PCs with XP since smartsuite from Lotus/IBM does not work on Vista.
      If I am happy with a pentium IV or a celeron, would I see a netbook faster or slower?.
      Smartsuite user
      • Hmmmm....

        Given the type of systems you seem to be currently happy with, you'd find the netbook faster.

        As usual, YMMV.
  • I use mine...

    ...primarily as a Terminal Server client, so performance is a non-issue. The TS client is an extremely light weight application.

    So performance is not an issue.
  • My 8 yrs old 600 mhz Athlon is still working fine with XP....

    So I don't see why new 1.4 Ghz netbook is't.
  • I see limited but useful uses for these devices.....

    These devices can be very useful has a troubleshooting and testing tool, but I don't see them as being very useful for general purpose computing.
    linux for me
  • Oh I'm Really Surprised By These Numbers


    As for 3 concurrent apps, stop talking manure and justifying MS's decision to offer a knee capped OS as not all apps have the requirements of a long range weather forecasting model.
    Alan Smithie