Living with a netbook: Toy or tiny notebook?

Living with a netbook: Toy or tiny notebook?

Summary: There is no denying the popularity of netbooks, but there's still much debate about who's buying them and for what purpose. Netbooks were conceived for emerging markets--along the lines of the OLPC's XO laptop and Intel's Classmate PC--but they turned out to be more popular in developed countries.

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There is no denying the popularity of netbooks, but there's still much debate about who's buying them and for what purpose. Netbooks were conceived for emerging markets--along the lines of the OLPC's XO laptop and Intel's Classmate PC--but they turned out to be more popular in developed countries. More recently, Intel has downplayed them as "toys" that may complement, but won't cannibalize, real PCs. Still, as netbooks become more capable, it's almost certain that some consumers are choosing them over pricier ultraportables.

Over the past few weeks, I've been trying out five netbooks with 10-inch displays, the Acer Aspire One, HP Mini 2140, Lenovo IdeaPad S10, and Samsung N110 and N120. Some of these have been available for some time; others such as the Samsung N110 and N120 are new. Lenovo just announced an updated IdeaPad S10-2, which is thinner and has a slightly larger keyboard, but has the same basic specs.

I'm not going to write separate reviews of each netbook--most of them have been widely reviewed and I'll include links to some of these. I'm more interested in how netbooks compare to notebooks in real-world use. What's it like to use them for extended periods? How much performance do you give up? And what features are missing? Over the next couple of days, I'll post my thoughts on the design, performance and features of these netbooks.

Though netbooks have only been around for a little more than a year, they've changed drastically since Asus announced the Eee PC in June 2007. The original Eee PC had a 7-inch display, a low-voltage Intel Celeron M processor, 512MB of memory, 2GB of flash storage and Linux. Asus planned to sell it for $199, but the final version ended up costing significantly more.

Nowadays nearly all netbooks use Intel's 1.6GHz Atom N270 paired with Intel's 945GSE Express Chipset with integrated graphics. Some notable exceptions include the Samsung NC20, the only netbook from a major computer company that uses Via's Nano chip, and the Sony VAIO P series and Dell Inspiron Mini 10, which use Atom Z-series chips (this week Dell released an updated Mini 10 with the Atom N270). Most netbooks come 1GB of memory and the tiny SSDs have been replaced by more practical 120- or 160GB hard drives.

While Linux is still an option on many netbooks, the market has settled on Windows (Microsoft says more than 96 percent of netbooks now use Windows). There are a couple of reasons for this. First, customers had trouble adjusting to Linux and return rates were high. Second, when Microsoft realized Vista was a poor fit for netbooks, it dusted off Windows XP and made it available at a very low price--as low as $15 according to one report--eliminating one of the big advantages of Linux.

All of these changes have resulted in netbooks that look and act a lot more like notebooks than the original Eee PC. The large displays have sufficient resolution to properly display Web pages and productivity applications. The keyboards are nearly full-size and most companies have done away with the tiny, odd-shaped keys that made them frustrating to use. The hard drives provide room for most digital photo and music collections. And Windows XP is compatible with most software and peripherals.

Not surprisingly, sales of netbooks have grown fast. Here's a slide from Intel CEO Paul Otellini's presentation yesterday at the company's annual Investor Meeting that puts netbook growth in perspective:

But just because a netbook looks like a notebook, doesn't mean it performs like one. Even when compared to relatively inexpensive laptops, netbooks pale in terms of performance. For example, Excel tasks that typically took 30 seconds to about 1 minute on the mainstream HP Pavilion dv6t took 2.5 to 3.5 times longer on the netbooks. (The dv6t starts at $650 with a 16-inch display, 2.0GHz Core2 Duo T6400, 2GB, Intel GMA 4500MHD and 160GB hard drive.) Even the HP Pavilion dv3z, a 13-inch thin-and-light that costs about $730 with a 2.3GHz AMD Turion X2, finished these tasks in about half the time.

The differences are even more dramatic when multi-tasking, and highly-intensive tasks such as huge spreadsheets, HD video playback and video editing, and 3D gaming are not feasible at all. Incidentally there's virtually no difference in performance among netbooks, which is what you'd expect since they share the same components. I'll post more details on my test results separately. The point is that netbooks are fine for basic communications and productivity tasks, but there's a real difference in performance versus a true notebook.

Though most netbooks share the same specs and performance today, that will soon change. Intel will reportedly release a new Atom processor and chipset in September. Acer, HP, Dell and others are experimenting with netbooks based on ARM processors using Linux-based operating systems such as Google's Android. Despite Intel's insistence that netbooks have 10-inch or smaller displays, Dell already sells a 12-inch netbook, and Acer and Asus have plans to offer 11.6-inch models. These will compete with new, low-cost 12- and 13-inch laptops using AMD's Athlon Neo or Intel's CULV (Consumer Ultra Low-Voltage) chips. Finally, before year-end, Microsoft will release Windows 7, which includes a version for netbooks. The result of all of this will be more choice in terms of price, features and performance in both netbooks and ultraportables in the second half of this year.

Topics: Hardware, Intel, Laptops, Mobility

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  • I guess they are OK

    With most Windows Based Netbooks being in the $350 area I do not see any advantage of a netbook other than size. Sure you can get a nice light 10" screen netbook, but expect to only do light duty. After all the name Netbook came about because their focus was Internet and Internet based applications. I know that they are popular and I think a lot of that has to do with the "cuteness" factor, but I know many teachers in my organization that bought one thinking it was a Notebook/Laptop and were very disappointed with the performance and lack of features and when they found out they could get a full featured notebook for less than $100 more in some cases they were happy to go that route. Yeah those notebooks are a couple pounds heavier but they have a ROM drive, Media Readers, much better performance, and despite the extra weight a 14" screen is much better than a 10" screen.

    On the same note I know some people that bought it for the sole purpous to watch internet and downloaded movie clips while traveling. I guess to each is own but having used these Netbooks I find them to be slow, underpowered/Underfeatured, and not worth the minimal cost savings in the long run. Even running less intense applications like MS OFfice perform terribly. Also we buy our laptops in bulk and to us Warranty is very important so I look at it this way:

    10" Netbook with 3 year warranty is about $550
    1.6Ghz Atom
    1GB Ram
    16GB SSD or 80 - 120GB Sata HDD

    or

    14" Notebook with 14" Screen with 5 year warranty is about $750
    1.8 - 2.0Ghz Core 2 Duo
    2 - 3GB Ram
    80 - 160GB Hard Drive
    DVD-RW Drive
    Media Reader
    Web Cam

    These are the prices we got quoted to replace our laptop carts because My boss wanted netbooks becuase he felt he could save a lot of money. Sure you can save a couple hundred dollars initially, but its not worth the performance/feature loss. Not to mention a big bulk of that $200 increase is the warranty for 5 total years.
    bobiroc
    • I've had my HP Mini 1000 for ...

      6 months now. It came with XP but now dual boots between OS X and Windows 7. I upgraded the memory from 1gb to 2gb, and can run pretty intensive apps like Camtasia, Dreamweaver, etc. I don't have any issues with those apps.

      Also, most come with a media card reader and built in web cam. The only thing I am giving up is the DVD drive (I use an external when I need it) and the weight! Fits perfectly on the desk in my local college and the battery life runs circles around the "full fledged" notebooks that my classmates have!

      Check it out at: http://Blog.EdTheComputerWizard.com
      EdNetman
      • OSX on an HP?

        How did you do that legally? Hey to each is own, but the Dell's, Acers, Asus EEPCs and HP netbooks I have tried and let others use seemed to suck. Of course I am comparing them to a regular notebook with a Dual Core and more ram or a desktop. Also I would that the small screen and keyboard would be crampy. But eh.. I guess thats me. I much rather through a regular notebook in a back pack and have a little extra weight then strain my eyes and hands and work on a slower machine.
        bobiroc
        • OSX on a netbook

          ZDNet's Jason O'Grady has been running it for a while and blogging about it here. The latest article is here:
          http://blogs.zdnet.com/Apple/?p=3925

          As far as netbooks in general, it just depends on your needs. For me, even a standard notebook PC won't meet all my needs, at least in the price range you mentioned, so I have multiple systems (desktops, a laptop, and a netbook).

          I took the netbook on my last trip and it was great - I could check email, look up information on the 'net, transfer photos from my camera (my netbook has a built-in SD reader), and even watch videos (just not in HD). All that and it is small and light enough that I just threw it into my carry-on without a separate case, so it was very convenient.

          Could it be the only computer for some people? Probably, but maybe not everyone. It doesn't mean that they don't have a use, though.
          brble
    • I can't put my aspire one down!

      Stop whining about performance. I ran God of war in wine on fedora. It came with Xp, guess what I did to that. Intentionally tortured to disrepair. Then I foramtted the entire hard disk 8 times over. THEN, I installed fedora linux. By the way, fedora seems to be able to use everything in this squeak-book out of the box. Exept the switch and light on the wifi module. But who cares about that anyway. Unless you are stealing the neighbor's wifi, you should not need the light. As far as screen and keyboard, I know not everyone can see this well, but I can see each pixel from three feet away. I developed a weird typing technique throughout my life, so I always look, but I hardly ever make mistakes, and I'm not exactly slow either.
      Subsentient
      • Nice second laptop

        My Aspire One is almost always on when I am awake for browing news. Now, I only use my regular laptop for powerful apps to get things done quickly. "Little" is now my car gps with a bigger screen, goes all around the house with me so I can watch videos laying on the bed or recliner if I don't care about having great sound or video at the moment, or take it to the kitchen to access my networked hard drive loaded with recipes. We don't need a computer in each room or to have a 6 pound heat producing laptop on our laps. I assume it uses less electricity so is more green. Each BOINC computer I ran full time raised my electricity bill by at least $30. Little won't have that job but it does have its place in my life. My cat isn't so impressed with the youtube animal videos as on the big screen, however. I saw her trying to figure out how to use the larger laptop once when she was bored, but I have a hard time getting her to watch chickadees on the little screen.
        daphni3
      • Finally a Linux troll said it...

        [i]"By the way, fedora seems to be able to use everything in this squeak-book out of the box. Exept the switch and light on the wifi module."[/i]

        Very nice, pay $200-$400 for a netbook only to have parts of it not work BECAUSE you chose linux. Its about time a linux troll confessed this - Linux just isnt appropriate for the desktop or netbook apparently. You lose functionality.
        JT82
        • @ JT82, YALT ('Yet Another Linux Troll')

          <a href="http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-13616-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=64518&messageID=1203134" target="_self">see below</a>

          ('^o^')
          <br>
          n0neXn0ne
        • Don't generalize...

          There are lots of linux distro around. All the hardwares of my acer aspire one are fully functional in ubuntu netbook remix (jaunty).
          chagiadan
        • At least he's honest..

          You prolly never even used Linux.
          Wintel BSOD
        • Lose functionality?

          You lose functionality when you put big bloated crappy Windows on a small machine. You GAIN functionality with Unix.
          jdieter2
          • Funtionality

            Out of the box XP:
            No support for my USB/Serail cable
            No SSH client
            No AV Scanner
            XP Home (As shipped on Acer AspireOne) cannot join a windows domain.
            No X11 server
            No support for ext3/or HFS (Yes I have a mac to) file systems.
            No reskinable or completely replaceable GUI.
            No VNC Client or server

            With Ubuntu - um, I have to keep an SD card in the slot when I boot, and that is about the only issue I have.

            Loss of functionality depends on what function you need.
            chromeronin
          • A lot of Winbloze fanboys hate netbooks...

            ...because it can't run their beloved POS bloatware crap Vista.

            It's an almost ideal machine to run Linux on, so they denigrate it by calling it a toy or whatnot.
            Wintel BSOD
        • Are you clueless?

          The WiFi itself works fine. (There is a signal
          indicator in the status bar) So WHAT if the
          tiny little LED in the bottom right corner
          doesn't "light up" when you're connected.) I
          also loaded Fedora on an Acer Aspire One 10" (I
          did not feel like getting XP'd on) and have
          been very happy with it. The 7 1/2 hr battery
          life is one of the big factors I like. If Acer
          had sold the Aspire One with a 6 cell battery
          and Linux like they ANNOUNCED they were going
          to I would have bought one - strangely that
          particular model never materialized... Linux
          users are usually not "dumb enough" to pay more
          for the same computer with a 3 cell battery
          than a 6 cell battery since we're used to
          deleting Windows and installing our own
          software anyway... I don't know what kind of
          shady back-room dealing went on for Microsoft
          to get OEMs to "de-emphasize" linux
          availability but the facts remain that under-
          powered netbook computers are generally much
          more usable with Linux than Windows.
          wonderbored
  • Of course they aren't full powered notebooks

    I bought a HP Mini 1035NR and paid $400 without an extended warranty.

    With only a 60GB hard drive and 2.5 hours of battery time it's got pretty lousy specs, even by netbook standards. It does run XP so in a pinch I can load nearly anything I want, plus it has USB plus an SD card slot.

    But.

    It has one of the biggest keyboards of the netbooks which was worth the extra $50 to me and it weighs 2.8 pounds. Not to mention it's smaller and thinner than a day-planner. :)

    I bought it to have the ability to carry it in the car for those times I've gone out in the evening and work calls with an emergency. Find a wi-fi spot, log into terminal server and I can do the 5 minute job so I don't have to drive 1/2 an hour to work. :)

    I've also used it to trace which network cables were live in a seldom used part of the building. It was *perfect* for that. :)

    Toy or notebook? Neither.

    Powerful enough to use terminal server (or other seldom used applications), small enough to carry easily in the car, small enough to carry around to odd places where a computer comes in handy.

    A graphics workstation it isn't. :) But for most mainstream folks who need GMail, the web, a little light gaming (solitaire level) it's perfect.

    And it's cheap enough not to have a heart attack if its stolen or broken. Not to mention cheap enough for poor students who otherwise wouldn't have *anything*.

    Oh, and yes I run AVG Free on it because it is XP. But being XP if I need some oddball piece of software, I can run it. Can't do that on a Linux machine...

    Which is why MS now has 96% of the netbook market. (96%? Well, that does tell us what Linux is worth to the average Joe!)

    I'm not sorry I bought mine. For what I need it's the right machine. One reason I've always resisted laptops is the weight and bulk. They just aren't all that convenient.

    This netbook is.
    wolf_z
    • See I can see that.

      I nice little handy tool for low intense applications. But I think some expect them to be a notebook replacement and run everything from the internet to their games. I know that's the impression many teachers that bought one gave me. They thought the only difference was the size. They do not know a 1.6Ghz Atom Processor is not Equivalent to a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo.
      bobiroc
      • And that is . . .

        the fault of the salespeople who hawk them. Most of them have no idea of what they're selling or have no problems telling a buyer whatever they want to hear in order to sell something, be it a netbook or notebook.

        I really love it when I actually run into a salesperson who KNOWS what they're talking about and is actually willing to help the customer find what they need, not what they THINK they need. They are far and few in-between, unfortunately . . .

        JLHenry
        • I will give you that.

          I cannot tell you how many times I find myself in a retail chaing (I am sure the phone sales people do it too) and over hear them BSing a customer. Sometimes I feel compelled to step in and show them the light.
          bobiroc
      • It's in the same

        They are NETbooks, not small Notebooks.
        They work best when they don't have to do the heavy lifting themselves.
        chromeronin
  • RE: Living with a netbook: Toy or tiny notebook?

    The clue is in the name.

    For people who work almost entirely in the cloud like
    myself, they are fine. I have a desktop at home for heavy
    duty photo and video, but virtually everything else i do
    is through a browser. For that purpose, the netbook is
    king.

    thelivo