The debate over whether netbooks are a real phenomenon or a passing fad is pretty much over. Whether you consider them a distinct category, or simply an inexpensive and under-powered subnotebook, the fact remains that some 25 million shoppers will choose netbooks this year. In other words, they are here to stay.
The exact definition of a netbook remains somewhat fluid though, and it has certainly evolved over the past year. Last year the market was shifting from 9-inch netbooks to models with 10.1-inch displays. Now this niche is split between 10.1-inch displays and 11.6-inch models, and there are even a handful of models (Lenovo IdeaPad S12, Samsung NC10) with the 12.1-inch displays commonly found on ultraportable laptops. Many of the 11.6-inch netbooks also support a higher resolution of 1366x768, which is useful since you can see more and scroll less (Sony is the only one that squeezes this higher resolution onto a10.1-inch display with its VAIO W series). To add to the confusion, many of the same PC makers have started shipping laptops with the same display sizes--11.6 or 12.1 inches--paired with Intel's ultra low-voltage, or ULV, processors typically at prices of around $600 and up. The HP Pavilion dv2 also falls into this category, though it is based on an AMD Athlon Neo dual-core processor.
One thing that hasn’t changed much, though, is the basic specs. Nearly all netbooks have the same starting configuration--an Intel Atom N270 or N20 processor, 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive. Not surprisingly, the performance also tends to be the same, which is to say not very good, among netbooks. After dragging its feet for more than a year, in early 2010 Intel will reportedly release new netbook platform, known as Pine Trail, which should deliver better performance. In the meantime, Nvidia has attempted to fill the void with its Ion chipset, which gives netbooks (and nettops) the graphics mojo to play HD video. Three netbooks currently offer Ion: the HP Mini 311, Lenovo IdeaPad S12 and Samsung N510. Though there were some concerns about the price and battery life, early reviews have been quite good and it’s a nice option if you want a netbook with a little more oomph.
One of the clearest distinctions between netbooks and notebooks--the operating system--is also about to disappear. Windows 7 replaces both Vista on notebooks and Windows XP. A few netbooks will offer full versions of Windows 7, but many will stick with Windows 7 Starter edition. There are two drawbacks here. First, to entice customers to choose more expensive versions of Windows 7, the Starter edition has some limitations. You may have heard that Microsoft planned some onerous restrictions, most notably a limit o the number of applications you can run at one time. They've since dropped that plan and now the primary distinction is that you can’t change the wallpaper/theme, which simply seems arbitrary. Second, it is likely that netbooks with any version of Windows 7 will cost more because Microsoft is charging more. If you want to upgrade your Windows XP netbook, things are a bit more complicated. Microsoft will offer a version on a USB drive (since netbooks don’t have optical drives), but you'll need to back up all of your applications, files and settings and then reinstall them on Windows 7. The bottom line: The vast majority will simply get Windows 7 on a new netbook, and it is a big improvement in terms of usability and features.
Despite all the changes, netbooks still aren’t for everyone. But as long as you know exactly what you are getting (or giving, since this is a holiday gift guide), a netbook is a good second PC, and even in a in some specific cases, a reasonable primary PC.
HP Mini 311
HP has consistently churned out top-rated netbooks for both consumers and business users. Last year the HP Mini 1000 made our holiday list. HP's latest model, the Mini 311, is one of the first netbooks to use Nvidia's Ion, which addresses one of the chief shortcomings of the category--its inability to play HD video. The Mini 311 is based on an 11.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366x768, which is better than most netbooks. It starts at $399.99 with the usual netbook specs: 1.60GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP Home SP3. The configuration that I would recommend, which is similar to the one CNET tested, has the 1.66GHz Atom N280, 2GB of memory and Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit for $499.99. That's a lot for a netbook, especially when budget laptops routinely sell for $350, but this is a relatively capable netbook given its specs (CNET found even intense games like Call of Duty 4 were "fairly playable" and 720p video playback was "excellent") and it's certainly more portable than your typical budget laptop. Note that Windows 7 Home Premium adds a full $50 to the price; HP does not offer the Mini 311 with the cheaper Windows 7 Starter Edition. The HP Mini 110, the company's 10.1-inch netbook, starts at $299.99, but it is not available with Nvidia's Ion platform. One of the big question marks with Ion was battery life, but the Mini 311 lasted well over 5 hours on CNET's tests. Add it all up and this is about the closest you'll get to a no-compromises netbook.
Toshiba mini NB205
It took Toshiba until the middle of 2009 to release its first netbook, but it was worth the wait. Toshiba hasn’t done anything unusual with the specs. The mini NB205 is a standard 10.1-inch (1024x600) netbook with a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive and a six-cell battery. But the design sets it apart. Though it has about the same dimensions and weight as most 10.1-inch netbooks, the NB205 has a sleek, simple look. The well-designed keyboard and the large touchpad and buttons make it comfortable and easy to use. Its performance is solid--for a netbook--but perhaps the NB205's biggest selling point is its long battery life. Toshiba claims nine hours in regular use, and on CNET's more demanding test using continuous video playback the NB205 held out 6 hours 14 minutes. Toshiba recently updated the mini NB205. It still starts at $399.99, but it now comes with Windows 7 Starter and is available in five different colors (Sable Brown, Frost White, Indigo Blue, Posh Pink and Onyx Black).
Asus invented the netbook category with its Eee PC, and though Acer has since overtaken it, Asus continues to crank out lots of highly-rated netbooks under its Eee PC brand. The Eee PC 1005HA isn’t the thinnest or lightest netbook, but at 1.1 to 1.4 inches thick and 2.9 pounds, it is still highly portable. And this is a good trade-off for a six-cell battery that lasted nearly seven hours on CNET's continuous video playback test--the best score to date on a netbook. In normal use, you'll get even longer battery life. The Toshiba NB205 comes close, but its six-cell battery protrudes form the back of the netbook; the Eee PC 1005HA's battery is seamlessly integrated into the system (a design Asus refers to as the "Seashell" and is also used on the 10.1-inch 1008HA and 11.6-inch 1101HA). Asus also sells a version with a three-cell battery. The Eee PC 1005HA has a list price of $389 (you can find it online starting at around $360) with a 10.1-inch display (1204x600), 1.66GHz Atom N280, 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP Home SP3. It is available in white, black, blue or pink. Asus has posted lots of details on upgrading Asus netbooks, nettops and PCs to Windows 7, but hasn't made any specific announcements about new Windows 7 Eee PC models and the specs continue to list Windows XP only. I'd expect that to change soon. With Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter, the Eee PC 1005HA is an excellent choice.
Acer Aspire One D250
If you wanted to spend $500 or more, you'd probably get a notebook. Acer gets that, and it has been consistently churning out netbooks that cover all the bases at very low prices. One of its latest models, the Aspire One D250, is a 10.1-inch netbook that you can easily find online for can easily be found online for $289, drawing a clear distinction with full-fledged laptops. Despite the price, this new design is sleeker and has a mode solid, upscale feel to it than Acer's original Aspire One D150. (The only drawback is that to make the D250 this thin and small, Acer cut the battery size down from six cells to three cells, so expect a maximum of around 3 hours of battery life in typical use.) The version that CNET (and most other reviews organizations) tested has a 1.60GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP Home SP3. But it is now also available with the 1.66GHz Atom N280 and Windows 7 Starter. The D250 comes in Diamond Black, Seashell White, Ruby Red and Sapphire Blue. Other 10.1-inch netbooks with similarly-low prices ($299.99) include the Dell Mini 10v and HP Mini 110.
Samsung isn’t well known in the U.S. for PCs, but the company is aiming to change that with new lines of notebooks and netbooks. Many of these have received positive reviews, but the current winner among its netbooks is the Samsung N120. Why? This 10.1-inch (1024x600) has all of the best aspects of a netbook--low price, portability and long battery life--but it feels more like a real laptop. The N120's sleek case has a sturdy feel and the matte black case (it's also available in white and blue) is both attractive and looks like it means business. Though some people like the trendy chiclet keyboards on many netbooks (and some laptops such as Apple's), the N120's large keyboard with standard keys makes typing faster and more accurate. And the 2.1 audio is a big upgrade from the tinny speakers found on most netbooks. Though the list price is $399.99 (for some reason the blue version is $20 more), you can now find the N120 with the 1.6GHz Atom N270, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP Home SP3 for as low as $310. The N120 lasted 5 hours and 14 minutes on CNET's video playback test, and should last even longer in ordinary use. Samsung also sells nearly identical version without the upgraded audio, the N110, which provides an additional hour of battery life, according to CNET Reviews. Samsung is also set to release the N510, an 11.6-inch netbook with Nvidia's Ion platform and Windows 7; the only other models with this combination are the HP Mini 311 and the Lenovo IdeaPad S12. The Samsung N120 is a great choice for someone who plans to use a netbook as his or her primary system.