Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Netbook computers

A year ago, the netbook recipe was simple and boring. But things have become more interesting with dual-core processors, upgraded graphics and display options, and better materials and build quality. These extras push some netbooks a bit above today's $300 entry price, but depending on your needs it may be worth spending a little extra on one of these 2010 holiday picks.
Written by John Morris, Contributor on

A year ago, the netbook recipe was simple: Mix a single core Atom N270, 1GB of memory, a 160GB and Windows XP.

Lately things have become more complex. Intel released faster Atom processors, and more recently a dual-core version for netbooks. Many netbooks still come with a 1024x600 resolution display, but an increasing number offer a higher-resolution 720p display. More netbooks now support HD video playback—either with Broadcom’s Crystal HD video decoder or Nvidia’s ION graphics—and have HDMI out.

In general, the materials and build quality seem to have improved, and most netbooks look more like mini-notebooks than toys. Throw in some actual laptops with displays as small as 11.6 inches, and the lines are getting very blurry.

Of course, these extras will push netbooks above the entry $300 price, but depending on your needs it may be worth spending a little extra.

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Asus Eee PC 1018 Asus created the netbook category with its Eee PCs churning out a mind-numbing array of configurations—many of which had the same basic design and innards. That design has started to look a little dated, which is why Asus introduced a new look with the Asus Eee PC 1018.

One of the latest models, the Eee PC 1018 is thinner and it has brushed metal accents that look better and lend it a sturdier feel. The specs are basically the same. You won’t find any bells and whistles here such a dual-core Atom, Nvidia’s ION graphics or a Broadcom video decoder chip.

But that’s a good thing because it helps keep the price down to $349, which is what a netbook ought to cost. For that price you get a 1.66GHz Atom N450, 1GB of memory, 250B hard drive and Windows 7 Starter Edition.

The Eee PC 1018 won’t match the performance of premium netbooks (though the basic components also help to give it more than 5 hours of battery life). And the 10-inch display is stuck with the 1,024x600 resolution found on entry-level netbooks, which start around $300, while premium netbooks offer 720p (1,366x768) resolution.

But if you want these features, you’re probably better off with a real laptop anyway. The Eee PC 1018 costs significantly less than even a budget laptop and does everything a netbook ought to do--only now with a little more style.

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HP Mini 5103 The HP Mini 5100 series has always had the look and feel of a more expensive notebook with its thin anodized-aluminum frame. Now it has the features of a more expensive netbook starting with the option of a dual-core 1.5GHz Atom N550, in addition to the latest single-core Atoms, the N455 and N475.

Other premium features include a 720p (1366x768) display and/or capacitive multi-touch display, Broadcom Crystal HD video decoder card lets you play HD video on the netbook or on an external 1080p display via HDMI, and 7200rpm drive or 80/128GB solid-state drives.

Even with these higher-end specs, the Mini 5103 lasted nearly 9 hours in some reviews with the optional 6-cell battery.

The Mini 5103 starts at a reasonable $399, but all of these extras can add up fast. A configuration with the dual-core processor, higher-resolution display backed by the Broadcom video decoder chip, 2GB of memory, 6-cell battery and Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit cost just over $700—pushing it firmly into laptop territory.

Still there aren’t many laptops in this price range that weigh 3 pounds. If you want the portability of a netbook combined with the capabilities of a mainstream laptop, the Mini 5103 is a great choice.

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Toshiba Mini NB305 On paper, the Toshiba mini NB305 looks like any other netbook. It has a 10-inch display, the latest single-core 1.66GHz Atom N450 processor, 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive and Windows 7 Starter--all standard netbook features. But it is the little extras that make the NB305 a top pick in this category.

Like HP’s Mini 5103, the NB305 has the sort of clean-cut, professional looks that work well either at home or in the office whether you choose the textured bronze, blue or white finish. The updated design integrates the battery almost entirely into the case, which is 1.4 to 0.5 inches thick and weighs less than 3 pounds.

The NB305 series has a Chiclet-style keyboard with large metallic keys and an oversize multi-touch touchpad with large buttons. Other nice features include a USB Sleep-and-Charge port, and in this update, improved stereo speaker.

The N450 doesn’t provide much of a performance boost over previous Atoms—and the NB305 doesn’t have Broadcom’s video decoder chip for HD video—but it’s sufficient for everything you’d expect from a netbook and it helps the NB305 get 7 to 9 hours from its six-cell battery.

At $379.99, the NB305 costs a bit more than entry-level netbooks, but it is worth it.

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Apple iPad No, the iPad isn’t a netbook, but it isn’t a laptop either.

And while there have been plenty of other tablet announcements, most notably the Samsung Galaxy Tab and BlackBerry PlayBook, the iPad remains the only game in town (not counting HP’s business-oriented Slate 500) so it doesn’t warrant a separate category yet.

Furthermore, there’s mounting evidence that the iPad may be eating into netbook sales, and it is easy to see why.

The iPad is suitable for many—though not all—of the same chores as a netbook including checking e-mail, browsing the Web, updating Facebook and Twitter, reading e-books, listening to music and watching videos.

The iPad also has one advantage over netbooks: the App Store. Like the iPhone, the iPad has it hardware and software limitations. But Apple is the first to craft a tablet that really works and it has the sales to prove it.

The iPad starts at $499 with WiFi only and comes with 16-, 32- or 64GB of storage. The higher-priced 3G version is available with AT&T data plans starting at $14.99 per month for 250MB with no contract.

If you prefer Verizon, the carrier recently announced that it will sell the iPad bundled with its MiFi wireless hotspot in its stores.

Unlike a laptop, the iPad is strictly a luxury--no one really needs one. But as a gift the iPad is sure to please.

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