Building the perfect netbook


— 3:13 PM on September 16, 2008

Netbooks have come a long way in a very short period of time. A year ago, Asus was pimping the first Eee PC with an underclocked Celeron, a 7" screen with a piddly 800x480 display resolution, 4GB of storage capacity, and a couple of hours of battery life. Today, however, you can get an Acer Aspire One with an Atom processor, an 8.9" 1024x600 display, a standard 2.5" hard drive, and more than four hours of run time for about the same price. Ain't progress grand?

With the exception of Asus, whose bloated Eee PC lineup is rife with different designs, most manufacturers have only shown their first efforts. So far, none of these attempts—nor any of the slew of Eee PCs—has managed perfection in my eyes. I'd like to think that I'm a reasonable guy, and I'm not asking for much, really. In fact, all the right bits already exist, spread across the current netbook landscape. The right combination of components just hasn't been assembled in a single system.

I should probably begin by saying that I look at netbooks as budget ultra-portable notebooks rather than beefed-up Internet and multimedia devices. I'm willing to compromise a little on portability and price if it's going to vastly improve a system's utility as an honest-to-goodness computer.

Of course, when I say I'm willing to compromise on portability, that doesn't mean I'm ready to budge all that much. The Eee PC 1000 series is about as big as I'm willing to go with a netbook. The 1000 series may have one of the largest netbook form factors, but the extra real estate allows for a 10.2" LED-backlit display that's just about perfect for this class of device. Unfortunately, the 1000 series' display resolution tops out at 1024x600, which is a little low for a 10" panel. The 1280x768 display resolution of HP's Mini-Note would be perfect for a 10" screen, and I could certainly use the extra pixels.

With a form factor large enough to accommodate a high-density 10" screen, my perfect netbook also has plenty of room for a proper keyboard. Netbooks are great little writing platforms—whether it's notes during class, an essay, or this blog post—and it really helps to have a keyboard that can accommodate fast typing with my fat fingers. The 92% keyboard found on HP's Mini-Note is one of the best I've used, and it thankfully avoids some of the layout quirks associated with other netbook keyboards. I'll take it. Or any other keyboard of that size with a solid feel and the right-shift button in the correct place.

I have what may be an unnatural love for IBM's eraser head, so I can't help but petition for netbook trackpoints. But I'm a realist, and that's probably not going to happen, ever. Instead, I'll settle for a trackpad with buttons on the bottom like they're supposed to be. That trackpad's going to need a good scrolling implementation, too, whether it's through multi-touch trickery or clearly-defined scrolling zones that are wide enough for those fat fingers of mine.

Matters of style and aesthetics tend to be pretty personal, so I won't force my love for brushed aluminum and obnoxious colors on the rest of you. However, just because netbooks are cheap doesn't mean they have to feel that way. Naturally, I expect my perfect netbook to be every bit as solid as a well-built notebook, and given some of the netbook examples we've seen thus far, that's certainly possible—if not already the norm.

Under the hood, I can live with Intel's current Atom platform. The CPU is just fast enough for the basic tasks I have lined up for a netbook, and while the chipset could use some work, we've yet to see a better alternative. Via's Nano looks intriguing, too, but until I've seen it squeezed into a tiny netbook chassis delivering equivalent battery life to existing Atom implementations, I'm going to stick with Intel inside my perfect netbook.

For me, battery life is hugely important for a netbook. Why bother giving up horsepower and screen size to gain portability if you're not going to use it? Nothing kills portability like being tethered to a wall socket, and the two hours and change most netbooks seem to squeeze from a three-cell battery isn't enough for me. I'm willing to pay a little extra and tote the additional weight associated with a six-cell unit, and my perfect netbook needs to squeeze between five and six hours of real-world run time out of that battery. Eight hours is the holy grail for battery life, of course, but I'm trying to keep this mythical system realistic.

On the networking front, I want 802.11n Wi-Fi, just because I can. The same goes for Bluetooth, if only to make interfacing with a cell phone or wireless mouse that much easier. Integrated wireless broadband would be nice, too, but it needs to be carrier-independent. This particular feature is probably better handled through an expansion card slot, which should just squeeze into my slightly larger netbook chassis.

Yet another benefit to building my perfect netbook in a slightly larger chassis is its ability to house a standard 2.5" notebook hard drive. Manufacturers could offer two options here, allowing users to choose between a high-capacity mechanical drive or a smaller SSD. I really like the idea of power-efficient, shock-tolerant SSDs, but the ones that are cheap enough to see action in inexpensive netbooks are either painfully slow, too short on capacity, or awkwardly segmented. For now, I'll stick with a 5,400-RPM mechanical drive and bask in the rich media library that the additional capacity will allow me to tote around.

A gig of memory is probably enough for a netbook, but a little excess never hurt anyone. I don't want manufacturers to start offering 2GB netbook configurations, though; that'll just invite gouging. Instead, my perfect netbook has 1GB of memory soldered onto the motherboard with an empty (and easy to access) SO-DIMM slot. Ditching the onboard memory and going for just a single memory slot wouldn't be a bad solution, either, but then what am I going to do with the factory module when I pop in a 2GB replacement of my own? It's probably not even worth trying to sell a 512MB or 1GB SO-DIMM on eBay these days.

I've been rambling on for a while now, so it might seem like I'm expecting a lot from this perfect netbook of mine. But I'm really not. All the elements that I want are already available in one form or another, and given current market prices, I don't see any reason why my perfect build should cost more than $500-600, even with a copy of Windows XP thrown in for good measure. That would put this system at the pricey end of the netbook spectrum, but for something that could replace my full-sized laptop 95% of the time, I'd pay the premium in a heartbeat.

   
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