Building the perfect netbook

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 800×480 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" 1024×600 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 1024×600, which is a little low for a 10" panel. The 1280×768 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.

Comments closed
    • Rahabib
    • 11 years ago

    I agree most of what was said. Wireless N is not more expensive than G so why are so many companies leaving out N?

    If anyone can do a 1280×768 10.2″ with 802.11n 6 cell battery, and bluetooth for under $600 Ill probably buy it.

    Also I would like to see more attempts like the N10 with a graphics option only with a slightly lower cost ($500 – $599 range)

    • Prototyped
    • 11 years ago

    Try fitting all of that into a $350-450 price range.

    I’d say an Acer Aspire One with the six-cell battery (NCIX sells two such models that come out of the box with six-cell batteries) would be close enough to the ideal.

    Sadly, a higher display DPI costs money, which is one of the reasons why the HP Mininote 2133 and the Gigabyte M912 net-tablet are more expensive, so it’d still have to be WSVGA I fear. LED backlighting would be preferable, since it isn’t really more expensive than CCFL backlighting and it consumes the battery charge slower.

    The Aspire One has a keyboard arranged correctly with a relatively comfortable key size, and doesn’t look butt-ugly. And even the six-cell models are priced right (under CAD 450). The big problem with it is, of course, its touchpad, which is too small vertically and has the straddled button configuration.

    A business notebook style trackpoint would’ve been ideal for this form factor (witness how it’s the only pointing device on the ThinkPad X series, barring the new and exceptional X300 and X301), but then I imagine that those tend to cost more than touchpads, and the consumers these netbooks are marketed at are more familiar with touchpads than trackpoints and so would prefer a touchpad-equipped netbook.

    802.11n devices are more expensive at this point (and require an extra antenna) compared to 802.11a/g devices, so in the interest of costs, I’d prefer a g model (as long as it was cheaper, of course). Bluetooth is cheap enough (attached internally via USB) that that should be available standard on netbooks, not least because it can be used to tether with a 3G phone on the road, thus contributing toward the “net” part of a netbook’s mission.

    I agree regarding the mechanical drive and the RAM, but I doubt we’ll see netbooks equipped with a 2 GiB SO-DIMM out of the box any time soon.

    • bronek
    • 11 years ago

    You forgot WWAN, e.g. 3G HSDPA. A “computer” that I cannot use to check my email or browse the web whilst on the train (commuting) is next to useless to me. Heck, even my phone can do this, but the screen is small. Figerprint reader would be nice addition (but not essential) for fast and easy login; the last nice feature is ExpressCard slot (alongside with SD, of course). I want Linux with this, with rather conservative CPU and SSD (for long battery live).

    • Hattig
    • 11 years ago

    I think that all you’ll get out of this is that people have different desires in a netbook.

    I think that 8.9″ is the perfect size, but I am willing to accept 10.2″ if the overall netbook volume is the same as the 8.9″.

    But I am happy with Linux and a small (8 or 16GB, not slow) SSD (with extra SD card slot for capacity expansion). I don’t need Windows on such a device. This type of device isn’t a replacement for my other computers, but a companion. Instead of compromising on a laptop, I can get a desktop and a netbook for the same price.

    Some of the Linux application launcher GUIs for netbooks look useful for a touchscreen however, so I think that would be a useful thing to have. Bluetooth too, or maybe the ability to add a 3G data card internally.

    One major feature of these netbooks is price. In fact I think it is one of the essential core features. I am not happy to see the prices rocketing upwards of £250, because it turns the device from being the everyday companion, to being precious enough to worry about slinging into the bag.

    Of course I’d be happy enough with a 2008 remix of the Psion 5 design. I wonder about a netbook design using an NVIDIA Tegra application processor…

    • kmieciu
    • 11 years ago

    I would pay premium for netbook with trackpoint. Unfortunately even Lenovo’s netbook have touchpad so I pass.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      ditto. pointing sticks seem to be the obvious answer to how to get a fully productive pointing device onto a minuscule computer.

        • ImSpartacus
        • 11 years ago

        But people still call the trackpoint archaic… Silly silly people…

      • bhtooefr
      • 11 years ago

      Although it’s a good $1000-1500 *[

    • blubje
    • 11 years ago

    I think OS’s have to come some way before you should really wish for that screen resolution / pixel density. Sure, plenty of them say they’re completely scalable, but there’s always bugs, or apps that don’t respect dots per inch and go for pixels instead. One thing that seems like a common necessity for me is good mouse interface, and Linux has come the furthest on this: the alt-click resizing and moving avoids having to chase increasingly small window borders, and menus aren’t moved all to the top like Mac. Unfortunately, Linux has plenty of other quirks, especially with all of the different possible display libraries — most of which scale the fonts, but not by the same amount: some end up looking large enough to anti-alias to a bold look, others not.

      • bhtooefr
      • 11 years ago

      And then some of us just like stupid high pixel densities, at the default OS font sizes.

      I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have a problem using the Fujitsu U810 (sold as the U1010 outside of the US) – I used one in a store a few days ago – and that has a 5.6″ 1024×600 display, or 212 DPI.

      My Palm Centro has a 206 DPI screen, and it could be higher and I’d still be fine with it (although selecting small objects is tricky with a finger.)

      1280×800 on an 8.9″ display is 170 DPI.

      And, I’m currently typing this post on a machine with a 1400×1050 12.1″ display – 145 DPI – and I could easily use higher DPI.

      One thing about really small devices like these is, you sit closer to the device, so the effect of very high DPI is offset.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    well said, I’ll take one.

      • tcunning1
      • 11 years ago

      I agree with every word in this article–well done!

    • dragmor
    • 11 years ago

    The HP mini note has a lot going for it, its got the right keyboard for these devices and a decent screen. Its also as big as I’m will to go, sure its longer than the eee but its not as wide and its thinner.

    My perfect netbook would have the following.

    – Screen from the Gigabyte (touch and 1280×768)
    – no scroll zone (just use the touch interface on the screen)
    – Keyboard of the HP mini note, expanded a little due to no scroll section
    – Size of the HP mini note but less deep due to no scroll section.
    – Approx 1kg.
    – 16GB fast SSD, not eee slow
    – 2GB ram (so no swap)
    – Vista Business as the OS
    – 50Wh+ battery.
    – Internals from the Raon Digital Everun Note (Turionx2 1.2ghz, ATI RS690E)

    §[<http://www.umpcportal.com/2008/09/everun-note-full-review/<]§

    • bthylafh
    • 11 years ago

    I am not a fan of motherboard-mounted RAM, because if that RAM goes bad you are stuck with it.

    • Corrado
    • 11 years ago

    I like my MSI Wind very much. I’d like another hour of battery life (will get it with the 6-cell battery) and would like a RS232 DB9 Serial Port, and an expressport slot to stick in an air card rather than BT tethering all the time.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    And I like paying $$$ and maybe a pound in weight for small, thin, and light notebooks. 8-9 hours battery life. Excellent performance, standard keyboards and operating systems, all ports and connectivity, full warranties, SSD and optical built in, higher resolution displaysg{<.<}g

    • Firestarter
    • 11 years ago

    I’ll add a screen that is comfortably readable in sunlight to that list.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    I think you’re asking for too much. Just go with the One.

      • Ubik
      • 11 years ago

      If somebody will stock the freaking 6-cell battery for the AAO already, I’ll be perfectly happy.

    • Spotpuff
    • 11 years ago

    Battery life, keyboard size/layout and trackpad layout are the biggest issues I’ve noticed so far.

    As you mentioned, there’s no point in having a supposedly portable device if you can only use it for a few hours and then it stops working.

    The buttons on the sides of track pads are awful.

    The AA1’s “french” layout is awful, putting \ buttons everywhere I’d press shift or enter.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      The AA1 is available with a conventional English layout.

        • willyolio
        • 11 years ago

        not in canada.

          • ludi
          • 11 years ago

          If someone really wants an AOne English, I would look into further that before writing off the possibility. Tiger Direct stocks the English layout and Tiger has direct business operations in Canada via its Global Computer subsidiary, so it might be possible to get one with a little phone haggling.

            • deepthought86
            • 11 years ago

            Look for a program called SharpKeys to solve your \ problem and turn that key into another SHIFT

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