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TR's back-to-school netbook guide

Making sense of a crowded, confusing market

The netbook is a modern curiosity, a new class of notebook barely a year old and still going through its growing pains as manufacturers try to balance their designs properly. A netbook is characterized by low-end, power-efficient hardware, an exceptionally small and light chassis with a screen size topping out at around ten inches, and just enough horsepower for word processing and Internet usage. By paring down features and performance, manufacturers have been able to produce these small computers cheaply, pricing them well below their ultraportable forebears like Sony's T series. In fact, netbooks often cost less than full-sized "budget" notebooks. It's this blend of form, function, and value that has made netbooks so popular.

The functionality and practicality of modern netbooks like Asus' seminal and ultimately class-defining Eee PC makes them attractive options in this back-to-school season. As a college student at UC San Diego, I've seen students carrying around notebooks of all sizes, including one person struggling to fit a massive Alienware notebook onto a tiny lecture hall desk. Students need computers for school, of course, and a portable machine that can be brought to class is extremely useful. But students also don't tend to have a lot of money, and as a result, they often settle for seven- or eight-pound laptops. With the advent of the netbook, however, a student's load can easily and cheaply be lightened. Using an inexpensive netbook for class and a more powerful desktop at home—even a small-form-factor machine in a dorm room—suddenly becomes both a practical and viable option, especially when you consider that many netbooks manage at least three hours of battery life, which is exactly the length of a single, long lecture.

Of course, the runaway success of the Eee PC has led to a flood of new models from players both large and small. Here, big boys like HP, Dell, and Lenovo pit their wares against smaller players like Everex, MSI, and Gigabyte. The number of netbook flavors available is simply staggering, and although the underlying hardware of many of these units is similar, key differences distinguish each one from its peers. We've summed up those differences in a comprehensive guide to the netbook market, complete with our recommendations based on hands-on experience with the models you can buy today.

The common netbook platform
Early entries into the netbook market had to make do with underclocked Celeron M processors and the occasional Via C7-M, with the vast majority of manufacturers biding their time until Intel released its Atom processor. The Atom was designed to offer the bare minimum of performance in a small, power-efficient package that's cheap to produce. The result, at least so far, is the Atom N270, a 1.6GHz chip with a maximum TDP (thermal design power) of just 2.5 watts. This chip generates so little heat that it can operate without a fan. And the Atom is cheap, too, or at least cheap enough for Intel to sell it mounted on a Mini-ITX motherboard for less than $70.

Intel has paired the Atom processor with a version of its venerable 945 chipset dubbed the 945GSE, which includes an old ICH7M south bridge (or I/O hub) component. The 945GSE is widely regarded as the Atom's Achilles' heel, in part because while the processor sips power, the chipset has a TDP of six watts—nearly three times that of the CPU. Given the relative youth of the netbook concept, one can consider Intel's current Atom implementation to be a first draft. Future versions of the platform due next year promise to integrate the majority of north bridge functionality into the processor itself, resulting in a smaller package with lower power consumption and superior performance.

With the 945GSE chipset comes support for Serial ATA storage devices and DDR2 memory, along with Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated graphics processor. The GMA 950 is woefully underpowered for gaming, but then the Atom wasn't designed for that purpose. The GMA 950 also lacks hardware acceleration for high-definition video decoding, but again, but this proves to be a moot point for netbooks that rarely feature screens with enough pixels for even 720p content. So although it's not the slickest integrated graphics processor on the block, the GMA 950 can at least handle common netbook tasks like word processing and web browsing.

And what about Internet access? No netbook would be complete without it, so you can expect every entry in the market to include 802.11b/g wireless networking and an Ethernet port at the bare minimum. A healthy number of netbooks also include 802.11n support and Bluetooth connectivity.

Intel's Atom platform is by and large the most popular one for netbooks, but Via's C7-M processor makes an appearance in HP's Mini-Note 2133 series, coupled with Via's Chrome 9 integrated graphics. Unfortunately, the C7-M's performance is poor even by netbook standards. Via has already begun producing its Nano successor to the C7-M, and based on what we've seen from the CPU, it's faster than the Atom. The Nano hasn't officially made its way into any netbooks, but HP has placed an order for the new chips, so it's possible the Nano could materialize in HP's next Mini-Note.

The low power consumption, affordable price tags, and small form factors that define the netbook genre carry their own trade-offs. As we've stated, performance isn't exceptional. Netbooks don't feel as snappy as even a budget desktop system, and they certainly aren't suited to anything more demanding than basic desktop tasks, standard-definition multimedia playback, and maybe than running a red-eye filter on a photo. Display resolutions tend to be limited to 1024x600, with smaller form factors shrinking keyboard sizes. Most users can comfortably adjust to these limitations, but if you have larger hands, you'll want to pay particular attention to keyboard size, especially if you intend to use a netbook for word processing or note taking.

Like a broken record, netbook detractors consistently point out that one can usually find a budget full-sized laptop that offers substantially better performance for roughly the same cost. Ultimately, you have to decide whether the battery life and portability offered by a netbook is worth the performance that these systems leave on the table.