Netbooks Guide: How to Buy the Best New Netbook
This article shares tips from the newest episode of Dealista, our podcast that'll help you get more for less.
Netbooks are all the rage right now, and it’s easy to see why. They’re light, cheap (relatively), and have a long battery life. Anyone who’s struggled with travelling with a laptop can appreciate how truly portable a netbook is (on a recent trip across the country, I was able to put my netbook in my purse). However, there are important differences between a netbook and a laptop (and even among netbooks themselves), so if you’re thinking about buying a netbook, here are some things to consider before deciding on which to purchase.
Netbook Vs. Laptop
It’s important to know that a netbook is not just a small laptop. A netbook serves different needs and can't do everything a laptop can. A few features are sacrificed for the sake of portability. There are three major differences between a netbook and a laptop.
- Size: Netbooks are half to two-thirds the size of a normal laptop and weigh about 2.5 pounds.
- Price: Netbooks start at $200, but the higher end netbooks can go as high as $600 (which overlaps the prices of lower end laptops).
- Processing: Netbooks have a lower processing speed than laptops and no optical drive (you can’t run DVDs or CDs). This keeps the price and weight low and battery life long, but less processing power means it’s difficult to use programs that require heavy processing, like photo/video editing and gaming. Additionally, the lack of an optical drive may be inconvenient for some users.
Shopping For A Netbook
Once you’ve decided that a netbook is for you, shopping for the right netbook can be confusing. While there are actually few cosmetic differences between laptops, netbooks vary greatly in their design and features.
The screen sizes on netbooks can range between 7 to 10 inches (although larger netbooks are coming out every day). That's actually a big difference from the average 15 inches on a full-sized laptop. It’s important to view your favorite sites and test out programs in order to decide which screen size is good for you.
The keyboards on netbooks can vary greatly from each other. Some netbooks have a smaller keyboard, starting at about 88% the size of a full size keyboard. Some netbooks actually have a full size keyboard, but even if two netbooks have the same size keyboard, their layout could be very different — keys can positioned differently (closer or farther apart) — so test out the keyboard before committing to a netbook.
Most netbooks have moved to Windows 7 Starter, which is a lighter version of Windows 7 to help with load time and overall performance. You can also get a netbook with Linux, which is a much more basic and faster operating system. Netbooks with Linux run great for web surfing, email, and word processing via Open Office. However, Linux may be incompatible with some programs, and if you've never used it, you may have to take some time to get used to it. Lastly, you can still find netbooks running on Windows XP or Vista, and of course you can opt to upgrade to full Windows 7 for your netbook.
Being smaller, not having an optical drive, and having a slower processor help the battery life of a netbook significantly. Many netbooks come with a 6-cell battery which can get you unplugged for about 6-8 hours. A laptop usually comes with a 3-cell battery that gets between 1-3 hours. Additionally, netbooks generally come with a built-in web cam, wi-fi, card reader, and USB ports.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Gizmodo’s top 3 netbook picks are the Toshiba mini NB205 (what I’m using to write this article), HP mini 311, and Samsung N140. These were my top 3 picks as well, when I was researching which netbook to get. The HP mini 311 currently has the best graphics card for netbooks, allowing HD video playback, better gameplay, and faster video editing. I ended up with the Toshiba mini NB205 because I really liked their unique keyboard layout and large trackpad.
Note On GPUs
Matt left a great comment below detailing GPU features, if you're looking for a netbook that can handle some graphic intensive processes.
Good article, but there's one important, and easily overlooked, aspect you forgot, the GPU. The GPU is a crucial component for people who may want to watch video or play games on their netbooks, especially for netbooks with 10 or 11 inch screens that often have higher resolution.
There are currently 4 GPUs used in most of todays netbooks. The first is the Intel GMA950. This is an older GPU used in cheaper and older netbook models. It's also the worst one out there. Avoid it if you plan on using your netbook for any sort of media.
The next step up in Intel's newer GMA4500. It's a big step up over the GMA950, and handles higher resolution screens much better. However, it struggles with 3D applications. If you're getting a netbook with a high res screen, but don't plan to play games or other 3D applications, then the GMA4500 may work ok for you.
The current top dog in Netbook GPUs though is the Nvidia 9300M, sometimes referred to as Ion. It will handle High def video, newer 3D games on moderate visual settings, and all of Windows 7's UI bells and whistles with ease. The trade off is that you'll often pay $50-$100 more compared to similar netbook models and you might sacrifice a bit of battery life as well.
The last one isn't a GPU at all, but Intel's newest Pinetrail ATOM processors, which incorporate the GPU into the CPU. Early reviews show that they perform somewhere between the GMA950 and the GMA4500. They're cheap though, and they use moderately less power than othe GPUs, so if your graphics needs are modest, these may be a good solution.
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