Netbooks Guide: How to Buy the Best New Netbook

By Lynn Truong on 28 December 2009 (Updated 10 June 2011) 19 comments

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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.

  1. Size: Netbooks are half to two-thirds the size of a normal laptop and weigh about 2.5 pounds.
     
  2. Price: Netbooks start at $200, but the higher end netbooks can go as high as $600 (which overlaps the prices of lower end laptops).
     
  3. 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.

Screen Size

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.

Keyboard Layout

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.

Operating Software

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.

Battery Life

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.

Some Recommendations

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.

Dealista is a collaboration between Wise Bread and Quick and Dirty Tips, the producer of popular podcasts such as Grammar Girl, Money Girl, Winning Investor, and Mighty Mommy.

If you enjoyed these tips you can find more in our show's archive.

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Guest's picture
Peter

I bought my wife a netbook for her birthday this past year, and she loves it. While it isn't really meant to be used for graphics intensive programs like photoshop, or video editing suites, it works great for surfing the web, checking email, doing facebook -or a variety of other basic tasks. We have taken it on several trips now -and it is so small and portable that we really don't have to worry about the weight or size. It's small!

I wrote about our netbook - the MSI Wind U100 - here.

Guest's picture

Thanks Lynn!

I realized I didn't know what a netbook actually was. They seem priced low and are perfect for heavy internet users who want portability.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture
Caleb

I know it would never make it to a brief comparison article like this, but I'm using a Dell Mini 10v running OS X (the classic Hackintosh) and I can't recommend it enough. Gizmodo's article on how to set it up is easy to follow and just plain works.

Guest's picture
Kim

I have used an Acer netbook since May - heavy internet and word processing use, light photo processing. I 100% love it and will never buy a high priced laptop again. Some cry at the lack of a DVD-drive, but I download every program I need from the internet (including all printer drivers), including streaming movies. It doesn't get hot, is easier to take on trips, etc. TOTALLY the way to go, esp for the price (often $300 w/ free shipping on Tiger Direct). Acers tend to last for years and years. And no, I don't work for Acer!

Guest's picture
Guest

I've had a Dell Mini-9 (no longer made - unfortunately) for over a year and can't believe how much I use it. It goes everywhere with me. Only things I added was 1 gig of memory (really easy to do on this model), broadband usb and an external optical drive. Most days it gets more use than my full sized laptop.

Guest's picture
FrugalZen

Netbook this week...an HP Mini.

Intended use is as a writers tool/word processor. I did purchase an external Optical Drive that runs off of the USB port for an extra $49 that reads both DVD and CD formats so putting music on the book will be easy.

Just waiting on some new wrtiers software to get here to load on it.

Guest's picture

I also want to find out what the difference of the two is and also what functions best. I am planning to give my kid a laptop but he likes notebook. It is confusing. I thought it was the same.

Guest's picture

Unless one travels a lot, or needs a laptop in many different places, I would be deadset agaist a netbook.

I think my head would explode if I had to look at that tiny screen all the time, and my big fingers have enough trouble fitting on a full size keyboard--I doubt I could type anything on one of those.

Plus, I don't think the price differential is enough to make it worthwhile. Spend the extra 100 or so dollarrs and get yourself a laptop

Lynn Truong's picture

@kitchen table: A notebook is just another word for a laptop, so it's the same thing

@David: My husband agrees with you. He'd never get a netbook when a laptop is just as affordable, but he can see why traveling with a few less pounds and a much smaller computer makes sense with me, especially when it's my secondary travel-only computer, too.

Guest's picture

My wife and I bought a Gateway netbook right after Thanksgiving. I absolutely love it. It is very light, and the complaints about a small screen and keyboard have not registered with me. I have very wide fingers, and I have as much trouble typing on my full-sized laptop as I do typing on the netbook.

We use no Microsoft software on the netbook. We only use web-based software like Google Docs and OpenOffice.org in case we don't have a wireless connection. We have not missed MS Office one bit. I even run my business operations on the netbook since I use all web-based software. As more businesses use web-based software, I can see the day where a netbook and a smartphone will be all a "road warrior" needs to be productive.

I may still ultimately purchase a Macbook to replace my existing Gateway laptop in the future, but I am sold on the benefits of a netbook. At the very least, I'll use a netbook when I travel instead of lugging a full-sized laptop with me.

Guest's picture
Matt

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.

Guest's picture

I love my dell mini 9 and I use it as my primary computer. I've had it for over a year, and I spent a little bit more on my mine. I maxed out the RAM, requested XP, and I ordered a 16gb solid state hard drive.

In truth the main reason I got the netbook is I'm accident prone. I was drawn to the "no moving parts" of the ssd and the spill resistant keyboard. Unfortunately, it's already come in handy more than once.

Cheers for a great article!

Lynn Truong's picture

@Matt: Thanks for the description about the GPU. That's a little out of my technical league, but it's definitely an important aspect of netbooks for users who need a netbook with some intensive graphic processing power. I've added it to the end of the article.

@andi: I did forget to mention that some netbooks offer solid state drives, but I haven't seen them as much and thought perhaps they were being phased out, with users opting for larger high drives rather than the solid state drives, which actually run better.

Carrie Kirby's picture

So, I'm shopping for a netbook myself. I don't want to run any heavy programs on it but do enjoy watching tv and the occasional movie off the internet. so i'm looking for one with a larger screen.

This GPU business -- sounds like the second one or better could handle streaming video from Hulu.com or whatnot?

Lynn Truong's picture

@Carrie: The HP mini 311 currently has the best graphics card, so you can watch HD video. The one I have (Toshiba NB205) can run Hulu video fine as well, if you don't mind the occasional choppiness. I believe running video also drains battery life a lot faster, so be sure to get one with a 6 cell battery if you're planning to stay unplugged.

Guest's picture
Guest

To use the Internet on these netbooks, must you still get a Internet provider or just link to whatever wifi is available. I'm planning to purchse one for my girlfriend and was wondering if she would be stuck with a monthly Internet bill? Forgive me if this question has already been posed.

Guest's picture

We just love ours@@@

Lynn Truong's picture

@guest: you can use the netbook to connect to any available wifi.

Guest's picture
Don

I use the Toshiba NB205 Netbook and I think it's great. It automatically linked to my WIFI connection at home, just had to turn it on do some basic set up and start surfing. I'm using it to type this right now.