Netbook Smackdown: Compare the Six Top Netbooks

Monday Nov 17th 2008 by James Maguire
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The netbook race is on, with units from Asus, Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo and MSI. Who makes the best netbook?

(Comment at the bottom of this page: What's the best netbook?)

Also see: Top Netbooks Compared: the Eight Best Netbooks (May 2010)

And: Top Netbooks: the Eight Best Netbooks Compared (April 2009)

And: One Guy, Three Netbooks (a review of three netbooks)

Among the six top netbooks, what’s the best choice? It all depends.

Regardless of brand name, most netbooks are close cousins. Most come with the Intel Atom chip, have screens that are 9 or 10 inches, and cost about $349-$399. Sure, there are variations, especially on cost (more on that later) but the makers are obviously aware of each other specs.

But – and it’s a big but – despite all the sameness, two critical factors separate the top units from the also-rans.

First, will it connect to the Web, quickly and consistently? Is its Wi-Fi capability really up to snuff? After all, these units are worthless without the Web. Look for units with expansion slots to add mobile broadband, or a maker who has put a lot into the wireless feature.

Second, is it comfortable to use? These mini laptops are cramped, but has the netbook you’re considering been designed to compensate as much as possible? Some units boast of a (somewhat) larger keyboard and screen, which helps if you expect to use your netbook for hours on end.

For example, look at two comparable models:

compare netbooks

(Photo courtesy of Michael Horowitz.)

On the left is the Asus 1000 with a 10-inch screen; on the right, an Acer Aspire One with an 8.9-inch screen. Clearly, the difference between small and really small is significant.

Oh, and a possible third key comparison: the battery. The joy of these units is their toss-‘em-in-your-bag portability, and a 6-cell battery marches a whole lot further than a 3-cell.

Although $399 is a popular benchmark, cost varies based on the usual options like hard drive and RAM. As netbooks have evolved from hobbyist’s novelty to must-own unit for professional/student, they’re just a ghost of their former selves. The lowly 7-inch Asus kicked off the trend in ’07, but now Dell and HP let you lather on the luxuries. Have credit card, will travel. So you can spend up to $700 on a mini, enough to buy a nice full-size notebook.

Or, you can stay true to the netbook ethic and buy cheap. One way to do this is to choose Linux rather than Windows XP. Finding the Linux option might take a tad more shopping, but it’s out there, and you’ll shave a nice piece of coin off the total price. (Here’s a discussion of Windows XP vs. Linux on the netbook.)

A note about prices: they seem to change daily, even hourly. They’re falling ever downward. Wait until after the holidays when retail desperation sets in. Someday these units will be priced like cell phones, and sooner rather than later.

Whichever unit you select, rest assured your netbook will be the ultimate fashion item. Men will envy you, women will adore you, and those small, yappy dogs will never stop barking when you’re around. But you’ll just smile and, lifting your unit with a mere two digits, stride confidently from the room. Who was that masked man?

The Six Leading Netbooks

The question of which netbook is “The Best” depends, of course, on your needs. If you’re a professional who’ll be using it as a companion on high-powered sales calls, the nicer options are worth the extra cash. If you’re a student who wants to take notes in class (and surf YouTube while doing do) a basic unit might suffice. Then again, maybe you want to edit video while sitting in class.

So, ultimately, one size doesn’t fit all. It’s only been in the last few months that all the major manufacturers have entered the race. The winner remains unclear.

And the six top choices are…

6) Acer Aspire One

compare netbooks

Base Price: $399

Check prices:

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Amazon

Acer Aspire product page

Full review

This is a sweet netbook. As I surveyed the market, this unit tempted me personally (but I’ll stick with my beat-up full-size laptop until it crashes.)

The Aspire is small even for a netbook, but it’s packed with features. The 1 GB of RAM and the large hard drive means it can be a real workhorse, letting you do more than just just email and Web surfing. The Aspire has an impressive three USB ports to hook in a DVD drive or other peripherals, and the 6-cell battery keeps chugging for about five hours. It includes a 1.3 Megapixel camera.

One thing users are complaining about: the mouse buttons, placed on the left and the right, can be cumbersome. Apparently this takes some getting used to.

Still, this little box might even replace your full-size laptop – for $400. (You know this unit is striking terror into the hearts of full-size laptop makers everywhere.) With a blue gloss case, it even looks pretty.

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 8.9 inches

Hard Drive: 160 GB

Memory: 1 GB

Weight: 2.2 pounds

5) Lenovo IdeaPad S10

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Base Price: $399

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Lenovo IdeaPad product page

Only shipping since late September, the approximately one-inch-thin IdeaPad S10 is a strong contender in the growing netbook category. Though its design is compact and muscular, it’s a tad more elegant (read: thinner) than, for example, competitor Eee PC 1000.

Major plus: it’s equipped with an ExpressCard/34 slot, which lets you jazz it up with externals like a TV tuner card, security devices, and the mobile broadband modem of your choice – a particularly helpful tool when you’re stuck in the airport. Additionally, the S10’s big screen, with a 1,024 by 600 resolution, is pretty deluxe.

Downside: it comes with a 3-cell battery, which naturally won't give you the juice of a 6-cell unit.

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 10.2 inches

Hard Drive: 80GB

Memory: 512MB

4) HP 2133 Mini-Note

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Base Price: $299 (or $399 with Intel processor)

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HP Mini-Note product page

Full review

HP knows how to lay out the tempting options. You can get this unit in the price range above, or you can spend $699 for a turbo-charged HP Mini-Note. The hot-rod version even has Vista Business pre-installed. But does Vista Business even run on a netbook? That doesn’t seem like a good idea. (Users tend to switch it out for XP to speed it up, rather a hassle.)

HP is making a smart bet with this unit. We humans like a full-size keyboard: the Mini-Note’s is 92 percent of full size. However, some users complain about the trackpad, with the buttons split to the left and right; a tedious design choice depending on how flexible you are.

The Mini-Note’s two USB ports and its ExpressCard slot let you hook in the rest of your mobile office. It also features an aluminum case, a sturdy step up from the usual plastic. It comes with either a 3- or 6-cell battery.

Mini-Note specs can range greatly based on price:

Processor: C7M 1.0 GHz / 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 8.9 inches

Hard Drive: 4 GB flash drive / 120 GB

Memory: 512 MB / 2GB

Weight: 2.25 pounds / 2.8 pounds

3) Dell Inspiron Mini 9

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Base Price: $349

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Dell Inspiron product page

Sure, you can buy the Mini 9 cheap, at the $349 base price, but since it’s a Dell the mix and match options are endless. The smart sales people at Dell know how to tempt you into tricking out this little machine: How about a CD/DVD-RW unit, or a double-sized hard drive, or more RAM? You could easily spend $650.

Again, though, as netbooks grow up they’re not necessarily about being cheap, they’re about being small plus full-featured. Or at least that’s what makers like Dell are hoping.

The Inspiron’s keys are bigger than the 9-inch Asus’s (they did this by removing the row of function keys – it’s now an alt function of keys A to L – a trade-off that won’t please everyone.) Based on how you customize it, it comes with or without a Webcam or Bluetooth. It includes a 4-cell battery, which there’s no way to upgrade; this is a lackluster option. Minor plus: the unit is completely silent because it uses a large heatsink instead of a cooling fan. But has the noise from a netbook ever been a problem?

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 8.9 inches

Hard Drive: 8GB Solid State Drive

Memory: 512 MB

Weight: 2.3 pounds

2) MSI Wind U100

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Base Price: $379

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Amazon

MSI Wind product page

The MSI Wind is a netbook for the person who wishes they had a full-size unit. Its 10-inch screen is roomy for netbook category, and its keys are only 20 percent smaller than a full-size keyboard. So not only can you more easily scan Web sites, you won’t need to really alter your typing habits. Adding to the ergonomics, it has a built-in magnifier to enlarge photos or text, and the Page Up and Page Down keys are well placed for easy use.

With a built-in Webcam and microphone, this is a highly decent little box. In fact, the Wind has a bit of a cult following. Look around the Web and you’ll find a small army of satisfied users.

It’s available with either 3- or 6-cell battery, and the Wind switches back and forth in energy saving mode to lengthen battery life.

And, the MSI Wind is available in the Love Edition (with a big heart and flowing lines etched on the case) in case you’re feeling the vibe.

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 10 inches

Hard Drive: 120 GB

Memory: 1 GB

Weight: 2.3 pounds

1) Asus Eee PC 1000H (As an example of how prices vary, the 3-cell version is on sale for $379.)

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Base price: $475

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Asus product page (The Asus comparison chart, showing its rapidly growing netbook list)

My, how you’ve grown. The Asus, famously, kicked off the netbook revolution back in 2007 with a truly bare-bones 7-inch mini-box – practically a collector’s item at this point. But as competition has grown, Asus has bulked up, as evidenced by this not-so-small machine. Indeed, the Asus 1000H is sort of a netbook on steroids. A 10-inch screen, a fat hard drive, a keyboard that’s 95 percent full size – is this really a “netbook”?

Its 6-cell battery is known for its long life – possibly the best of any netbook; Asus claims around seven hours.

The machine was built with wireless in mind. The 1000H includes the Intel’s Wi-Fi AGN LAN chip, which offers the expanded connectivity of 802.11n Wi-Fi spec. It also boasts integrated Bluetooth, letting you connect with your Bluetooth cell phone and other external units. Not to mention 3 USB ports, a VGA output for connecting to a monitor, and a built-in microphone/Webcam.

In short, Asus, which single-handedely led the netbook charge, is now leading netbooks into their next incarnation as tiny but buff 'n muscular units.

Or, you can save a few bucks and go for the Asus Eee PC 901. With Linux installed, a smaller hard drive and an 8.9-inch screen, it sells for around $400. Check Amazon.

Processor: 1.6 Ghz Intel ATOM

Screen size: 10 inches

Hard Drive: 160 GB

Memory: 1GB

Weight: 3.2 pounds

Additional netbook resources:

Why You'll Buy a Netbook On Black Friday

Netbook? MID? Is This PC Category for Real?

It's Official: Dell Enters the Netbook Fray

It's a Small (Notebook) World at Computex

An Open Letter to the Ultraportable PC Industry

The Most Hated Company In the PC Industry

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