The recent netbook trend fascinates me. It simultaneously goes against all technology trends toward bigger/faster while reflecting the actual needs of most consumers. Unlike Apple execs who think these are a big waste of time and money, I think there’s some real value from these below entry-level notebooks (which, I might add, are far superior to the OLPC laptop I almost ordered around Christmas before thinking better).
To get a better insight into the appeal of these new low-powered computers, I decided to get some hands-on experience. My criteria were simple:
- Cost under $300. I know most reviewers say under $500, but for that kind of money, I can get a nicely equipped full-size refurbed laptop.
- Comfortable form factor. If I can’t type at least close to my normal speed, it isn’t going to work for me.
- Very portable. While this conflicts a bit with #2, there are subtle design differences that make some netbooks more portable than others.
- Fast boot and wake times. This requirement evolved after my experience with the Dell.
- Decent battery life. I’ve been disappointed in this area, but consistently so.
Contestant #1: Dell Inspirion Mini 9
Specs: Atom 1GHz processor, 16 GB SSD, 1GB RAM, webcam, WinXP
After reading dozens of reviews online, I decided to start with the Dell Mini 9. This device seemed to have the best blend of features and at an incredible post-Christmas refurb price blitz that I couldn’t pass up. It’s compact size, lightning-fast boot and sleep recovery times were impressive. It handled Windows XP and typical tasks like word processing and web surfing with admirable aplomb.The 16GB onboard SSD was sufficient, especially when coupled with an additional 16GB SD card, off which I ran Portable Apps. And the 9″ screen seems, to me, to be the perfect size for maximal readability and maximal portability.
I took this to a tech conference to test it in a real life situation and was happy not to have to lug around my Thinkpad. I thought I’d use the built-in webcam to capture a couple sessions, but the resolution is terrible and since it’s fixed pointing at the user, I could not simultaneously type on the Mini and record a presneter.
However, the keyboard is the Dell’s fatal flaw. It’s misplaced apostrophe key increased my typo rate to an unacceptable level, never mind the number of tweets that were sent off mid-thought because I hit the return key by accident. While I could have tried remapping the keyboard, the limited screen rotation angle and stiff mouse buttons made me wonder if there weren’t better options out there. Before its value dropped below what I bought it for, I sold it on eBay…for a nice profit!
Next up…the Acer Aspire One
Specs: Atom 1GHz processor, 8/8 GB SSD, 1GB RAM, webcam; WinXP
The Acer gets rave reviews so once the price came down a bit, I was really looking forward to this being “the one” (pun intended). Out of the box, I could tell the build was slightly cheaper than the Dell, but it was still a good-looking machine. Then I booted it up. And waited. And waited. This thing took nearly three minutes to go from cold to being able to do anything in Windows and even then it was sluggish.
The keyboard was more comfortable to use (the One is a bit wider than the Dell) but there were a few poor design issues. For example, the One is stated to have a “16GB SSD,” but what it really has is an 8GB SSD and an external 8GB SD card. This was perhaps part of the slowness issue, as it worked between the two storage devices. An additional SD card slot was handy except, unlike the Dell which allowed the inserted SD card to be enclosed flush with the outside of the device, the SD card on the One stuck out an 1/8 inch. Lastly, and this is really getting picky, I didn’t like the three-pronged AC cord. What could I possibly not like about it? I wouldn’t have even thought about it had the Dell not come with a two-pronged cord which fit neatly into the dash of my Toyota Matrix. This lack of flexibility was a minor annoyance, but still annoying.
Due to the various design flaws, I didn’t use this long enough to test the battery capacity. Instead, I returned it and started to wonder if there was not yet a decent netbook on the market.
Third time’s a charm?: Asus EeePC 900A
Specs: Atom 1GHz processor, 4 GB SSD (upgraded to 32GB, $71), 1GB RAM (upgraded to 2GB, $20); Linux
$180 + 71 + 20 = $271 total cost
There was something enjoyable about getting my hands on the netbook that started it all. After purchasing the 900 for $160 which came with a 900MHz processor and 512MB RAM, I came across a deal for the 900A for $170 which had the Intel Atom 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM for just $30 more.
Since the prices were so low, I ordered a 2GB RAM module and 32GB SSD from newegg and put both in the 900A. I then put the 1GB RAM in the 900 (and I put it on eBay). This involved simply removing a two screws for a panel on the bottom, popping out the existing components and plugging in the new ones.
The ease at which any user can mod this netbook indicates Asus designed the EeePC for what it is: a low-cost machine that can be upgraded up with very little money or effort. This is in stark contrast to the other netbooks on the market which requires a high level of technical skill and accepting a huge degree of risk as you immediately void your warranty. I’ve read a few how-tos which seem to indicate adding a $50 touch screen to the Asus is a fairly easy procedure as well so I’m seriously considering that mod!
This was my first foray with Linux (which partly explained the low price – no Windows license). Even though I had no prior experience with Linux, based on several resources and recommendations I decided to replace the default Xanadu with Eeebuntu (an Ubuntu build specifically for the EeePC) on both machines. This was a piece of cake as well: after downloading the image file and using a free utility to load it on a USB drive, I booted off the USB drive and the installation process took care of itself. The Eeebuntu interface is much nicer to use and seems to work much faster than the original OS. In addition, it’s based on Ubuntu and, since Ubuntu recently released an upgrade, I was happy to see that the core OS was upgradable while retaining the specific EeePC modules that make Ubuntu run smoothly on this machine.
The keyboard on the Asus is smaller than either the Dell or Acer but still usable. One startling issue I noticed with the 900 was the heat produced by it. The 900A does not seem to have this same problem.
One fantastic feature is the multi-touch touchpad (similar to Macbooks) which accepts two- and three-finger gestures to scroll and activate context-sensitive menus (like right-clicking). Linux does not provide as much support for this feature as Windows, but it’s still very cool.
Bottom Line: Wait for now
Of all the options, I’m most pleased with the EeePC for a couple of reasons: 1) the low base price means that I could try out a netbook with minimal investment. The ability to easily upgrade the memory and SDD is a huge benefit to me.
So why wait? While the overall design is satisfactory, the keyboard could be improved. The price, while low, didn’t include Windows. While I’m still getting used to Linux, I’m enjoying it so far. The Gnome interface isn’t very different from Windows and the OS runs very quickly on the EeePC. Since nearly every application that I typically use is either available for Linux or has a free alternative, I’m very satisfied with it so far. But…most buyers will still want to opt for Windows since it’s familiar.
I realize that I didn’t test every netbook on the market, mostly since others fail to meet one or more of my criteria. For example, the HP netbook has unacceptable design features like an integrated microphone/headphone jack and the Samsung and MSI Wind are still too expensive for me to seriously consider them “low cost” notebooks. Others include a 10″ screen, which makes the keyboard easier to use but also makes the device a bit too bulky for me to consider it “ultra portable.”
I think the perfect design is still lurking out there and I would encourage anyone who isn’t an “early adopter” to hold off until the market matures a bit.