Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Ultimate Netbook Buyer’s Guide – Part 1

Netbooks, laptop computers and ultra-portables, oh my! With the rush of all these new devices, deciding which type of computer would fit your lifestyle and computing needs can be confusing. However, this guide was created to explain and clarify the details, misconceptions and trends of netbooks and some of the cheap netbooks that have emerged.

This is the first part of the netbook buyer’s guide which starts off with some history and clears up several confusing aspects of netbooks.

What are Netbooks?

Right around 2007, Asus realized that some consumers use their desktop PC for just quick and easy emailing, web browsing and Microsoft Word. Obviously, technology has advanced considerably since the creation of email, web browsing and MS Word, so Asus found an opportunity to create the Eee PC. Thus, the netbook category was born!
There are several crucial points that should be made with netbooks which distinguish them from standard notebooks:
  • They are designed for quick email checking, casual web browsing and light typing
  • They are engineered for minimal power consumption because of the above reasons
  • They are built to complement (not replace) full-size notebooks
  • Because of their limited utility, their components are relatively cheaper and therefore have a lower purchase price ($280 - $500) than traditional notebooks
  • They are designed to be highly portable and have significantly longer battery life because of their low-power consumption

Problems and Purpose

While Asus was praised for its netbook innovation, there were several issues that surfaced since the introduction of their Eee PC. First, retailers were pushing netbooks sales on the premise of its low cost and small footprint. The result was that consumers became misinformed and started to return their netbooks because they became frustrated attempting to do more tasks than what the netbook was designed for.
Second, there is a misconception that netbooks are just as fast as their standard notebook counterparts. So a 1.66 Ghz Intel Atom N450 may run literally as fast as a 1.6 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, but the Core 2 Duo was engineered as a performance chip with more horsepower per clock cycle so it will outperform the Intel Atom CPU on all applications.
(Kind of like how a Ford F150 (2011) and a Lexus IS-F (2011) are both rated at 400+ hp but would have significantly different 0-60 mph and quarter-mile times.)
Some complained that other performance issues included having difficulty ALT-Tabbing between Word, Excel, FireFox and Outlook. Again, netbooks were NOT designed with considerable multi-tasking in mind. They are designed for a person who wants to quickly check an email at a coffee shop, or a writer trying to post a quick blog or a student who wants to put the finishing touches on his/her term paper. Consumers were even complaining that netbooks struggled to stream YouTube videos successfully. Of course they would because a netbook’s video chipset was designed to eat up as little power as possible, not run web videos.
In an attempt to minimize production costs and keep the purchase price low, netbook makers had to cut several corners in order to still make a profit. For example, early netbooks featured Linux operating system instead of Windows so manufacturers wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to Microsoft. Also, first-generation netbooks had small 4-8 GB SSD (solid-state drives) hard drives and the RAM (and HDD) would be soldered onto the motherboard which all contributed to a lower cost.
One other conflicting issue with netbooks is its selling cost.  Originally, ASUS wanted a $199 price point but was forced to increase it to $299-$350  in order to sustain profitability after confirming the hardware for mass production.  Second, current netbook prices range from $299 all the way up to $500-$600.  Many speculate that instead of spending $299-$350 for a netbook, you can spend another $30-$50 for a full-featured (and bigger-screen) full-size notebook computer which offers a more-bang-for-your-buck mobile computing solution.

Netbooks vs. Ultra Portables

There is also an apparent confusion between the netbook and ultra portable notebook categories. First, ultra portable laptops have been around for a while. If you examine Sony and Dell’s older ultra-portable laptops, you’ll see a pattern of their tiny notebooks having the following specs:
  1. 10-13” LCD screen
  2. A mainstream CPU (i.e. Intel Pentium M, Core 2 Duo, etc.)
  3. 2-4GB RAM
  4. 320-500GB Hard Drive
  5. An extended battery for longer run times
  6. A significantly higher price tag (i.e. $600-$2500)
These specs are the basis for the ultra-portable category. Examples include the Dell Latitude X300, Fujitsu Lifebook P5000, Panasonic Toughbook W-2, Alienware M11x and the Toshiba Portege R700-S1330. The idea is to provide virtually the same (or near the same) computing horsepower as a normal-sized laptop in a highly portable size with an extended run time. So with that being said, the misconception that Apple’s Macbook Air is a netbook is false. Considering the requirements to qualify for a netbook, the Macbook Air is Apple’s ultra-portable laptop.

Netbook Hardware trends

A netbook’s specifications will be considerably lower than a full-size notebook because one of the fundamental premises of netbooks is extended (or also called all-day) battery life. Hence, netbooks will have the following specs in common:
  1. Low-voltage CPU (i.e. Intel Atom which is designed for minimal power consumption)
  2. Usually 1GB RAM – Enough to run Windows comfortably and 1-2 applications but that’s it
  3. 160-250GB Hard Drive – Hard drive size price-per-storage has become very cost-effective for PC makers so a 250GB hard drive in a $300-$350 netbook is common
  4. 8-11” LCD Screen – netbooks feature extreme portability and a very small footprint
  5. No DVD-CD Drive – In order to reduce size and increase battery life, netbooks don’t have optical drives. In addition, manufacturers realized that casual web browsing & email checking do not require a DVD drive.
  6. Webcam + Wi-Fi + 1-2 USB ports – These are the basic amenities that come standard with both notebooks and netbooks
If you’re in the market for a new computer and can’t decide between a netbook, notebook and ultra-portable, you should examine the reason(s) for your upcoming computer purchase and determine whether you need something for quick emailing, something with moderate horsepower & size or a power-hungry monster desktop-replacement if you’re looking to camp out at your local coffee shop.
Stay tuned, in Part 2, we’ll examine current netbook (and future) trends and what to look for in your next netbook purchase!


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