Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Ultimate Netbook Buyer’s Guide – Part 2

At this point, manufacturers are attempting to blur the lines between netbooks and notebook computers in several ways. First, Intel has continuously re-engineered the Atom CPU to run faster, do more work per clock cycle and consume less power. The previous generation N280 was the first to receive Intel’s HyperThreading technology which basically tells Windows there are 2 processors even though there is physically one. In other words, it helped with multitasking navigation. Now there is even more horsepower in their latest processors which not only have HyperThreading, but are now dual-core powered. What this means is that the newest Atom-powered netbooks will have 2 physical CPUs but Windows will see 4 CPUs which amplifies the netbook’s muscle. However, you should still determine your computing needs so you don’t find out the hard way that you need something bigger, that has faster performance and more RAM plus a bigger hard drive.


E-Atkins Diet

You’ll also notice that netbooks are starting to get thinner and lighter. Thanks to Apple’s ultraportable laptop, the MacBook Air, manufacturers are not only pushing the continued thin & portable design, but also integrate some of Apple’s aesthetic looks such as the chiclet keyboard, brushed aluminum/plastic look and blending the mouse trackpad and its buttons into the palm rest area. Some mouse trackpads even support multi-gesture touch similar to Apple’s.


Endurance Mode!

In addition, earlier generation netbooks had 3-4 cell lithium-ion batteries which saved on costs. Now, manufacturers are bundling longer-lasting 6-cell batteries so you can expect an average of 8-10 hours of power cord-free computing.


Multimedia Horsepower

Addressing complaints with graphics-intensive tasks like flash (YouTube videos); Intel has decided to integrate the graphics card into its next-generation Atom CPU. Because the CPU and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) are in the same place and work together, streaming video and movies on your netbook will be more enjoyable. AMD is also jumping in and getting more aggressive with their next-generation Fusion (code-named Brazos) processors which have been shown in benchmark tests to be more than a match for Intel’s Atom (with nVidia’s Ion) processors.


The Brands

One fundamental consideration on netbooks (and other technology) is that they’re all built in China by a handful of ODM (Original Design Manufacturers). So pick your favorite computer brand, HP, Apple, Dell, MSI, etc., these OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) contract with ODM’s such as Quanta, Compal and Foxconn to mass-produce the OEM’s products. Since they all roll out of the same factories, the argument that one netbook is better than another based on build quality doesn’t hold much weight. However, consumer preference and brand image are strong influences when customers ask their friends and family for advice. For example, many people fancy Apple’s elegant brushed aluminum look on their notebooks. Others prefer ASUS’s unique styling and their innovation considering they blazed the trail for the netbook genre.
In addition to consumer preference/styling, there are a couple of other elements to consider when deciding on brand. Does the brand(s) offer a reasonable warranty? Sure it may come with 1 year parts coverage but some brands offer only 90 days labor so you’ll be billed for labor performed if your netbook has to be repaired 6 months after purchasing it. Second, you can ask the salesperson or on-duty technician which brand(s) of netbooks that have a consistent pattern of being returned or brought in for repairs. If you’re shopping online, most retailers offer customer reviews where you can view previous customer purchases (both good and bad) which can help gain some insight on the brand’s performance.


What to Look For

For your next netbook, you should make sure the CPU is at least an Intel Atom 450. In other words, ask the salesperson if the netbook in question has HyperThreading (they’ll know what this means). This equates to quicker switching between multiple programs and better overall system performance. If you’re looking for extra horsepower, ask the salesperson for a Dual-Core netbook (i.e. Intel Atom N550 CPU)
Most netbooks now come with Windows 7 Starter edition. Keep in mind that there is a reason why it’s called “Starter” edition. This flavor of Win 7 has reduced functionality in exchange for running leaner and eating up less system resources during operation. For example, you’re not allowed to change the default Windows blue logo background wallpaper. Not that it should be a dealbreaker on a netbook purchase but netbook makers were shooting for the computing essential which is why Win 7 is the familiar operating system of choice.
Most current netbooks are fast enough with 1 GB RAM (max is 2 GB) so you might see a significant price increase for 2 GB RAM (or 2 GB upgrade). In addition, the standard 160-250 GB hard drive remains mainstream since many users have their netbooks as a supplemental computer for quick tasks.
Also keep in mind that by default, netbooks do not have Microsoft Office installed unless it comes pre-installed from the factory. They also don’t have optical drives (DVD/DVD+/-RW drives) so if you wanted to install your own copy of MS Office, you would need to buy an external DVD drive. Another crucial heads-up is that some netbooks have a copy of MS Office STARTER version installed. These are 90-day use programs and can be unlocked to unlimited time but you must purchase a license. Of course, you’re welcome to purchase a netbook with MS Office pre-installed but the usual increase in the netbook’s purchase price is about $150-$299. (The cost of MS Office)
Office Starter is Microsoft's replacement for Microsoft Works.  Like Works, Office Starter comes with Word & Excel but with limited usage.  It does not include Outlook and PowerPoint but it does not have a license that needs to be renewed.  This version has built-in advertisements that take care of the license fees.
Most netbooks have a 10.1” LCD monitor but you’re welcome to opt for a larger 11.6” screen and more premium features like nVidia’s Ion graphics which help improve multimedia applications. Just remember that these extra features will increase the cost of a netbook such that it approaches $380-$450 which is the starting cost of normal-sized (and full-featured) 14-16” notebook computers.
If you need additional connectivity, you can opt for a netbook with Bluetooth which is perfect if you find yourself somewhere without local internet access like free coffee shop Wi-Fi. Bluetooth allows you to tether your cell phone (if you have a tethering data plan) and also supports other devices like Bluetooth mice and printers, etc.
Regardless of what you’re looking for in a netbook, the big picture is to know the computing reasons for your netbook purchase so you know what to look for and avoid what you don’t need and end up overpaying or being disappointed.
We hope you have enjoyed this week’s Tech Tip. If you have any questions please leave a comment!!
Happy Shopping!

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