In the eyes of some, netbook computers might have lost a little bit of their appeal. Tablet computers like the iPad have taken the mobile computing space by storm, and some people are finding ways to use their smartphones to accomplish many of their day to day computing tasks.
But for a lot of us, nothing keeps our productivity high like being able to use a physical keyboard. Touchscreens are fine for quick e-mail messages, but you’d be hard-pressed to do any serious data entry on a virtual keyboard. Netbook computers have the tactile advantages of a physical keyboard, but are still highly portable like tablet computers. So if you find yourself in the market for a new netbook, what features and characteristics should you be looking for?
When buying a netbook, just like any computer, it is important to educate yourself about what is available in the market in order to get the best netbook deal. The tips in this netbook buying guide will help you make the right decision in getting a netbook that offers the greatest value for what you want, and/or need.
First we will look at the internal components of a netbook. It is the internal components such as processor, graphical processing unit, memory, hard drive, etc that gives the netbook its computing power. Then we will look at the external factors such as the screen size, keyboards, touch pads, ports, connectivity option, etc which largely determines how comfortable and usable is a netbook.
1. Operating System
Netbooks are usually equipped with Atom processors and 1GB of RAM, and are limited in their performance when compared to a standard notebook. This is one of the main reasons why the operating system used is important, as one which is too demanding can drag down the entire system and lead to poor user experience.
Most netbooks come pre-installed with Windows, but some come with linux variants sucha as Jolicloud or Ubuntu.
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. Our personal opinion is that while Linux may be a cheap option, it really does not make sense to learn an entirely new operating system when the Microsoft Windows 7 option is just a few bucks more. The advantage of choosing a Windows netbook is that most are familiar with Windows so the netbook can be used right away.
2. Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The processor is the second measure of a netbook’s potential computing power. Netbook processors are fairly standard, but you can usually rely on the basic concept that a higher number of GHz is better than a lower number.
There are exceptions to this. One of the most common exceptions is with dual and quad core processors. A dual-core 1.66GHz processor is likely to be better than a single-core 2GHz processor. Again, there are some exceptions to this, and it’s beyond the scope of this guide to explain them, but in general this is a rule that works.
3. Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
Netbooks can handle basic multi-tasking including Web browsing and word processing and light multimedia use. But you are limited in what you can do on your netbook in terms of graphics performance.
This is not surprising as most netbooks today use the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150 (GMA 3150) graphics card and it is integrated into the Atom CPU. Integrated graphics products rely on the computer’s main memory for storage, which imposes a performance penalty, as both the CPU and GPU have to access memory over the same bus.
The performance of GMA 3150 is only a bit better than the old GMA 950 found in many netbooks with N270/280 Atom CPUs. However, it is not sufficient to watch H.264 encoded HD videos with a higher resolution than 720p. HD flash videos from Youtube does not run smoothly on these graphical processor.
4. RAM Memory
RAM is an important measure of a computer’s potential performance. More RAM generally means faster computing, as well as increased capacity for multitasking. It is recommended that you buy the highest memory available for netbooks. Netbooks typically offer either 1GB or 2GB of RAM. If you have a choice between the two always go with 2GB over 1GB. This is especially useful if you’ll be running Windows 7 on your computer.
There are also several kinds of RAM used. Different RAM types perform differently. If you have a choice between DDR2 RAM and DDR3 RAM, then DDR3 RAM is better. But if you’ve got a choice between 1 GB or DDR3 RAM and 2GB of DDR2 RAM, then you’re better off with the 2GB option.
Most manuals that come with a netbook will include instructions on how to insert a RAM upgrade into the machine. If they don’t, it’s usually possible to look it up online. If you’re really not sure, you can take it to a computer repair shop where they’ll be able to help, but the cost of labor will likely outweigh any savings you initially made on the product.
5. Storage Space
Storage space is the room you have available on your computer to keep documents, music etc. Storage may not necessarily matter to you, but that depends on what you want to use your netbook for. If you like to store lots of music and videos on your computer then you’ll need a decent sized hard drive. If you’ll only use your computer for emailing and web browsing then you won’t need to worry so much about storage space.
There are two main kinds of storage on a netbook. These are standard hard drive storage, and SSD storage. SSD stands for “solid state disc”, and is usually more expensive and smaller in size than hard drive storage. What it lacks in size it makes up for in speed and security though. SSD hard drives access information very fast. And an SSD drive doesn’t suffer from the same risks that a standard drive does when in a portable device.
A standard hard drive is active on and off throughout the time your netbook is switched on. If the hard drive is in action and you accidentally bump your computer, there is a risk that the hard drive will be damaged. This can result in loss of information (losing your documents or photos for example) or sometimes a complete computer failure.
With SSD this doesn’t happen. For portable devices that are likely to be bumped around a lot, this makes SSD a great choice. However, it certainly isn’t essential, and the increased price and smaller size may not be for you.
The other kind of storage is the cloud storage. This serves a similar purpose to SSD, which is that there is no risk of hard drive failure and the corresponding loss of data. Some people don’t feel comfortable storing their stuff entirely online, though. Cloud storage is available on most operating systems in some form, but only Chrome OS has it as the fundamental form of storage for the device.
6. Screen Size
With screen size, the issue is really one of size versus portability. The first generation netbooks were released in 7 and 8.9 inch sizes. Recent trends indicate that many manufacturers have abandoned anything below 10 inch following the increased use of tablet PCs and smart phones.
A large screen will be better for watching movies, editing photos, and browsing the web. It may also make it easier when doing word processing jobs to some extent. If you want to view a lot of movies and photos on your laptop, then a larger screen may suit you better. However, if portability is really what matters to you most, then a smaller screen will probably mean a smaller and lighter machine.
The most popular size today is a 10.1-inch screen with 1024 by 600 pixel resolution. There are those who find this size of the screen workable. On the other hand, others get a major headache squinting their eyes on a netbook’s screen for more than half an hour.
Pushing the boundaries of the netbook term are the recently released 11.6″ and 12.1″ netbooks. The general consensus around the industry is that even though 11.6/12.1″ seems a little too large to be a traditional netbook, companies are still releasing netbooks at that size and the name have stuck. The industry is slowing moving to consider anything beyond 12.1″ to be a notebook.
7. Screen Finishing
The screen finish affects its visibility in different light conditions. The most challenging light conditions for any screen are outside in the sun. In that sort of light it can be very difficult to see anything on a screen at all. So, if you want to use your netbook in the garden or outside at cafes, you’ll want to find one with an appropriate screen. Netbooks come with either glossy (shiny) screens or matte (antiglare ) screens.
Matte screens don’t get glare or reflections on them; however, the same rough surface (polarizer) that reduces the intensity of reflected light results in less contrast and brightness since the light from the LCD screen passes through it. Matte screens diffuse light instead of reflecting it so they might be easier to read outdoors, if the backlight provides enough brightness. There are some screens that claim to be especially anti-reflective, and these may be a further improvement over the standard matt screens.
The glossy ones have vibrant colors and the highest contrast and brightness because they have a smooth, high-gloss surface. As a result, it is often the choice for movies or gaming. However, strong lighting causes glare on these screens which is very annoying and may tire your eyes if you have to stare at it all the time. You can also see reflections on the screen.
Another practical issue to take into account is cleaning. A shiny screen will show any fingerprint from anyone who touches it. A matte screen of course can show fingerprints but won’t do it so obviously as a shiny screen. If you are incredibly anal about the appearance and cleanliness of your screen and work with people who are inclined to touch it, a matte screen may be the superior choice for your situation.
Whether one is better than the other ultimately boils down to personal preference and what your needs may be. If the screen is to be used in a room that’s generally dark, consider a glossy finish. In a controlled environment it offers a best-case picture. If the netbook is to be used in a mix light environment a matte finish will be more appropriate.
Make the decision only after careful consideration; buyer’s remorse after spending three hundred dollars is not a pleasant thing.
Most users don’t stop to consider the keyboard on the netbook they’re about to purchase. However, this can be a big mistake. There are a number of differences that a keyboard can make to your overall satisfaction with the product, some of which depend on how you intend to use the device, while others may have an effect whatever way you use it.
Keyboards on netbooks come in a variety of sizes. While small keyboards may look good and save on space, they are usually harder to type on. The smallest keyboards can become quite uncomfortable to use after a while, and people with larger hands/ fingers may also struggle when using such a keyboard.
Users who intend to use their netbook for extended periods of time, and for lots of typing, will likely prefer to have a larger keyboard. Not only are they generally more comfortable to use than their compact counterparts, but they also reduce the amount of errors made when typing.
The type of keyboard may also impact upon your experience of using the product. Chiclet keyboards are the most popular keyboard type for netbooks, and remain comfortable while affording a bit more compactness. The keys themselves also make a difference. Some keyboards are more responsive than others, and some keys just feel better to press. The best way to check this out is first-hand in a technology store. Failing that, look through user reviews online and seek out comments on the keyboard.
9. Touchpad and Mouse-Buttons
Like standard notebooks, netbooks come with a touchpad or trackpad rather than a mouse. A touchpad is a small, rectangular, touch-sensitive surface beneath the keyboard that’s used for moving the cursor across the screen and for issuing commands.
Netbook trackpads often tend to be short, but the real problem is with the mouse buttons. Typically, one or two clickable buttons beneath or placed on either side of the touch pad act like mouse buttons. Sometimes the left and right click buttons are one rocker switch style bar.
Even with models with the buttons under the trackpad aren’t as easy to use as those on full size notebook computers. We recommend that you try the netbook out before you buy.
A multi-touch touchpad lets you do things like rotate photos and scroll Web pages with two fingers, and you’ll want a touchpad that supports multi-touch gestures.
10. Ports and Expandability
Most netbooks features three USB 2.0 ports (the standard at this time) though some may offer a USB 3.0 port. Other ports that may concern you include Ethernet ports for wired internet access and networking, ports allowing you to hook your netbook up to a computer monitor, headphone and mic port, and even HDMI ports which can connect out to HDTVs.
Even so, port configurations vary between models, some have been found with two USB, no full-size VGA (you’ll need an adapter) and a combo headphone/mic jack instead of two separate ones. so make sure the one you’re about to buy has enough to accommodate your current array of peripherals.
Pay attention to where these ports are placed on the side of the netbook. If you have a bulky USB device, make sure there’s sufficient room between the sockets, so that plugging your device into the netbook doesn’t obscure the adjacent port.
Most netbooks now come with integrated webcams and microphones. However, that’s not always the case. If you want webcam or microphone functionality, then you’ll want to check this out.
Integrated webcam and microphone is a nice feature on any device if you play to keep in touch through Skype or a similar service. With a webcam it’s possible for your family to see you no matter how far away you are, provided you have a reasonable internet connection.
Connectivity describes the ways in which the netbook can interface with the internet and other networks. Key connectivity features include Wi-Fi, 3G, Ethernet and Bluetooth.
Wi-Fi is the most common form of internet connection for netbooks and other portable devices. All netbooks will include Wi-Fi of one kind or another.Most netbooks today support wireless Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n standards.
3G is useful to have, although far from essential. It lets you connect to a service provider wirelessly, in a similar fashion to older smartphones.
Ethernet allows you to connect to the internet, or to a computer network, through an Ethernet cable. The cable isn’t usually included in the box, but they can be bought fairly cheaply. If you don’t want to use a Wi-Fi connection in your home then you’ll need an Ethernet port on your netbook.
Bluetooth is a built in wireless networking technology that’s been around for years. Using Bluetooth it’s possible for two computers to connect to each other and transfer files and other information. This is useful if you don’t have Wi-Fi access and want to get information from one computer onto another.
13. Optical Drive
Most, if not all, netbooks lack an optical drive. Optical drives are the devices used to play CDs and DVDs on a computer. If a netbook doesn’t have an optical drive then it means you won’t be able to listen to music or watch movies from physical discs on your netbook. If you really want to watch DVDs and play CDs on your computer, you can purchase an external optical drive that you can connect to your netbook via USB port, when needed.
14. Battery Life
Since netbooks are designed to be ultraportable, and you’ll likely be using it on the go, make sure you understand exactly what the battery life of a given netbook is. There are two aspects to battery life. The first is how long the battery lasts for when the computer is in use. The second is how long the computer can remain on standby when not connected to a power source.
If you want to take your netbook out and about with you, especially if you’ll be somewhere a bit remote where you’re unlikely to be able to recharge, then the longer the in-use battery life is, the better. Most three-cell batteries will last around three hours, with reasonable screen brightness and wireless use. A six-cell battery extends that to get you through a cross-country flight or most of the day out of the office
There is one other thing you might want to check out that’s related to battery life. That is whether or not it’s possible to buy a spare battery and switch your batteries out. It’s not all that common to use spare laptop batteries, but if you know you’ll be needing to use a netbook for extended periods without any power source, a spare battery could really make a big difference.
15. Weight and Dimension
Netbooks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so be sure to pick one that you’ll feel comfortable with. Pay attention to the width and depth of the netbook if you’ll be using or storing it in cramped spaces.
Netbooks are meant to be used on the go. So the lighter your netbook weighs the more likely you are to carry it around. The lightest netbooks weigh just under two pounds; the heavier ones tread closer to ultraportable classification at over four pounds. Bigger battery capacities add a lot of weight and selecting the right capacity for your needs is important, otherwise you lose a lot of the benefits of netbook portabiliy.
Personal preference really. Are you looking for products that reflect your personal style and favorite color? There’s a variety of colors, finishes, and, in some cases, artwork that can dress up your new netbook.
We find business professionals tend to prefer black whilst home users prefer white or the other color that may be available. Black does have the advantage of hiding marks from dirty hands and scuffs a lot better. However, certain glossy black models tend to get finger print marks and look smudged. Narrow down your options and make your netbook your own.
One final thing to consider when buying a netbook is the warranty. A one-year warranty is standard on most models, although some manufacturers offer the option of extending this to two years (usually for a fee). Some netbook manufacturers do offer a two-year warranty as standard though, so check the small print before buying.
The type of warranty is also worth noting. ‘Collect & return’ is the most convenient, since the manufacturer will arrange for a faulty netbook to be collected and returned once repaired. ‘Return to base’, on the other hand, means you’ll have to pay the delivery cost yourself.
18. Price Range
If your needs are simple, you should be satisfied with a basic model at a very basic price. Remember that netbooks are meant to be inexpensive and there’s a psychological advantage to keeping the cost of your new system low: you’re less likely to worry about it breaking or getting damaged, making you more likely to carry and use your new investment.
From a price perspective, netbooks can be grouped according to price ranges as those netbooks under $250, netbooks between $250 – $300, netbooks between $300 – $350, netbooks between $350 – $500 and netbooks above $500.
Sometimes, it’s not all about the price. Sure, it can be helpful to find netbooks that are affordable, but the cheap netbooks that you find might not be all that they are cracked up to be. For example, you might very well spend a little more money than you wanted on a netbook, and the chances are good that you’ll get a better system that you’ll love even more than you would have loved the cheap one.
Make sure that you take the time to check out all the different options that you have, because you should never buy one based on price alone.
19. Brands to consider
Considering the netbook brand before purchasing is essential as the market today is filled with numerous brands of netbooks – and more brands are expected to hit the market soon. Asus started the category in 2007. Acer, Samsung, Toshiba, MSI, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Sony have since muscled their way in; all have models worthy of consideration.
Should I Buy Now or Wait for Something Better?
In our discussion with netbook users, we often get the age-old question of whether one should buy a new netbook now or wait for new technologies to emerge .
If history is anything to go by, netbook based on new generation processors and chipsets won’t appear in stores until 3-4 months after announcement. So, realistically, be prepared to wait for the next six months before sufficient volume becomes available in retail channels. And that’s assuming manufacturers decide to release netbooks straight away. Some manufacturers may not be ready or want to release anything new until their quarterly planning. Of course, there will probably be one or two models that will be available shortly after announcement. Chances are, they may be buggy. So, be prepared to be a beta tester.
The right time to buy a new netbook is whenever you need one. A netbook can never be your primary computer unless your needs are really very elementary. If your priorities lie in basic internet, email and occasional typing use, with a little VoIP video chatting, you’re unlikely to need anything more than what is available; there’s also far more choice in screen size, brand and style, not to mention cost.
The bottom line is that you could wait forever to buy, because there’s always a better netbook coming and there’s no doubt that whatever you buy today — even a top of the line $600 system — will start looking outdated after 12 months when you compare it to the new netbooks of that time. Trying to chase the future is a losing proposition. Meet your needs today and let the future take care of itself.
Finally, the canny but impatient buyer would do well to consider used netbooks or refurbished netbooks for their immediate purchase. The upside to relatively stable specifications is that what’s available pre-owned is often exactly the same, under the hood, as what’s still being sold as brand-new on store shelves. We’ve seen a range of nearly new netbooks spanning brands, on offer for around half the price of their box-fresh counterparts.
Rather than looking at a netbook’s shiny shell and making your decision based on that, make an informed decision based on what is under the hood. Take all of the specifications discussed in this netbook buying guide into consideration when comparing the netbook models. Doing your homework and weighing what one netbook will do what in comparison with another, is what will be best in helping you make your final decision.
Finally, buy the netbook and feel great because, after doing all the research, you definitely got the best deal out there. Enjoy!
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