Battle of the $300 Netbooks

You want a super-cheap laptop? Let's see what $300 can get you in a Netbook.

It's a price worth fighting for! Warner Bros. Entertainment

You say you want value in your mobile computer? You say you want something super cheap? Not one year ago, we visited a very similar subject and found most Netbooks averaging $499. Now Netbooks are available for $299 or less, thanks to incredibly affordable new offerings from Acer--the just-reviewed Aspire One AOD250--and Dell's Mini 10v. A line has been drawn in the sand, and now we answer the question: what can $300 get me in a new Netbook?

The Dell Mini 10v was the first mainstream Netbook to come out of the starting gate at this sub-$300 price, followed by the new Acer Aspire One AOD250 and the HP Mini 1115NR. Below, check out our chart comparing the features each will give you in terms of CPU, hard drive, RAM, screen size, and other basic specs.

 

Dell Mini 10v

Acer Aspire One AOD250

HP Mini 1115NR

CPU

Intel Atom N270

(1.6GHz)

Intel Atom N270

(1.6GHz)

Intel Atom N270

(1.6GHz)

Hard drive

120GB (5600rpm)

160GB (5600rpm)

80GB (4200rpm)

RAM

1GB

1GB

1GB

OS

Windows XP

Windows XP

Windows XP

Screen

10.1 inch

10.1 inch

10.1 inch

Battery

3-cell (not tested)

110 (minutes)

150 (minutes)

Network

802.11 b/g, Bluetooth

802.11 b/g

802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth, Verizon 3G broadband modem

Price

$299

$298

$199 (with a 2-year Verizon mobile broadband contract)

First off, you might notice a lot of similarities between devices. Might we say nearly identical specs? For $300 you can expect:

  • An Intel Atom N270 processor running at 1.6GHz
  • 1GB of DDR2 RAM
  • A couple of USB 2.0 ports (up to three)
  • 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi
  • a 10.1-inch screen
  • Windows XP Home SP3

Hard-drive space varies: Acer's AOD250 leads with 160GB, while the HP Mini 1115NR has half that at 80 (and at a slower 4200rpm speed, instead of the more common 5400rpm). Something else that differentiates: Bluetooth. Acer lacks it, Dell and HP have it--if you like to connect wireless peripherals or use smartphone tethering, it's a must-have. While almost all Netbooks have b/g Wi-Fi, some have faster 802.11n, like the HP.

Note also the universal inclusion of Windows XP--for the least expensive first- and second-generation Netbooks, many PC makers saved the XP licensing fee and opted for a Linux-based OS. And the Intel Atom N270 has been the Netbook chip of choice for some time--while not a speed demon by any means, it handles basic tasks, browsing, and even media playback perfectly well.

The differences largely lie in the design and look and feel of Netbooks, and there are some differences here. The Aspire One has a thin plastic chassis, with a tiny touchpad and a keyboard that's responsive but cramped. The HP Mini 1115NR, on the other hand, has a larger keyboard that runs edge to edge, but a thicker case. The Dell Mini 10v also has larger flat keys.

The price of the Dell and Acer Netbooks are the same (minus $1 MSRP), but the HP costs $100 less--up front, that is. It also requires the purchase of a two-year Verizon wireless broadband contract, since it's subsidized by Verizon to be at that price in the first place. However, it also comes with 3G wireless out of the box, while the Dell and Acer models don't. This means surfing without hunting for a hot spot, provided you don't mind paying a monthly access price (either $39 or $59 per month, depending on your plan).

Compared with when Dan Ackerman compiled his Ideal Netbook spec sheet last August , have our dreams been answered?

  • Atom N270: It was the processor of Netbooks then, and it's the processor of Netbooks now, although that's going to change this fall when Intel's new Atom line debuts.
  • SSD: Most likely because of price-cutting concerns, SSDs are almost completely absent from most basic Netbooks. They're still an upgrade option. As costs eventually drop on SSDs, they will hopefully be adopted...but platter hard drives are so cheap, it's hard for most manufacturers to say good-bye.
  • Battery: Six-cells and three-cells are the order of the day for Netbooks. Each has issues: three-cells are cheaper and slimmer but last only a couple of hours, while six-cells are still bulky. We're still waiting for a revolution.
  • Cost: We said we'd be happy with $499, and now Netbooks are available for $299. That's great progress in less than a year.
  • Screen: 10.1 inches is the new 9 inch, and they're affordable, too.
  • RAM: We wanted a minimum of 1GB, and that's what they all are now. It's ideal for XP.
  • OS: Windows XP has spread across all Netbooks, and with apologies to Ubuntu, we're better off for it.

What do we want in our cheap Netbooks next? Well, we can dream of a $100 Netbook (if it worked for OLPC, why not us?), but if there's something else you'd like in your Netbook of tomorrow, let us know. Is $299 cheap enough for you? And does it offer enough?

What must it take for us to be satisfied?

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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