Building the perfect Netbook

We looked at a bunch of current Netbooks and created a handy chart to show you what's inside each one, as well as battery life, and most importantly, price.

Smaller and cheaper have always been big tech buzzwords, and the currently hot category of Netbook laptops seems to be embracing that spirit better than anyone else in recent memory. After all, we used to be crazy for 11- and 12-inch ultraportable laptops, which combined uninspiring performance and poor battery life into packages costing upward of $2,000. Now we can get comparable performance and (sometimes) better battery life in small 9- and 10-inch systems for $400-$700.

With low-power processors, tiny screens and finger-cramping keyboards, most of these Netbooks aren't good for much more than surfing the Web, checking e-mail, working on office documents, and maybe a little light multimedia playback--but that's 90 percent of what we do with our laptops anyway.

Still, the Netbook craze may be getting out of hand. Even without upcoming entries from Dell and Lenovo , we've looked at five new models recently, and consumers who may very well be interested in a second or travel laptop are confused by the different components, prices and even operating systems available.

To help clear up the confusion, we looked at a bunch of current Netbooks and created a handy chart to show you what's inside each one, as well as battery life, and most importantly, price.

CNET's handy Netbook comparison chart

Name

CPU

Hard Drive

RAM

OS

Screen

Battery

Price

Asus Eee PC 901

1.6GHz Intel Atom N270

12GB SSD

1GB

XP

8.9

315

599

Asus Eee PC 1000

1.6GHz Intel Atom N270

40GB SSD

1GB

Linux

10.0

356

699

Acer Aspire One

1.6GHz Intel Atom N270

8GB SSD

512MB

Linux

8.9

134

379

MSI Wind

1.6GHz Intel Atom N270

80GB HDD

1GB

XP

10.0

116

499

Sylvania G Netbook

1.2GHz VIA C7-M

30GB HDD

1GB

Linux

7.0

183

399

Do you want a more detailed comparison? Check out "Searching for the perfect Netbook."

To our surprise, we found that none of these Netbooks hit all the benchmarks we were looking for--some were underpowered, some had terrible batteries, and others simply cost too much for what should be almost an impulse purchase.

The Eee PC 901 hits most of the marks, and we love its extended battery life, but at $600, it's just as expensive as a comparable 15-inch budget laptop. The Eee PC 1000 is even more expensive, thanks to its best feature, a 40GB SSD drive, but again, excellent battery life, topping five hours.

Acer's Aspire One is great-looking Netbook, and at $379, it's also one of the cheapest. However, by saving a few bucks, you have to accept a measly 512MB of RAM and a battery that lasts only about two hours. It also has a Linux OS instead of Windows XP. While that certainly has its advantages (cheaper, runs well with less RAM), we generally prefer Windows XP in our Netbooks--it's more familiar to people, and makes it easier to install new software or troubleshoot problems.

The MSI Wind came close to fulfilling our Netbook dreams, but we'd rather have a smaller SSD drive (for less weight, better battery life, and hopefully more reliability, thanks to its lack of moving parts), than an 80GB standard platter drive. Also, at less than two hours, this is one of the worst batteries we've seen on anything besides a massive desktop replacement.

The Sylvania G Netbook has some decent component choices, but it was totally undone by a tiny 7-inch screen, virtually unusable touch pad, and a sluggish older VIA processor (we're still waiting to see something with VIA's new Nano Netbook CPU, which has been garnering some positive buzz).

If you're in the business of making PCs, listen up, because we're about to tell you how to build the perfect Netbook--a Frankenstein-like system, combining our favorite parts from all the Netbooks we've tested.

Our dream Netbook

  • CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270--We're open to new challengers, but this has quickly become the default Netbook CPU.
  • Hard Drive: At least 20GB SSD--We know SSD drives are expensive--but that's our minimum for useful storage and expansion.
  • RAM: 1GB--Perfect for running the stripped-down version of XP found in many Netbooks.
  • OS: Windows XP--Netbooks are supposed to be especially consumer-friendly--having a familiar operating system helps, plus it's easier to install new software or troubleshoot problems.
  • Screen: 8.9-inches--The best marriage of usability and portability.
  • Battery: At least 180 minutes--We know longer battery life requires bigger, bulkier batteries, so we'll compromise for a solid three hours.
  • Price: $499--Here's the most important part. A Netbook needs to come in less than that magic $500 mark to stand out from the scores of cheap mainstream laptops on the market.


So there's our challenge to the computer industry. Build one of these, and you'll not only likely sell a ton of units, but you'll also have the satisfaction of saying you built the perfect Netbook.

Or, if you have a better idea of what the perfect Netbook would include, let's hear it--there's plenty of space for comments below.

About the author

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal.

 

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