Netbooks are an incredibly exciting new product category, and one that's undergoing constant evolution. Designed to handle e-mail, Web browsing, and some basic software apps, they are somewhat limited when compared with most full-size laptops, but how limited? I wanted to find out.
I've dug into a few dozen popular sites that I use, and made note of basic performance through extended use. Did they work? Did they not work? These were things I wanted to test.
The verdict: overwhelmingly positive. Besides a few issues with Adobe Flash performance (which we get into later), it handles most things with speed and agility. Before delving any deeper though, let's go over the test machine and browsers we used:
Dell Mini Inspiron 10 (a loaner review unit)
OS: Windows XP Home
Processor: Intel Atom Z530 dual-core 1.6ghz (533MHz FSB/512K L2Cache)
Display: 10.1" widescreen (1366x768)
Graphics: Intel GMA 500
Retail cost as configured (before magic Dell coupons): $474
Internet Explorer 8 (v8.0), Google Chrome (v184.108.40.206), Firefox (v3.0.10). I would have loved to do additional testing in Safari and Opera, but for the sake of simplicity I stuck with the big three.
The browsers, and the OS were as lean as possible. None of the browsers was running any add-ons, or special plug-ins besides Java and the latest version of Adobe Flash. There were also no other programs running besides the Windows activity monitor.
For the sake of simplicity, I've divided up the sites I tested into two categories: work and play. Assuming you're buying a Netbook for either purpose, you're likely to dabble in both realms at some point.
These are Web apps that let you get things done, be it business, homework, or personal scheduling.
Google Docs and Zoho--Both of these online office suites performed great. Zoho clearly has far more tools in one place than Google Docs does, so for the sake of this test I just used the ones that both shared which include word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The Netbook handled all of them without any slowdown, however this is definitely one set of tools where a larger screen resolution makes it easier to see what you're doing. Otherwise, a small text increase in your browser (Ctrl +) makes it feel normal. Kudos go to both sites for offering a special full-screen view of the workspace. This let me get more use out of the slightly smaller screen.
Zimbra is the perfect office Web app for Netbooks. You get e-mail, calendaring, chat, document editing and creation, as well as contact management in one tight package. I gave both the Ajax and HTML versions of the service a spin, and the performance was equally great across all three browsers. Not tested was the desktop, software-based version, but based on the requirements it should run on just about anything.
Google and Yahoo Calendar are both lightweight Web applications. Google's iteration uses AJAX (which means less page refreshes), and the provides the option to create meetings or appointments simply by clicking and dragging on-screen. Any Netbook, even older models, should have no problem with these apps.
DimDim--We wanted to put WebEx through its paces, but for the sake of this story we're going with free tools. DimDim, one of my personal favorites, makes for a good test subject. Its free version lets you screen share, video chat, voice chat, work on a whiteboard, co-view Web pages, and even record the entire session to view later. I did all of those things, and while there was a little slow-down when co-viewing Web pages, the person on the other end said that the video and voice were coming in loud and clear.
Google Reader/iGoogle/My Yahoo/Netvibes--All of these RSS and widget news pages ran with ease. Similar to the calendar apps, these are designed to be lightweight, with the exception of some of the widgets that can run on them.
In terms of specialty mapping services, Street View in Google Maps was fluid, although not quite as buttery smooth as is on my MacBook. And the 3D view in Bing Maps worked when set to its most basic level, but there was a notable drop in performance when compared to the standard detail layers. I would not recommend trying to run the more graphics-intensive modes that actually give you 3D buildings, since these require a dedicated graphics card (something most Netbooks don't have).
Storage. The Mini I was using for the test comes with 160GB hard drive, but many Netbooks come with less. An easy solution is Web storage, either through the browser, or with a hybrid desktop solution like Mozy or Carbonite. Since we're trying to keep this test as software-free as possible, I limited my online storage providers to Box.net, MobileMe, ADrive and DropBox.
The Netbook handled all of them with ease, except for MobileMe, which is not IE-friendly (that's not the computer's fault though). My favorite of the bunch is Box since you can preview most file types without having to use outside software, or download the entire thing to your hard drive. If you're looking for a service that provides you with a virtual folder that can be used in your computer's regular file explorer, both MobileMe and DropBox can do that. Of those two I prefer DropBox because it behaves the same on multiple operating systems.
Video chat. The computer I was testing has a Web cam, so how did it handle two-way video chat? I used both Google Talk (in Gmail) and TokBox. It worked flawlessly with both, although I give a nod to TokBox for not making me install any additional software to make that happen. You can also do use TokBox's two-way video chat inside of Meebo, which brings us to...
These are Web apps that may let you do work, but most are for fun and entertainment.
Meebo. This chat app works great, although this was one of the few apps where screen resolution becomes important. I had to increase the size of the text in my browser to more easily read what was on the screen. Most browsers these days save these settings on a per-page basis though.
Kongregate. Our test Netbook tackled a handful of Flash games with ease. There was no slow down, or lag with the controls on the dozen or so games we played. If you want to see how today's Netbooks handle full retail games, check out this guide at Gamespot. They put two similarly-spec'd machines up against popular software titles to see what played well, and what didn't.
YouTube worked without a hitch. I could view normal and high-quality videos without any slowdown or system hiccups. This came close to topping out the processor though. And as expected, HD videos don't play well. This is a mix of a need for Flash optimization and simple hardware requirements that some Netbooks won't meet. Will they get there? More on that later.
Vimeo--Like YouTube, non-HD videos worked fine, while HD videos slowed to just a couple of frames per second. Unlike YouTube though, Vimeo has this odd quirk where you get slowdown when viewing HD videos with the HD turned off. This only happened when turning HD off mid-video though. Once I reloaded the page, the video would play just fine.
Hulu--Same story as YouTube and Vimeo. As long as it's the standard stream it's fine. What's unfortunate though, is that I experienced the notable slowdown when jumping up to the 480p stream (the standard is 360p). This isn't even HD video, it's just a higher resolution stream. I also got a slowdown on the low-quality stream when I put it into full-screen mode, which is how I'm guessing most folks will want to enjoy a 25-minute long episode of their favorite show.
Picnik. This popular online photo editor handled simple edits on 12 megapixel shots with relative ease. Crops, rotations, and resizing were smooth and fluid. However, our machine had to work harder to handle Picnik's filter effects, which is one of the things that makes the site really fun to use. You can still use all of its features though--even the collage tools. You simply don't get the smoothness or responsiveness you get on a more powerful machine.
Facebook--As expected, all of Facebook works marvelously with a Netbook. The only exception is HD videos, which in truth, most of my friends are not putting up on the service. Other parts of the service, such as chat and photo viewing worked great.
MySpace works well, although is not as snappy as Facebook, in part because of the music players that users tend to have on their profile pages. While the music portion of the site works just fine, I ran into the usual slowdown problems on MySpace's video site. Standard, user uploaded videos worked fine, but the larger resolution items suffered slowdown.
I was genuinely surprised how well the Mini handled nearly everything I could throw at it. The one obvious shortcoming in all of this is video. I spoke to Adobe about this, which along with hardware makers, is working on a fix. The bad news is that the fix is likely to require new hardware.
The bottom line for determining Flash performance is hardware that can take that highly compressed video and decompress it quickly. Full-sized laptops with beefier processors can handle this with with CPU cycles to spare. Most Netbooks, however, come with ultra low-power chips that come up a little short. Anup Murarka, who is Adobe's director of partner development and technology strategy told me this is only temporary though. "The new generation of Netbooks, due late this year, or early next year will start to address these issues," he said.
Something that may help with that is an update to Flash that will help it make more use out of multi-core processors, and on-board graphics processing units. For instance, the Mini I was using can tear through local HD video with relative ease using its integrated decoder. It also has an extra core that was not being used to its full potential. Flash does not yet tap into those, but it could in the future. The main thing that's keeping Adobe from sinking time into building that support right away, is that it would have to do so for the individual hardware configuration of each Netbook.
So is it worth buying one now, or waiting? As with any computer purchase, it depends on your needs. If you're OK not viewing HD videos, it does everything else, and does it well.
On the hardware side though, just make sure you opt for a higher screen resolution if it's available. Most Web apps like horizontal space, and if you're planning to use photo tools like Picnik and Flickr's organizer, the extra little bit helps. I would go with something that's at least 1024 pixels wide.
It's also worth seeing the device in person, since the keyboards on Netbooks can feel a little crammed. Even though manufacturers are getting them in upward of 95 percent the size of a standard keyboard, that difference takes some getting used to. Even after a few weeks on mine, it was still jarring to switch back and forth between a full-size machine. It also depends on what kind of applications you're using.
Had any problems or experiences with certain apps while using a Netbook? Let me know in the comments.