Picking a Netbook laptop computer

So many choices, so many flawed designs

I've been watching the new category of small cheap laptop computers since they first came out. Watching, but not buying. The time, however, may have come to take the plunge.

One of the few Netbooks* I've actually used was the first Asus EEE. It was an amazing machine, small, cheap, light, sturdy and reasonably fast. It sparked my interest in the emerging new hardware category. But, it wasn't amazing enough to get me to buy it. The keyboard and the screen were just too small.

The flood of subsequent Netbook models have all seemed to have a fatal flaw, to me at least.

Sometimes the flaw was the operating system. I can't understand why every hardware company feels the need to create a customized version of Linux. What's wrong with the popular distros? Then too, some of these underpowered laptops ship with Vista, which, to me, is a mistake on multiple levels.

Often, the flaw is the price. A big part of the appeal of the original Asus EEE was the low price. HP is perhaps the biggest offender here, their Mini-Note 2133 KR948UT came out at $949 and just had its price reduced to $789.

Sometimes the flaw was the processor. From what I've read, waiting for the Atom processor was the way to go. This ruled out a slew of early models, but now there are many Atom based models to chose from.

In part the flaws probably stemmed from the hardware manufacturers not understanding their target audience.

In July, I attended The Last HOPE hacker conference where I was surrounded not only by techies, but by many ultra small, ultra light laptop computers. At one point someone sitting next to me was using an Asus EEE to sniff the WiFi traffic in the room. That machine certainly wasn't running the factory-installed operating system.

Sometimes the flaw is the hard disk. I long for a laptop that can be bounced around while running without risking severe damage to the hard disk. In other words, I'd prefer a solid state hard disk (SSD) rather than a traditional rotating platter model.

But hardware vendors seem married to the idea that more storage is better than less storage. When the incremental cost is trivial, this may be true, but SSDs are expensive. Thus large capacity SSDs come with large price tags. Here too, I think they mis-judged their audience.

A Netbook class machine is often a second computer rather than a primary one. Thus, it doesn't need gobs of gigabytes. Six or eight gigabytes would be fine by me. Anyone needing more storage space should be able to stick a memory card inside the machine. Those of us looking for a secondary machine shouldn't be burdened with features meant for a primary computer.

I'm not the only one struggling to pick a specific machine. In Building the perfect Netbook CNETer Dan Ackerman says "... 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."

So where does that leave those of us trying to settle on a particular cheap, small, light-weight secondary computer?

On paper, I agree with CNET's recommendation of the Acer Aspire One as the best combination of features and prices. I say "on paper" because I haven't actually used one. The new Lenovo Netbooks may be even better, but they are not yet available.

The problem with the Aspire One is picking a model, each entails compromises. More on that next time.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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