Rise of the high-def Netbooks

Netbooks with a high-definition 1,366x768 display offer a clear reason for stepping up to a more expensive system.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

It sometimes seems as if Netbook makers are engaged in a dangerous race to the bottom, pulling out all the stops to get their products on shelves at slightly lower prices than the next guy. While $499 used to be the Netbook starting price, that quickly slipped to $399, and now $299--or less, if you get a subsidized unit as part of a mobile phone carrier's data plan contract.

Even Netbooks that cost $100 to $200 more than that typically offer only better construction and nicer designs--they're often virtually identical under the hood to the least expensive systems, with an Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, Windows XP, and a 160GB hard drive.

One new area where Netbooks have been able to offer a clear reason for stepping up to a more expensive system is with a high-definition display. The typical 10-inch Netbook screen is 1,024x600--which is readable, but often cramped for scrolling long Web pages or working on office docs.

A recent trend in Netbooks, available in both 10.1- and 11.6-inch screens, bumps the resolution up to 1,366x768. The difference is clear when trying to read an online article without excessive scrolling, or doing a lot of cutting and pasting on a Word doc or spreadsheet. It also works well for 720p HD video content--although your mileage may vary, depending on the source, compression, and media player app. Netbook hardware can't always handle the strain of smooth HD video.

We've had five Netbooks with 1,366x768 screens cross our Lab bench recently. The Sony Vaio W and Dell Mini 10 (the latter is also available with a standard 10x6 screen) are both 10-inch models, and each cost around $500--a healthy premium over non-HD Netbooks.

Asus' Eee PC 1101HA and Acer's Aspire One 751h were less expensive 11-inch Netbooks, but both used the z520 version of Intel's Atom CPU, which led to annoyingly slow performance (the Asus did offer some onboard overclocking for its wimpy processor, but that's a Band-Aid approach).

We found the most satisfying HD Netbook experience in an unexpected place. Gateway's 11-inch LT 3103u cost only $379, and used an AMD L110 CPU, which gave us a smoother overall experience (albeit at the expense of battery life), along with 2GB of RAM and a larger 250GB hard drive.

Check out the details of each of our 1,366x768 Netbooks below. But beware, as we've pointed out previously, none of these systems include the free Windows 7 upgrade you'd get with a mainstream laptop purchase.

Gateway LT3103u
The good: Feels faster than an Intel Atom Netbook, but keeps the price low; high-def display.

The bad: Uninspiring battery life; terrible mouse buttons; no Bluetooth.

The bottom line: The 11-inch, AMD-powered Gateway LT3103u does well on price and performance, but drops the ball on battery life when compared with the competition.

Read the full review here.

Sony Vaio W
The good: High-res display; cool color combos; typical high-quality Sony construction and design.

The bad: Poor battery life; better display adds a $100 premium; smallish keyboard; loud fan.

The bottom line: Attempting to create a premium-priced version of a Netbook, Sony has added an HD display to the Vaio W. It's an attractive step-up package, but the internal components are the same as are in cheaper models.

Read the full review here.

Asus Eee PC 1101HA
The good: Bigger 11-inch, high-resolution screen; overclockable CPU; great battery life.

The bad: Slightly slower and more expensive than standard Netbooks.

The bottom line: Swelling the ranks of 11.6-inch Netbooks, the Asus Eee PC 1101HA impresses with its design and battery, but having to overclock a slower version of Intel's Atom CPU is a dodgy workaround.

Read the full review here.

Dell Inspiron Mini 10
The good: High-end extras including a higher-resolution screen and HDMI output; very configurable, for a Netbook, including optional mobile broadband.

The bad: Options drive the price up into mainstream laptop territory; same basic chassis as the sub-$300 version of the Mini 10.

The bottom line: Dell's popular Mini 10 is the most customizable Netbook we've seen. Adding extras such as a higher-resolution display makes it more useful, but also blurs the price line between Netbooks and mainstream laptops.

Read the full review here.

Acer Aspire One AO751h
The good: Big (for a Netbook) 11.6-inch display; great keyboard.

The bad: Slower version of the Intel Atom CPU makes even basic tasks annoyingly laggy.

The bottom line: Acer's 11.6-inch Aspire One AO751h might usher in a new standard for Netbook sizes, but the slower-than-usual processor can lead to frustration.

Read the full review here.

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