years ago, Linux netbooks were supposed to usher in an era of
ultra-cheap computing, free us from our desktops and destroy Microsoft.
But now that tablet computers like the iPad are going to do that instead
(well, apart from the ultra-cheap bit), where does that leave the
Today’s netbooks may not be fashionable or powerful
but they are still light, cheap and perfectly suited to everyday Web
surfing, email, music and video chat. They use easy-to-understand
Windows software and many boast day-long battery lives that larger
laptops can only dream of.
If Google has its way, the netbook might even be
making a comeback. Fresh from Mountain View, California are sexy Chrome OS (operating system) machines sporting solid state hard drives, 3G mobile broadband and
cutting edge cloud software -- at a price.
Netbooks might no longer be the saviour of personal
computing, but they still fill a vital niche for anyone who doesn't want a tiny smart phone,
expensive tablet or awkward laptop. Here’s how to go about choosing one…
Casting your net
are two reasons to be in the market for a netbook. The first is if
you want a simple, light computer with just enough power to
embrace the digital era. The second is if you just don’t have
much money to spend.
Either way, you’ve come to the right place.
Netbooks start from as little as £150 and rarely cost more than £250,
making them the perfect first computer for an eager teen or nervous
parent, or as a low cost travel companion. They’re light enough to slip
into a backpack and all have wireless connectivity and a real keyboard
to get you online in seconds.
But netbooks aren’t for everyone. If you’re
thinking about watching HD videos -- and especially if you want to edit
your own movie clips -- a netbook will be underpowered. They’ll struggle
with massive music or photo libraries, and forget about playing the
latest graphically-intensive action games (though they should be fine
for word games, puzzles and less demanding titles). If these are
deal-breakers, check out our laptop buying guide instead.
The mighty Atom
all netbooks use one of Intel’s Atom processors. These cheap, cheerful
chips were specially designed for netbooks to give decent performance
and a long battery life. The speed of chip is measured in GHz: the
higher this number, the faster your netbook will open and run programs.
Netbooks generally run at between 1.5 and 1.66GHz.
Pricier models might have an Intel (or rival AMD)
dual core processor. Dual core netbooks should work noticeably faster
than single core, even when their quoted speed is lower, say 1.5GHz or
Most netbooks come with 1GB of RAM memory, but if
you can stretch to 2GB, you’ll be able to have more windows open at a
time without things slowing down.
very first netbooks used the open source Linux operating system, which
kept prices down but proved difficult for many to get to grips with.
Almost all netbooks have since moved to Windows 7, which should feel
familiar to anyone who has ever used any Windows computer.
Note that netbooks generally run the Starter
Edition of Windows 7. This lacks some features found on more powerful
machines, including the Windows Media Centre and fancy graphical
effects. Some makers, notably Asus, include an additional stripped-down
operating system that boots up in seconds for basic Web browsing and
There’s no Apple Mac option for netbooks but
another tech giant, Google, is getting in on the action. Its Chrome OS
operating system works entirely in the cloud, so you’ll need a
persistent Internet connection via Wi-Fi (at home) or 3G (when out and
about). Chrome OS is definitely not a budget choice at the moment, as
machines must have expensive solid state hard drives and require a
monthly 3G data contract.
every netbook on the market has a 10.1-inch widescreen display, but
that doesn’t mean that they’re identical. First up, check the
resolution. The screens on cheaper notebooks are normally 1,024 pixels
wide by 600 high. That might sound like a lot but it’s actually the same
number of pixels found on Apple’s 3.5-inch iPhone 4. At this
resolution, photos can look grainy, videos lack sharpness and working in
Windows for long periods can be tiring.
The more expensive netbooks increase that
resolution to 1,366x768 pixels, which is easier on the eyes. Another
feature worth spending on is LED backlighting. This uses less power than
a normal LCD screen and can help boost contrast and colours, too. Keep
an eye out for touchscreen netbooks: they’re rare at the moment but are
bound to become more popular with the spread of Windows 8.
Under the hood
other key specification for netbooks is storage. Netbooks typically
come with either 160GB or 250GB hard drives, although you might see as
much as 320GB. While more is obviously better, the importance of
on-board storage is fading as cloud services from Amazon, Apple and
Google mature. A built-in memory card reader is a handy way to add
storage for music and movies, as well as to download images from digital
Don’t expect a netbook’s speakers to match a real
music system, but they should be fine for game soundtracks and occasional
streaming. A headphone socket is great for enjoying audio in private,
and a webcam (of any resolution) opens up a whole world of video chat
via Skype or Facebook.
an entire computer for less than the price of a mobile phone isn’t
easy. In fact, some makers cut so many corners it’s surprising their
netbooks aren’t perfectly circular: think thin plastic cases, dull
screens, clattery keyboards and low quality components.
Always try a netbook in person before you buy. See
whether the keyboard feels cramped or merely small, and the build
quality terrible or just poor. You really can’t compare a netbook to a
laptop costing twice as much, but do give the case a squeeze, try
flexing it gently and investigate the various connections (it should
have at least two USB ports).
Some netbooks now come with Bluetooth, letting you
add a mouse or a better keyboard if you want. Netbooks do not have
optical (DVD or Blu-ray) drives.
much for what netbooks don’t have. What they do have is battery life in
spades. Most netbooks claim four to six hours of operation on a single
charge, and some reckon they can go for eight hours or more. You might
not get quite that long in practice but netbooks are a fantastic choice
for anyone working or playing on the move. However, bear in mind that
you generally can’t swap in a spare battery if you do run out of juice.