Netbook buying guide

Netbooks are light, cheap and perfectly suited to everyday Web surfing. Here’s how to go about choosing one.

Mark Harris Special to CNET News
5 min read

Three 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 humble netbook?

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

There 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

Virtually 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 even 1.0GHz.

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.

Operating room

The 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 media playback.

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.

Screening room

Almost 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

The 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 cameras.

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.

Plastic fantastic?

Building 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.

Power crazed

So 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.