THE netbook could be considered the Honda Fit of computing: manageable in size, light of weight, handsome in an understated way, efficient and affordable.
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The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and 12 models come in a variety of colors and with designs by Tristan Eaton.
As far as performance goes ... well, again, light of weight.
The netbook — also known as a mini-notebook, a mobile Internet device or, as someone put it, a “laptot” — is only in its infancy this holiday season; just about a year old. Already, though, the market is crowded with these “lifestyle” companions that provide portable on-the-go communications and limited computing functionality for $500 or less. A basic laptop starts about that price, and some models can cost thousands.
Netbooks fit into the technology spectrum between pocket-sized devices like the iPhone and BlackBerry and full-size laptops or notebooks with their larger screens, more powerful processors and other features. They lack the electronic chops of their bigger siblings: forget Photoshop, gameplay or any serious video editing on a netbook. Web browsing and e-mail are their strengths, at least in these early stages.
And they are far easier to carry. “Intel is trying to push this as a totally new category, but real people see it as a way to upgrade a notebook,” said Bob O’Donnell, an analyst with IDC, a technology research company based in Framingham, Mass. “For these times, these devices are cheap. People are saying, I just use my notebook for e-mail; why don’t I just buy one of these little guys?”
Some companies have already leapt into the fray, including Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, MSI, Samsung, Sylvania and Acer. Sony is expected to introduce a model at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
Virtually all netbooks are built around Intel’s Atom processor, a 1.6 -gigahertz chip, and use one gigabyte of RAM, or memory. MSI reportedly will introduce a netbook next year with a new processor, the Intel Atom Z530, which the company says uses less power. Nearly all have built-in U.S.B. ports, a Webcam and integrated speakers, and some can connect to a Wi-Fi network. None of the models have CD or DVD drives.
But there are differences. Some netbooks use a hard disk for storage; others use flash memory. Some support 802.11n, the latest version of Wi-Fi, while others rely on older versions of the network format. Screen size varies in these clamshell models, generally from 8.9 inches diagonal to 10 inches. And battery life differs, as do weight and other factors, among the netbooks currently for sale.
Here’s a closer look at a few of them:
HP Mini 1000 This is the second-generation of HP mini-notebooks, and it replaces the 2133 model, whose design was probably the most Apple-like of the group. At 2.5 pounds, the elegant Mini, with its piano-black finish, measures 10.3 by 6.6 by 0.9 inches. It has a Webcam, Ethernet port, 4-in-1 card reader and Wi-Fi. The Mini 1000 runs Windows XP Home Edition. Prices start about $400.
Keyboards are a frequent target of complaints about netbooks, but the HP keyboard, which is nearly as big as those on full-size laptops, is comfortable. And while most netbooks’ speakers sound awful, the 1000 rises to most sonic occasions.
The Mini is also available in a trim level called the Vivienne Tam Special Edition, bright red with a “peony-flower inspired” design. Nifty. And $700.
ASUS EEE PC 1000H At a little over three pounds, the heaviest of the bunch by just a couple of ounces, the Asus Eee (about $430) more than makes up for its “bulk” by incorporating a six-cell battery, which supplies almost five hours of power, and a terrific keyboard.
Some critics argue that the Eee straddles the line between netbook and notebook, because of its slightly bigger chassis, but its clever shape puts it squarely in netbook company. Because of the keyboard, which has a feel that matches that of laptops twice the price or more, the Eee, which has an 80-gigabyte hard disk drive, can be a mini-workhouse as well as a mini-Internet browser.
ACER ASPIRE ONE PC World magazine recently put the Acer at the top of its “best buy” list, calling it a steal at $350. Acer has made its reputation building machines and components at the lower end of the price scale, so it was no surprise that the company entered the netbook market.
As with some other netbooks, the Aspire’s keyboard can make for cramped fingers after extended use, and, like some others, it has its mouse buttons flanking either side of the touchpad, rather than set together underneath the pad. Mouse buttons are often taken for granted — until they’re in the wrong place.
Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Dell, which recently introduced a full-size laptop line called the Dell Studio Art House, extends the gallery theme to its line of netbooks, the Mini 9 and Mini 12. There are a couple of new case colors in red and pink, but the eye-catching covers are those created by Tristan Eaton, an artist and toy designer.
Very light (under 2.3 pounds without add-ons) with an 8.9-inch glossy screen, the Mini 9 runs a Linux-based operating system, Ubuntu, with Windows XP Home Edition optional, and offers three sizes of flash memory drives, from 4 gigabytes (standard) to 16 (extra cost) gigabytes. Prices start about $350.
SYLVANIA G NETBOOK MESO From the company that made the Halolight — the white fluorescent mask that surrounded Sylvania picture tubes in the 1950s — comes a sleek netbook (starting about $350) with an 8.9-inch, 1,024-by-600 resolution color screen. That’s a decent-sized display, and colorful, but the keyboard below it is cramped and uncomfortable to use for any length of time. The Meso’s built-in speakers rattle more often than they don’t. Battery life is good for about three hours.
Meso runs Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix software, which is optimized to run smoothly on devices with smaller screens and the Intel Atom processor. For the user, the benefits are a friendly graphic interface, with cheerful icons and easy-to-read text. Meso is also available bundled with Windows XP Home Edition.