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How to Choose a NetBook

I’ve previously written some suggestions for people choosing a portable computer [1]. Basically it’s about how to start by choosing the correct type of portable computer – if you don’t know whether you want a NetBook or a Laptop then you are really lost.

Now there are a range of NetBook type devices which vary greatly in size, weight, price, screen resolution, and keyboard quality.

Probably the first thing to consider is whether a NetBook will be your only portable PC, or even your only PC. I have an EeePC 701 and a Thinkpad T41p (old, but still more than adequate for my needs). When I’m at home I have a server that I use for compiling and other heavy tasks. So while my Thinkpad is old and I wouldn’t consider using it for all my work, as I have a server to use I find that I don’t need anything better. My EeePC is small and under-powered for even medium size compiles, but for most other tasks works quite well. The low screen resolution is annoying as is the tiny keyboard (which prevents me from touch-typing). But my plan is to spend much more time carrying my EeePC in case of emergencies than I will ever spend using it – so saving size and weight is more important than having a more capable computer.

If I had no laptop then I would have chosen a more powerful NetBook (such as an EeePC 900 or 901 – I bought my EeePC when it was outdated). If I had no server then I would have bought a more powerful laptop a while ago (at least something that can run Xen and KVM).

Now in terms of specific features, the first thing to consider when choosing a laptop or NetBook is whether you can touch-type. If you can then having a keyboard that permits it is a major feature. Which then drives the decision of whether your NetBook use will be intensive enough that touch-typing is required (my use of my EeePC does not require touch-typing – I’m annoyed every time I type on it but I deal with it). Of course I do have the option of using a USB keyboard.

When considering reviews of NetBook keyboards one issue that seems relevant is the size of your hands. If the reviewer has fingers that are significantly thinner or fatter than yours then the review of the keyboard may not be relevant to you. I suggest always testing a keyboard before making a purchase decision on a portable computer.

The screen resolution on NetBooks is a significant issue. For most tasks my EeePC 701 is adequate (not great) but there are some programs that require higher resolution, among other things this rules out playing most games (of course the slow CPU also rules out many games). Note that if you hold down the ALT key you can click on the middle of a window and drag it around, so you can work with windows that are larger than your screen (this is essential for programs that have large dialog boxes).

The low resolution of the screen on my EeePC means that there is little space for a task-bar or for windows to be tiled. So while I can comfortably work with 10 windows on one desktop on my 1400*1050 resolution Thinkpad I struggle with 5 windows on the 800*480 display of my EeePC. Some coding and sysadmin tasks can best be done with multiple Xterms open at once, my performance on those tasks is significantly decreased when using my EeePC. So while either machine can be used effectively for a single SSH session, if I need to have 8 sessions open at once then I will have to use my Thinkpad. If I was going to be routinely doing such tasks while on the move then I would have bought a NetBook with a greater display resolution.

The next issue is storage. The machines that are most commonly identified with the NetBook image use flash storage. This makes them resistant to being dropped but also dramatically reduces the storage space (or increases the price). If you have a bigger machine at home then a NetBook with flash storage works well. The 4G of internal storage in my EeePC plus the 8G SD card I always have installed works quite well for me. But I also carry a few USB flash storage devices for extra capacity. Anyone who is to use a NetBook as their primary PC would need to buy a model with a hard disk, and even for some more casual uses the storage capacity of the flash based models may not be adequate.

It seems to me that anyone who requests advice on buying a NetBook without specifying some detail about these issues will end up receiving recommendations for devices that fit the usage scenarios of other people. A machine that perfectly meets the needs of one of your friends may be totally inappropriate for your use.

My final suggestion is to consider the outdated models as well as the current ones. For certain usage scenarios the original EeePC is still a better machine than most of the newer and more expensive NetBooks that are on the market now. My use case of carrying an EeePC everywhere just in case a server happens to crash (or I need to check my mail) is one where the EeePC 701 is slightly better suited than most newer machines – saving a small amount of weight and space is important enough for me to accept the significant feature loss as a reasonable trade-off. As an aside I’m disappointed in the apparent lack of small NetBooks on sale at the moment, it seems that every manufacturer is now making NetBooks which are significantly bigger than the original EeePC and only slightly smaller than Laptops.

4 comments to How to Choose a NetBook

  • Josh

    Good points Russell.

    I’ve wanted a netbook for a while (carry-around, emergency scenario) but the prices just didn’t seem to come down – instead the screen sizes and res went up and up along with the price… bordering on silly when they started hitting $700! when I had the good fortune of being in a JB HiFi store and they were selling the dislpay 701SD for $240, I grabbed it and have not looked back (apart from the same issues you have with the small res).

    For me, the ultimate would be: 9 inch screen (take up that inch either side of the 7 inch on the 701), 1024×768 res, 8 gig SSD (ala the 701sd), weigh about 1.1kg.. and about $400 would hit the mark perfectly… but it appears I’m dreaming. Oh well.


  • etbe

    Josh: It seems that your needs are very similar to mine.

    I bought a slightly damaged 701 (a couple of dodgy pixels) shortly after the 901 was released. The price was really good and I’ve been very happy with it.

    I have been continually disappointed at the lack of cheap NetBooks, I was hoping that they would become ubiquitous and get Linux machines in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people. But instead the prices have gone up and now a large portion of them run Windows. More profit to MS I guess but everyone else seems to be losing.

    It is a bit annoying to have that wasted space around the screen of the 701. I agree that if they used that design as the basis of a new machine with higher resolution and more SSD (they could easily do 32G with modern chips) then it would be a sweet box.

  • Ed

    I’ve noticed netbooks are coming with traditional hard drives and I really want to use flash drives only. Are there any netbooks with flash drives only that you could recommend?


  • etbe

    Ed: My EeePC 701 is working really well. I believe that it is the ideal machine to carry 24*7 in case Nagios sends you an SMS about a server problem. If the ratio of carrying to working is smaller then an EeePC 901 or EeePC 1000 looks good from the wikipedia page.