It seems I get asked at least once a month if I think someone should buy a netbook, or a notebook… and to be honest, I’m always hesitant to answer that question because I’ve never had the chance to really put one through the paces. The specs on them “look” okay and the prices are generally awesome, but how would they really perform on a normal everyday use basis? Well, in mid-January Verizon Wireless was kind enough to let me borrow one for a month so I could get a better feel for them. Before we dive in to what I think about it though, first lets take a step back and define “netbook”, and look a little closer at the unit I tested.
Sooo… what is a netbook?
So what makes a netbook different from a notebook? Well, not much these days. When the netbooks started showing up in stores in late 2007 / early 2008, they admittedly got a bit of a bum rap because the manufacturers built them severely underpowered; in many cases with just enough power to run a browser and maybe an email client, proving frustrating to even the most novice of users. Since the form factor has caught on though, the power battle has taken hold and most models will hold their own quite nicely next to a standard notebook. The major delineation at this point is size and subsequent lack of peripherals (optical drive, tons of ports, etc., etc.). With a netbook, you will see screen sizes of anywhere from 10.1 inches (like the one I tested) all the way down to smallest of the small with 5 inches; any smaller and you’d call it a phone. There comes a point where they are just too small, in my opinion… not because of screen size, but because of the size of keyboard that goes along with that ultra small screen. As I mentioned earlier, you will also notice that in the name of conserving size and cutting weight, some things you are accustomed to have been shaved off; like a CD / DVD-rom drive. Another common trait you will find as of late is the addition of a built-in mobile broadband card letting you connect to the internet virtually anywhere, and truly putting the “net” in netbook.
The particular netbook I got my hands on is a HP mini 1151NR. This unit comes equipped with an Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz (single core) processor, 1 GB of RAM, and an 80GB hard drive. It also features a 10.1 inch screen, 802.11 b/g WLAN, LAN, Bluetooth, 2 USB ports, stereo speakers with built-in mic, built-in web cam (640×480), and of course, built-in mobile broadband… all wrapped up into a 2.4 pound bundle of computing joy. This particular device ships with Windows XP SP3 Home Edition, but other models are available with Windows 7 (and I actually loaded this one with Windows 7 Professional just as a goof). Now here is the really awesome part; as tested, this device is priced at $199 with a $50 mail-in rebate and a 2 year service contract from Verizon. $200 for a laptop. That ain’t too shabby in my opinion!
Well? Did it work?
Not wanting skimp out and do a half-way test scenario where I just use the system as a toy when I had time to play with it; I actually decided to push my other systems to the side and use this as my only computer for a whole month. That meant loading all the applications I commonly use like Microsoft Office 2007 (as well as 2010 beta for part of the test), VMware vSphere client, TweetDeck, our corporate VoIP call manager, Office Communicator, Microsoft Live Writer, Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Fireworks (yeah, I like it better than Photoshop), and our corporate antivirus client to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Additionally, for half the test (two weeks) I ran the system with Windows 7 Professional installed, complete with desktop gadgets and Aero, AS WEL AS the applications I listed above. My job and my hobbies have me on my computer at the very least 10 hours per day, so it is fair to say that this little guy didn’t get much of a break.
So how did it work? Pretty darn good actually. The keyboard, while not too much smaller than a standard sized laptop keyboard, did take a little getting used to. The buttons of the built-in touchpad are placed on either side instead of below, and I quickly found myself using it with two hands (one hand moving the pointer and the other doing the left clicks) which also took some getting used to, but ultimately wasn’t a deal killer… I actually got pretty quick with it and in fact using it that way made dragging and dropping easier than one handed (I never use a mouse, much to the dismay of my co-workers). I found the speed of the machine, believe it or not, to be actually better with Windows 7 than with Windows XP, and I think I know why. HP builds these laptops with a 42k RPM hard drive, which is SLOW by anyone’s standards. Windows 7 is optimized to work more from RAM than Windows XP is, thus in the heat of battle at the office that hard drive was getting thrashed in XP and caused noticeable lags, whereas it was much more tolerable in Windows 7. Windows 7 did run out of RAM on me a few times while I was doing some photo editing, but that is to be expected with 1GB of RAM. The nice thing about this is that all the performance bottle necks of the system are easily fixable. For less than $200 more you could add a smoke’n fast solid state hard drive and another 1GB of RAM (for a total of 2GB, which is the maximum supported) and I’m confident you wouldn’t be feeling any slow downs. That would make this a REALLY nice laptop for right at $400, a good value for sure.
One of the things I really appreciated about the HP was the built-in mobile broadband. I used it multiple times, but it really saved my butt twice. Both times I was driving down the road and got that oh-so-dreaded afterhours phone call from someone needing technical help. In both cases I was able to quickly pull over and let the wife take over the driver’s seat while I logged on to the internet and started working on the problem servers. The convenience of being able to ride down the road and work online is unspeakably valuable. Sure you can accomplish this by tethering a cell phone to a standard laptop, but then you have to deal with remembering to bring the cable with you and trying to manage a cell phone sliding around while you work. You could also just get an air-card, but again, you have to remember to bring it with you and then hope you don’t accidentally knock the antenna or device itself off. Having the air-card built right in to the laptop is the way to go in my opinion. Nothing else to keep track of; it just works… which in my mind is what a netbook is all about. Computing convenience.
Who should buy one?
So is a netbook right for everyone? Well, probably not. Lets be honest here; these machines are not going to be great video editing machines, hard core photo editing machines, or gaming machines. They would, however, be a perfect fit for those “average computer users” (i.e. email, IM, internet, word processing, etc) or people who are on the go a lot. I personally enjoyed using it and was a little sad to see the little guy go. I’ll be giving some serious thought into purchasing one in the future.
– Dan Thompson