Australian netbook buying guide

Australian netbook buying guide

You’ve probably heard about the latest notebook craze: mini-laptops called netbooks. Netbooks are small and not very powerful laptops that can be used for basic tasks such as word processing, watching videos, listening to music, browsing the Internet and downloading photos from your digital camera. They range in size from 7in to 10in and their diminutive body makes them an attractive proposition for travellers who only want something to dump their photos on and perhaps record a journal of their travels. But even some business users find them appealing because they are easy to carry and can be used while on the road and at meetings.

Don’t consider a netbook if you want a laptop for multitasking or for running taxing applications such as Adobe Photoshop or Lotus Notes; netbooks are just not powerful enough for those sorts of applications. With a netbook you can run a basic photo editor to crop and rename your photos (and add a little contrast and brightness), run standard word processing and spreadsheet applications, watch standard-definition movies, listen to MP3s, surf the Web and use Skype. You can’t edit videos, encode videos or music (unless you are prepared to wait a long time), and you can’t check your e-mail while listening to music while working on a Word document while browsing Flash-heavy Web sites!

Most netbooks share some common specifications: a CPU, which is almost always an Intel Atom N270 or N280, 1GB of RAM, integrated Intel graphics, and a screen size up to 10.2in (although BenQ has an 11.6in model). Netbooks differ in their battery life (laptop battery), and the hard drive they use to store files. Netbooks feature either a conventional spinning hard drive or a solid-state drive with no moving parts. The latter sacrifices capacity but can make a netbook slightly lighter and quieter. It also protects your data better: a drop or bump is less likely to damage an SSD compared to a hard drive that has moving parts.

The operating system on a netbook is almost always Windows XP, but some business models also have Windows Vista Business as an option. Most netbooks are also capable of running Windows 7. Linux was the operating system of choice for the first netbook — the ASUS Eee PC 701 4G — but it has only been available on a couple of other models since (acer laptop battery, for example).

We’ve compiled a guide to help you find the perfect netbook, and provided an overview of the many netbooks that have passed through our Test Centre to help you decide which one is right for you.

Netbook specifications

Audio: All netbooks have a built-in sound chip (usually a Realtek High Definition Audio chip) as well as headphone and microphone ports. They also have built-in microphones and some newer netbooks, such as Fujitsu’s M2010, have digital microphones that can filter out background noise. Some netbooks only have one speaker, while other offer stereo sound. The speakers in a netbook are not powerful and should not be relied upon (except maybe to quickly watch a YouTube video). Use headphones or plug in some speakers if you want to listen to music or watch movies.

Battery life: Most netbooks ship with a 3-cell battery that will last an average of 2hr 30min when watching videos, but some models ship with a 6-cell battery that can play videos for up to 5hr 30min. The battery life will vary depending on the tasks you are performing, but if you want a longer battery life then opt for a netbook with a bigger battery.

CPU: The first netbooks, such as the ASUS 701 4G and the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC, used Intel Celeron M and VIA C-7M CPUs. Now almost all netbooks use one of Intel’s low-end Atom CPUs, usually the Intel Atom N270, N280, Z520 or Z530. The N270 runs at 1.6GHz while the N280 runs at 1.66GHz; the Z520 runs at 1.3GHz while the Z530 runs at 1.6GHz. All CPUs have a 512KB cache. The N270, Z520 and Z530 have a 533MHz front-side bus connection to the memory, while the N280 has a 667MHz connection. They are all single-core CPUs but have Hyper-Threading. This means they are capable of running two processes simultaneously, which aids multitasking. The Intel Atom CPUs run much cooler than the Celeron and VIA CPUs (the VIA CPU in particular gets very hot inside the small confines of a netbook). AMD has released a low-voltage chip suitable for netbooks — the Athlon 64 L110 — but it isn’t widely used yet.
Expansion slots: Only a couple of netbooks have built-in expansion slots: Lenovo’s IdeaPad S10 has an ExpressCard/34 slot, for example, and HP’s Mini 2140 has an ExpressCard/54 slot. An ExpressCard slot is handy if you want to install a mobile data card for Internet access or a digital TV tuner, for example. However, USB devices exist that can be used for the same tasks. There’s no need to buy a netbook with an ExpressCard slot unless you already have devices that require it.

Graphics: Netbooks don’t have dedicated graphics processors; instead they have integrated graphics adapters, which use the CPU and the main system memory in order to perform many of their functions. This means that you can’t use netbooks for sophisticated 3D graphics processing. As a result, netbooks can’t run many games (unless they are quite old and don’t require complex 3D graphics). The most common integrated graphics card in netbooks is the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 (GMA 950). Some netbooks use the Intel GMA 500 integrated graphics card, which has more advanced video processing capabilities than the GMA 950. It is often used in netbooks that have a digital TV tuner.

Memory card slots: Like most regular sized notebooks, all netbooks have an SD card slot that can be used to quickly download images from a digital camera.

Networking: All netbooks have built-in wireless networking, as well as an Ethernet port. The wireless networking speed is usually up to 802.11g, but some netbooks support fast 802.11n Wi-Fi. The Ethernet speed is usually 10/100, but some high-end netbooks feature Gigabit Ethernet. If you will only be using a netbook to browse the Internet, then 802.11g and 10/100 Ethernet are fast enough. Opt for the faster networking speeds if you will be using the netbook to serve data to a media streamer, for example.

Optical drive: Due to their size, netbooks don’t have space for an integrated optical drive. If you want to install programs off a CD or play DVD movies you will need an external DVD burner that plugs in to a USB port.

RAM: The first netbook that ASUS shipped had 512MB of RAM, but the majority of netbooks now have 1GB installed. They can usually be upgraded (sometimes with difficulty) to 2GB. They use DDR2 SDRAM SO-DIMM modules and some netbooks have two SO-DIMM slots while others have one slot and some built-in RAM.

Resolution: The first Eee PC, with its 7in screen, had a resolution of 800×480. Common resolutions today are 1024×576 (for netbooks with a 16:9 aspect ratio) and 1024×600 (for netbooks with a 16:10 aspect ratio). The resolution of 8.9in netbooks and 10.2in netbooks is the same — 1024×600. Netbooks with a 10.1in screen typically have a resolution of 1024×576. While it’s a small difference, go for a model with the higher resolution if you can, as it will be more comfortable when browsing Web pages. Dell’s Mini 10 and Sony’s VAIO W series VPCW115XG (P/T/W) netbooks have a high definition screen with a desktop resolution of 1366×768, which is currently the highest resolution on the market for a netbook.

Screen size: The current crop of netbooks have 10.1in or 10.2in screens, but there is also an 11.6in model available from BenQ. The first netbook — the ASUS Eee PC 701 4G — had a 7in screen, and later models featured 8.9in screens.

Storage: Netbooks are available either with solid-state storage or conventional (spinning) hard drives. Solid-state drives have no moving parts, so they are less prone to losing data than spinning hard drives if you drop your netbook. However, the solid-state devices found in netbooks are not as fast as 5400rpm spinning hard drives. They also don’t offer anywhere near as much storage as conventional hard drives. Other advantages of solid-state drives are that they are slightly lighter, they run cooler and they consume fractionally less electricity. Choose a solid-state drive if you want a netbook that will run almost silently and without vibration and you don’t care about storage capacity. Choose a netbook with a conventional spinning hard drive if you want a large storage capacity (conventional drives in netbooks currently go up to 160GB). Some netbooks come with both a hard drive and a solid-state drive. In such a configuration the operating system is installed on the solid-state drive and the hard drive is used to store programs and data.

USB ports: Netbooks can have up to three USB 2.0 ports, although some models ship with only two. Toshiba (in its NB100 and NB200 netbooks) has the most advanced USB ports on the market: they can be used to charge devices, such as the iPhone or an MP3 player, even when the netbook is switched off.

Video out: Most netbooks come with a D-Sub (VGA) port which you can use to plug in an external monitor.

Warranty: Most netbooks on the market have a 12-month warranty; the only netbook with a 24-month warranty is Fujitsu’s M2010.

Webcam: All netbooks ship with a built-in webcam that can be used for Skype and recording YouTube videos.

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