The big picture
So many netbooks have reached market in the past year - and so many more are on the way - that selecting the right model can be a daunting task. There is no such thing as perfection in a category that is ultimately defined by compromises, but with a little grounding in the basic features of mini-notebooks, you can make an informed buying decision.
With bargain-bin prices, svelte dimensions, and full-blown operating systems, models in the current crop of netbooks look great on paper. But the Intel Atom processor powering these machines can't do anything much fancier than editing basic documents, sending email, and browsing the web.
The standard configuration for the machines you'll find on store shelves includes a 1.6GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM using Intel's 945 chipset and running Windows XP - not exactly a performance powerhouse, but it works.
Making the most of your netbook is all about managing expectations. Don't plan on playing modern PC games, editing huge pictures, or creating 1080p videos on these machines - at least not yet.
Later this year, nVidia will release its Ion graphics platform, and AMD has already launched its Neo processor. These two mobile chips promise to boost netbook performance significantly, and may very well change the way we think about small, cheap computers.
When we first encountered the original Asus Eee PC's 7in LCD, We declared that we had to increase the magnification in our glasses' prescription - and spin the scrollwheel like a manic gerbil - just to read an everyday web page.
Fortunately, times have changed. Even the smallest machines these days offer about 9in of viewable display area, with at least 800 pixels across. That is adequate for web browsing, though the 10in screen available on most netbooks these days makes a real difference in the experience.
And in the coming year, you'll start to see more and more devices that straddle the netbook-ultraportable divide by offering 11 and 12in screens. However, screen coating is also a critical consideration. The HP Mini 2140's glossy screen may look snazzy indoors, but in broad daylight - where many people would at least occasionally use it - the reflection can be dazzling, if not blinding.
Another characteristic to consider is native resolution. The default setting for most netbooks is 1024x600 pixels. Although this slightly odd aspect ratio will work with most software, some programs require a different resolution to run properly. If you intend to run proprietary business apps that demand a specific resolution, make sure that the netbook you buy can support it. (The upcoming 11 and 12in models won't run into this problem.)
NEXT PAGE: More key features to pay attention to