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The ultimate guide to buying a netbook

Confused about what to choose - we'll help you

If you're confused by the exploding netbook market then fear not. We explain all you need to know about these low-cost, low-power laptops and help you decide which is right for you.

Windows XP is largely the operating system of choice. Some foolhardy manufacturers have loaded netbooks with Windows Vista Basic while others offer up Linux flavours in their netbooks. Why Linux? For starters, it runs a little leaner than XP, which makes it perfect for a netbook's anemic CPU. Second, it trims a few pounds off the price of these already-inexpensive portables.

For the most part, Windows XP netbooks carry very little onboard software. A few machines we've seen came preloaded with OpenOffice.org - the free Java-based office suite - but few vendors care to match Samsung, whose netbooks have a fairly well constructed software suite (one that's good by laptop standards, let alone netbooks). Almost all of the other netbooks we've examined require you to download, on your own, the software you want to use.

Expecting Windows Vista to work with a netbook's puny processor is like expecting a child with one hand tied behind its back to push a car up a hill. Nevertheless, HP originally packaged its 2133 netbook with Vista Business Edition - and no one was terribly surprised when its unimposing Via C7-M processor ran like an out-of-shape sprinter in a swimming pool full of jelly.

Now Sony thinks it can get its new Atom-processor-based VAIO P netbook (which it insists on calling a 'lifestyle laptop') to run Windows Vista Basic. This is probably still a bit of a performance stretch, but initial tests show that Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 is a very plausible netbook OS.

We've also heard rumours that Google's Android OS will find its way into netbooks this year, but no products are available as of this writing.

Wireless connectivity
If names mean anything, it seems reasonable to expect a 'netbook' to deliver wireless broadband and constant connectivity. But that's not quite the way things are today. Most netbooks do offer 802.11g wireless, which is more than adequate for basic needs around an office, airport or hotel room. A couple of premium models offer 802.11n.

We've also started seeing netbooks that offer integrated 3G wireless broadband. It sounds great, but there is one big (and tightly knotted) string attached - most come with two-year contracts that wed you to a device that you might desperately want to replace long before the contract expires.

If you crave wireless broadband performance, make sure that your netbook of choice supports an external solution. That way, you can buy a wireless broadband card and plug it into whatever machine you need. PC Express slots are still rare on netbooks, but USB ports aren't. So even if you opt for a system that doesn't accommodate PC Express, you can add a USB 3G adaptor, which you can then use with any computer you own.

Optical drives
Forget about them. A netbook, by definition, lacks any form of optical drive. You may find drives on some devices that straddle the line between netbook andlaptop, but you won't find them on a true netbook.

NEXT PAGE: The specs explained

  1. Confused about what to choose - we'll help you
  2. Netbooks: the big picture
  3. More key features to pay attention to
  4. Software and wireless connectivity
  5. The specs explained
  6. The specs that are really important
  7. Netbook shopping tips

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