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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.

Somewhat important: operating system
Windows XP is pretty much the standard, with some flavours of Linux available for most netbooks. Linux runs extremely fast by netbook standards. And its low overhead helps keep the retail price low on these little machines.

But each netbook vendor deploys Linux differently on the systems it sells; most vendors also include a customised menu interface to streamline the user experience, and these menus can be obtrusive, limiting productivity.

For your first netbook, unless you're already interested in Linux, you may want to go for a model with Windows XP preinstalled. The cost difference is usually minimal, and XP is relatively speedy even on netbooks. Don't, however, expect Windows Vista to run on a netbook's puny processor.

Somewhat important: software
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 most netbooks we've examined require you to download, on your own, the software you want to use.

Somewhat important: hard drive
Let's be clear: You're not going to find a terabyte hard drive on a netbook. But you can find models with reasonable amounts of storage space. We've tested models with drives as small as 60GB, and some with drives as big as 320GB. Most netbooks offer drives in the 120GB to 160GB range, which should be adequate for your storage needs.

Somewhat important: processor
Netbooks are cheap for several reasons, and one of those reasons is the paltry processors they pack (an Intel Atom CPU in the 1.6GHz range is typical). That said, competition is on the way. AMD's Athlon Neo CPU is a step up (as seen in HP's Pavilion dv2) and we're still waiting to hear word of netbooks sporting nVidia's Ion platform.

Somewhat important: installed memory
Another reason netbooks are cheap is because they don't pack very much RAM. Look for 1GB of RAM. Anything more is beyond the realm of the standard small netbook.

Somewhat important: wireless connectivity
You might expect a machine called a netbook to deliver wireless broadband and constant connectivity, but you'd be wrong. Most netbooks do offer 802.11g wireless, which is more than adequate for basic needs; you'll also find 802.11n wireless as an option, though it's rare. If you crave wireless broadband performance, make sure that your netbook of choice includes a PC Express card slot or a USB port so you can buy a wireless broadband card.

NEXT PAGE: Netbook shopping tips

  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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