Lengthy battery life, limited specs and a light chassis characterise the average netbook. But PC Advisor finds that not all fit the mould, in our round-up of eight top models.
Netbooks group test: What to expect
Most netbooks have the same predictable component specification. Expect to find a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, Windows XP Home, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, three USB ports, a VGA port and an SD Card reader. For graphics, it's hard to avoid the Intel GMA 950 integrated processor.
You can expect enough speed for word processing, editing spreadsheets and, naturally, surfing the web. A trio of USB ports and a memory card slot makes it straightforward to connect a digital camera. The graphics chip won't be able to handle 3D games but playing online Java and Flash games is possible, as is YouTube playback.
It's online, as the name suggests, where a netbook comes into its own. With just a web browser, the world of email, social networking, online auctions, search engines, forums and breaking news updates are open to you. Just add an instant-messaging program, such as AIM or Yahoo Instant Messenger, for real-time chat.
And then there's Skype and other VoIP services. All netbooks come fitted with at least a 0.3Mp (640x480) webcam in the screen bezel, along with a small microphone. So, provided you have a web connection, you can video- or voice-chat with friends, family and colleagues anywhere in the world. Some netbooks include 1.3Mp cameras, enabling HD-size video, although VoIP programs will downscale this anyway.
Expect to see at least 802.11g wireless connectivity, allowing data transfer speeds of around 20 megabits per second (Mbps). Some better-spec models include wireless draft-n, giving around 100Mbps connections. While this speed isn't necessary for web connections, it can speed up big file transfers on your local wireless network.
Bluetooth is often optional. If you want to use a wireless mouse or connect your mobile phone, Bluetooth will prove handy.
The keyboard and trackpad are also crucial interface points. Look for a firm, unflexing keyboard with good key action, as large as the netbook allows. The trackpad should be precise and responsive to your fingertip movements. Some netbooks have low-grade pads that make propelling the cursor around the screen an ordeal.
Also check the click buttons fit with your work style. Most people like these as close to the edge of the palm rest area as possible. A soft-to-press but positive action makes for a comfortable user experience.
Netbooks are one of the most popular types of computer around, so you can expect to be able to find a range of display samples at your local PC store - it's worth spending some hands-on time seeing which designs you find the most usable.
Multitouch is a new feature but, given the small size of trackpads, pinch-to-zoom and similar actions are rarely successful. Two-finger scrolling can be handy, however.
Netbooks group test: Life on the road
Last, and far from least in importance, is battery life. Unlike full-size laptops, which can spend most of their time sitting on a desk connected to mains power, netbooks are designed to be carried around. Good battery life is essential, and we're now finally starting to see unplugged usage figures exceed the three-hour mark.
Look for six-cell batteries, offering twice the runtime of the (admittedly sleeker and lighter) three-cell version. With a good battery pack strapped on, you can now expect upwards of six or seven hours of untethered netbook fun. The Samsung N110 can last an amazing 595 mins.
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