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.

If you're looking to buy a netbook, the chances are that you're either attracted by the compact, carry-anywhere form factor or the enticingly low price compared to a full-size laptop. While mini laptops tick both those boxes, it's important to remember that they are a compromise in performance and usability compared to laptops with 13in or larger screens.

Screen size is the first restriction. This is necessarily limited in order to make a laptop small enough to slip into a satchel or handbag. The first popular netbook, the Asus Eee PC 701, had a screen measuring just 7in diagonally. Later Eee PCs saw 9in screens fitted; now 10in has become the standard, giving a more comfortable view of your desktop.

Another useful consequence of the move to 10in models is that it allows netbook manufacturers to address their other big disadvantage: severely cramped keyboards.

Even 9in-screen models sport keyboards that are just too tiny for relaxed typing. Step up to a 10in screen, though, and you'll find the netbook's chassis will stretch to about 25cm across. This allows for a keyboard that's 90 percent or more of the size of a full-size laptop keyboard.

Netbook manufacturers are shy to fit a screen with a resolution greater than 1,024x600, assuming the machine uses an Intel Atom processor. These low-res screens limit the software that can be used on a netbook - many programs demand a minimum resolution of 1,024x768. Even navigation can be an issue as you routinely find the ok or Cancel confirmation button is just below the screen horizon.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as a custom-ordered Dell Inspiron Mini 10. Otherwise, if you need more than 1,024x600 we recommend you look out for one of the AMD-powered netbooks that are starting to appear. Medion's E1311 and E1312 are among the first we've got our hands on - look out for a review in the next few weeks at pcadvisor.co.uk/reviews.

Like the full-size laptop sector, the netbook market is dominated by high-gloss screens. Their colour range - with dark blacks and reasonable contrast - is impressive, but they are distractingly reflective when used under office lighting or with your back to a window. This can be a divisive issue of taste, but remember that models such as the MSI Wind U100 and Samsung NC10 are successful matt hold-outs in a shiny-screened world.

NEXT: what to expect, and life on the road >>

Business IT reviews and news

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.

NEXT: netbook reviews >>

Business IT reviews and news

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.

Group test: Netbooks

Business IT reviews and news