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Group test: Ultraportable laptops vs netbooks

We outline your portable laptop options

There's never been a better time to pick up a lightweight laptop. But the choice can be bewildering, with the fine line between netbook and laptop starting to disappear altogether.

There's never been a better time to pick up a lightweight laptop. But the choice can be bewildering, with the fine line between netbook and laptop starting to disappear altogether.

Less than 10 years ago, a laptop represented executive mobility, prestige, a hole in your wallet and an ache in your shoulder if you needed to carry it around for long. Battery life was a real issue, too.

You'd be lucky to get much more than a couple of hours' use before needing a recharge, a symptom of inefficient processors ill-suited for running off battery power.

Then the ultraportable started to appear. Geared towards the upwardly mobile professional, these machines also suffered from poor longevity, but were much slimmer and lighter than traditional laptops.

These highly portable models reduced screen-size expectations from the predominant 14in and 15in norm to 12in or 13in. These days, practically every laptop has a widescreen display, with a ratio of either 16:9 or 16:10, that's ideal for watching films or TV. The latter ratio may be better suited for writing and spreadsheet work.

Unfortunately, prices were still out of reach for many people, which goes some way to explaining why netbooks caught the public's imagination...

Netbook allure

When the first netbooks appeared on the market, they offered a genuine alternative to the £1,000-plus ultraportables that were being touted in 2008. They combined an extremely lightweight chassis with price tags closer to £300. The netbook came to be defined as a low-cost, low-power laptop with a screen size of 10in or less, wireless connectivity and a solid-state drive (SSD). To maintain their compact dimensions, mini laptops came without DVD drives.

The Asus Eee PC and Acer Aspire One were the first netbooks on the scene. They kept system requirements low with a quick-booting Linux operating system (OS).

Intel soon chipped in with the 1.6GHz Intel Atom, a more efficient processor that was better suited to netbooks. Then Microsoft made its ageing but still popular Windows XP OS available for netbooks. However, this move necessitated the reintroduction of hard disks to accommodate the fatter OS, since the SSD was limited to around 8GB in total.

Before long, all netbooks started to look very much the same. They ran an Intel Atom processor and Windows XP Home, and had a 10in (1024x600) screen, 1GB of RAM, three USB ports and 802.11g wireless connectivity.

With the introduction of Windows 7, we're finally starting to see diversity in netbooks, with larger, higher-resolution screens and better graphics processors, such as the nVidia ION, enabling some gaming action and HD video playback. Both were previously off-limits to netbooks.

Samsung's N510 is a good example of the souped-up netbook, featuring an 11.6in screen and coupling Intel's Atom processor with nVidia 9400M graphics, in the so-called ION configuration.

Netbook-class laptops powered by AMD's Neo processor are also noteworthy. Neo is a slightly more powerful answer to the Atom, but far less efficient. It contributes increased heat and noise, and reduces battery life. MSI's latest Wind U210-075UK is one example.

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