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.

>> MORE BUYING ADVICE

Ultraportable laptop reviews

Netbook reviews

Laptop Advisor
More ultraportable laptop reviews
More netbook reviews

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.

Netbook or ultraportable?

Given the convergence of netbooks and ultraportables, it can be hard drawing a line between the two categories. We'd contend that any sub-1.5kg laptop with an Intel Atom or AMD Neo processor, a 12in or smaller screen and a price below £400 warrants ?the label ‘netbook'.

Ultraportables, meanwhile, go up to 2kg in weight (and an inch in thickness) and around 13in in screen size; typically they come with a dual-core processor. They also tend to be considerably more expensive.

Recently, however, the price of more powerful ultraportable laptops has tumbled. The definitive slim-and-light laptop remains the Apple MacBook Air, and even this has dropped considerably in price since its introduction in 2008, when it cost close to £2,000. The entry-level version with a traditional hard disk now costs £1,174, while the SSD model we've reviewed here is £1,378.

The Air is the fastest ultraportable we've ever tested, featuring a full-speed 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 128GB SSD. As well as delivering class-leading performance, it's arguably the sleekest laptop on the market, thanks to its thin, sculpted all-aluminium construction and low weight.

If you're willing to compromise on looks and performance, more affordable models are available from Asus, MSI, ViewSonic and Samsung. For more ultraportable laptop reviews visit our reviews section.

Look out for Intel consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) chips, such as the SU9300. This is a good dual-core processor, albeit running at just 1.2GHz. The Asus UX30-QX011C runs a slightly faster version of this CPU, the 1.4GHz SU9400.

Supporting this will be either DDR2 or the faster DDR3 RAM. While Windows 7 will just about run on 1GB, we recommend using at least 2GB, even on a netbook.

These days, you should expect the latest 802.11n wireless connectivity in an ultraportable, Bluetooth, and at least two or three USB ports. A video output is invaluable for expanding a laptop's limited screen with a larger display; 13in or smaller screens can become very cramped for all-day use. But don't settle for analogue VGA when digital HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort are available.

Built-in displays tend to feature a native resolution of between 1280x800 and 1440x900. Note that a 1366x768 resolution on an 11in screen will make onscreen fonts and icons incredibly small. Windows 7 has a handy provision to increase overall scaling - we find 125 percent works well here.

Storage is likely to be in the form of a familiar 2.5in or smaller 1.8in SATA hard drive or, better yet, an SSD. Flash storage makes for a quieter, cooler laptop and is sufficiently shockproof that you can move your portable around with near-careless abandon, even when the machine is running.

With the help of SSD storage, low-power CPUs and LED-backlit screens, power drain has reduced enough for you to expect upwards of four hours of unplugged use.

Watch out for fixed batteries, seen here in the Apple and Asus. You won't be able to carry a spare battery and swap it over once the battery runs low.

Picking the right model

For light duties such as web surfing, word processing and instant messaging, either an ultraportable laptop or netbook will suffice. But if you're looking to get creative, whether with photography, video or spreadsheets, you'll need an ultraportable with a Core 2 Duo processor. If you plan only to check mail, chat online and surf the web, you can probably make do with a netbook.

Gamers should note that laptops using Intel integrated graphics severely restrict your options with older games and limit you to playing at low-quality settings. If that doesn't appeal, look for a laptop with an nVidia or ATI discrete graphics-processing unit (GPU).

Ultraportable laptop reviews

Netbook reviews

Laptop Advisor
More ultraportable laptop reviews
More netbook reviews