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The perfect netbook

Posted on 14th Mar 2009 at 17:36 by Antony Leather with 10 comments

Antony Leather
I’m sure most of us have had to lump an old heavy laptop around at some point or another. For those of us who commute a fair distance to work, something that weighs in at more than 2kg can be a royal pain in the backside to carry around, especially if you have a case, power brick and other sundry hardware too.

My old 1.6GHz Pentium M laptop has certainly seen better days but it’s relatively nippy and handles XP and video playback fine. Also, because our lab is five floors away from our desks here at Dennis, I was able to start writing up reviews between benchmarks whilst still in the lab tweaking things. However at nearly 3kg, I felt I’d run some dreaded army marathon with a ton of gear on my back by the time I’d got to work.

I decided enough was enough and started looking for a smaller, lighter replacement. Fairly early on I had to dismiss many of the smaller notebooks because their high specifications were often beyond my needs and combined with lightweight chassis were pushing the prices beyond my budget too. After all, I just needed something primarily for word processing and if I’d been particularly organised the night before, watching an episode of something on BBC iPlayer or another movie from a totally legal source, on the train.

Eventually I managed to nab an Elonex Webbook which usually come free with mobile broadband packages, but I got the netbook on its own for a reasonable £140. It’s similar to the Eee PCs and MSI Winds of this world with a 10in screen and fairly usable keyboard. However, apart from the fact most of my colleages seem to despise it and pass regular comments along those lines, something that’s bugged me in recent weeks is the lowly grunt of its Via C7-M CPU which starts to crawl if you even consider playing something as demanding as a flash game. Still, it manages videos and Word okay and it’s great for plonking on test benches filled with fire-breathing graphics cards to start writing things up too.

However, being in a lab filled with the latest netbooks and notebooks, it’s all too easy to spot something a little better. In fact I’ve seen quite a few things.
Amongst various notebooks was a Dell Mini 12 netbook.

The perfect netbook The Perfect Netbook?

To me it seems a perfect size. The screen is massively more usable than the 10in display on my Webbook, especially for viewing spreadsheets and websites. However Dell have left massive edges straddling the keyboard meaning the keyboard itself is practically no bigger than most 10in netbooks. This is a great shame because it’s incredibly light too and is equipped with a low power version of the Intel Atom CPU meaning its battery life is also impressive. The new Samsung NC20 is a similar beast (probably, no almost certainly the wrong word) although Samsung have squeezed in a larger keyboard and a Via Nano CPU but it costs nearly £400.

The perfect netbook The Perfect Netbook?

Then I started thinking about how much I use my Webbook and the answer is a hell of a lot. Surely then it would be a better idea to fork out for something like a 12in notebook that would be big enough and powerful enough to churn through anything I would usually throw at it? A quick look online reminded me why I didn’t do this in the first place which included lots of spaces after the pound sign and I was in fact right back where I’d started months ago – looking at notebooks. I guess the moral of the story is, or at least what I’ve found from owning a netbook, is that they are far from perfect. They’re small (I constantly press the wrong keys especially the pageup button which sends the curser, and the next few sentences I write before I notice, half way up the document.) and underpowered for anything but light Internet browsing and word processing. If you’re buying new, they’re pretty damn expensive too for what they are as they seem to have acquired the desirability factor in a big way unfortunately.

So what’s the middle of the road? For me it has to be significantly less than 2kg with a 11-12in screen. It should cost less than £400 but doesn’t grind to a halt at the first sniff of desktop tower defence like most of these Atom and VIA equipped machines do. I certainly haven’t found it and I don’t even know if you could class it as a netbook but whoever makes one first will find one willing customer.

10 Comments

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Firehed 14th March 2009, 19:03 Quote
I can only speak for myself, of course, but my ideal netbook/notebook would be light, same size keyboard that's on my 15" MBP (so certainly not a 10" screen; probably 12-13"), and awesome battery life. Pretty much a slimmed down version of the old 12" powerbooks with a better screen. Doesn't really classify as a traditional netbook at that point I guess, but I just can't justify shelling out ANY money on something with a mini keyboard. I have small hands and I still find it very difficult to type on the things.
Combatus 14th March 2009, 19:30 Quote
Yeah the mini keyboards just don't cut it. I've had the Elonex Webbook for 6 months now and having used it nearly daily, it's just too small and I've never got used to it. I agree that 12" is about the right size and screen wise the NC20 and Mini 12 are there, it's just their keyboards are still small enough to cause problems and until they go Dual Core, I doubt they'll be flexible enough performance wise either!
The_Beast 14th March 2009, 19:33 Quote
I think the Asus 1000H is pretty close to what I would consider buying, it has a 10" screen and is pretty powerful considering it's only a netbook
raGe82 14th March 2009, 22:30 Quote
The Samsung photo looks more like X360, not NC20... And NC20's keyboard doesn't look much bigger on photos I've found... But it's good if it is - I hit 'right click menu' instead of 'alt gr' sometimes ;)
n3mo 15th March 2009, 23:03 Quote
I have THE best netbook of all times. Well, not really a netbook, more of a subnotebook. It's a VAIO T17GP, in Europe known as VGN-T2XP. 10.6" 1280x768 screen, Pentium M 733 ULV (1.1Ghz, 2MB L2, over four times faster than Atom and with a 5W TDP), never struggled with any Flash, easily breaks 7 hours of battery life, build quality is way better than netbooks - it's made of magnesium alloy, very hard to damage. And, despite being just 1.13 kg (with battery) it has an integrated DVD-RW.

You can't buy it in a shop anymore (T-series was replaced by TZ/TT, and the T17GP was replaced by TZ21)but you can grab one on e-bay (in a perfect condition) for the price of an average netbook, while current models (TZ/TT series) are way more expensive (above the 1000+ pounds mark) despite not being much faster or better (they differ mostly in the move to C2D which are actually slower than Pentium M, integrated HSDPA and some minor changes, not worth such a price imo). I like this Vaio so much i actually bought it, despite my strict no-Intel policy. The only downside I found is the inability to use Linux on it; while it runs fine, Sony uses some proprietary power and function key controllers so you can't toggle devices (wifi, bluetooth etc.) on/off, change display brightness, volume and so on, while the Windows Vaio Power Control gives the options to disable even the Firewire controller and DVD-RW which give around a quarter or battery life.

All in all, it's good not to narrow the search for a good small notebook to only the current netbooks. With some effort you can find an older subnotebook which is in every way better for about the same price.
Jordan Wise 16th March 2009, 10:56 Quote
10'' screen is fine, only problem is the resolution, which isn't bad, but it would be a hell of a lot better if it was 1360 x 768. I own a 1000H and I quite like the keyboard, only problem is the right shift key but thats not an issue after you get used to it
Xtrafresh 16th March 2009, 14:49 Quote
I find that desktop tower defense is a very effective way of bringing almost any sub-3GHz processor to it's knees. When you start juggling on the higher levels and there's over 100 baddies in the picture, things slow down.
It scales all the way up from my girlfriends old P4 laptop to my lappy's 2GHz AMD turion to my work laptop with an intel T-whatever, to my gaming rig complete with Q6600 at 3,4GHz.
Maybe it's a good candidate for your testsuites?

That said, i thought i was in the market for a netbook too, but was ultimately put off by the low specs of the things. For 24/7 use i now have an HP TX2550 12,1" touchscreen, and i must say i'm still very very impressed and happy with it. In short:, i can watch 4hours of video on one battery, or play a full 2,5 hours of Mass Effect on the train! Screw DTD :D!

Once the seasons change and the weather picks up, i'll be cycling a lot again, and then i'll feel the need for a really light machine for web, navigation and music, but in all probability that STILL won't be a netbook... `this is what MIDs are for. IMHO, netbooks perfectly combine the disadvantages of MIDs, with the disadvantages of subnotebooks, while adopting far too little of the advantages.

Anyone selling a decent MID in the next two to three months? :D
CowBlazed 17th March 2009, 16:37 Quote
Atom > Via C7-M, Atom is by no means a power house CPU but its the bare minimum for a decent performing netbook IMO.

I have a 1000H myself that I use mostly for school, I've found it perfectly adequate for my needs, and can even run some 3D games. Jedi Outcast, Freelancer, Audiosurf and Half Life run great, as well as 2D stuff of course. I like to watch shows and movies on it as well, the screen is great for its size.
pendragon 17th March 2009, 17:44 Quote
my friend has been extensively researching these so I've learned a bit as well .. I disagree that 'netbooks' should be 12" .. I think the very nature of them being small and cheap means 10" or smaller screens .. if you want 12" screens, get an ultraportable laptop (as I did ..you can get old models easily on ebay for < $400 USD) .. Asus 1000H or perhaps the 900A are models my friend has been considering
Xir 20th March 2009, 10:58 Quote
...the dell mini12 is 400€ thats nearly 380pounds...for the cheaper linux version.

Pah!
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