04 May 2009

7 Netbooks That Will Surprise You

More memory, more powerful processors, and larger displays aren't the half of it. Some features manufacturers are adding to netbooks may really surprise you.

By Bill O'Brien
May 4, 2009 04:00 AM

Netbooks are hot. Anyone who tells you they're not hasn't been watching the industry very closely. There are two core reasons behind the sizzle: 1)Netbooks are a new genre and we all like shiny new gadgets, especially ones that are tiny. 2) While we weather the tough economic storm, they're a cheap option as laptop replacements. Well, cheaper, anyway.

No, let's stick with cheap. Let's face it, they're not called, "Everything you always wanted in a portable computer books." netbooks are good for things you'd do on the Internet, and not much more. Miniscule amounts of memory, thimbles for hard disks (by current standards), and processors that chug rather than fly, are the hallmarks of the netbook.

No matter how popular netbooks might seem right now, they'll lose their novelty as the market floods and the economy improves, and their sales will begin to slip.

Enter capitalism: The only way to continue selling into this currently lucrative arena is to distinguish a product from everyone else's by providing more or better of almost any aspect of what makes a netbook a netbook. The type of technological evolution derived from making a buck has always been the driving force behind computing.

What changes might be in store for these huggable luggables? Almost anything is possible: More memory, larger screen sizes, higher capacity hard drives, and faster processors -- you might even begin to wonder when a quad-core CPU will show up in a netbook! (All right, don't spend a lot of time on that one.) But some of the features manufacturers are adding to netbooks really may surprise you.

We've unearthed seven netbooks that, while not quite on steroids, are trying to stick to the spirit of the downsized devices while dialing down the austerity with which they are so closely associated. It's not exactly clear how close the next breed will come to laptopville but one thing is certain: Apple may soon need to stop suggesting that the iPhone and the iPod are adequate substitutes for netbooks.

1. ASUS Eee PC 1004DN

Arguably, ASUS invented the netbook -- at worst, it's done its very best to propagate the species through its ever-expanding line-up of Eee PCs. It's latest is the 1004DN. While this model clearly shows its heritage from earlier Eee PCs, the newest sibling features a biometric fingerprint reader that's part of ASUS Data Security System. Not only can you log on via a fingerprint scan, but you can also set up additional users to have access to your netbook (that is, other than the guy who stole it when you left the little tyke in the cafeteria last week).

But that may not be the big news for you. How about having an internal DVD burner? That's quite a novelty for today's netbook. Yet the 1004DN still weighs in at a tossable 3.2lbs and outlines its space with a 10.9 x 7.6 x 1.1 inch footprint.

A 120GB 1.8-inch hard drive can actually be called "storage." It has enough space to really hold data, not just to provide a transport point for it until you can get home and download it into your "computer." And although the 1004DN still has but a single SODIMM memory socket, at least you can fit it with 2GB of DDR2. That may not do much for Vista but it certainly makes Windows XP a bit more responsive.

The Eee PC 1004DN is slated for release in the very near future (if not already) at a rumored sub-$600 price point. All right, sticker shock for a netbook, yes? That price drops somewhat depending on what options you prefer or where you buy it, but just keep in mind that "extra" always costs more.

2. Dell Inspiron 13

When we started looking at netbooks for this article we were dead set on making sure Dell's Inspiron Mini 12 was included. After all, it has a 12-inch screen -- big by netbook standards.

On the other hand, except for that screen size, the Mini 12 is the same basic (and we do mean basic) netbook configuration as most others, but who really wants to squint if they don't need to. It was an easy choice.

Well, all right, at least it was an easy choice until we got a look at Dell's Inspiron 13. The base Inspiron Mini 12 currently lists on Dell's site for $459. The base Inspiron 13 (no "Mini" designation) is $499. The extra $50 nets you a real CPU, not an Atom, an extra inch of screen real estate, and a 160GB hard drive (100GB more than the Mini 12).

All that for just $50 more? Yes, but you'll need a little something extra. To really put this into the 'extreme netbook' category you'll want to switch from Vista Home Basic (also known as "the you gotta be kidding OS") to Vista Home Premium and double the installed memory to 2GB. That pumps up the price to $579 but guess what? You can't touch that price with the Mini 12 and get within 70% of the performance even if you tried! (Besides, the Mini 12's DVD burner is external -- another piece of hardware to carry around.)

Speaking of carrying things about, the Mini 12 tips the scales somewhere between 2.8 and 3.2 pounds, depending on which battery pack you select. The Inspiron 13 is just a wee bit under 5 pounds so you'll need some curls to strengthen your upper arms. It's more than worth the gym workout.

3. Gigabyte T1028 TouchNote

Gigabyte's T1028 folds like a cheap suit. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, it's supposed to. That's a good thing. The T1028 has a folding 10-inch touch screen. (The "TouchNote" part of its name should have tipped you off .)

It's still in the 10-inch screen category, but while 1GB of memory is the standard fare, you can push it (and should!) to 2GB if you want to. Better still, you won't find a pathetic little 1.8-inch 80GB hard drive installed. Instead, there's a much less-pathetic 2.5-inch 160GB drive. The T1028 gets an ExpressCard slot, which is only now beginning to appear on a select group of netbooks, but if you take it at face value, Gigabyte's baby is an intriguing hybrid of netbook, Tablet PC, and laptop.

Gigabyte has managed to keep the weight down to 2.9lbs for the 4-cell battery version or a slightly heavier 3.3lbs if you opt for the 6-cell battery pack for extended operating life. (It doesn't have a DVD player so the question would be, "why?")

Of course, all truly rare gems have a curse associated with them. While Gigabyte is bit sketchy about the T1028's price on its website, current rumor puts the European versions at the equivalent of (roughly) $600USD. It's not outrageously beyond the $350 - $400 that more typically reflects netbook pricing, especially when you consider the additional technology used for the swivel touch screen. The T1208 is worth a look, if just for the novelty alone.

4. Lenovo "ThinkPad Netbook"

We're a bit conflicted about Lenovo. Part of the big news is that its S10e now features "Splashtop" technology that gives it about as close to "instant on" as "instant" can be. Lenovo has rebranded the tech that allows it to do that, calling it QuickStart. The problem is, that technology isn't so rare any more. Companies like Xandros (Presto Instant On) and HyperSpace offer similar third-party add-ons.

So that leaves us with the Lenovo "ThinkPad netbook." If that doesn't really sound like a model name to you, you're right. It's the best we can do because no real product has appeared yet, at least not at this is being written. (Supposedly, it's imminent!) How do you describe a netbook that doesn't exist? Carefully.

Don't confuse this one with the soon- to-be-released S20 IdeaPad. That one will reportedly have a 12.1-inch display, use Intel's N280 processor, and have support from the GN40 HD-capable chipset. The S20 will also have QuickStart and possibly be paired with a 3G option.

But back to things that really don't exist!

After researching nearly two-dozen unsubstantiated rumors, it's clear that Lenovo's upscale business netbook will be a ThinkPad and not an IdeaPad. Lenovo wants to capture the business side of the baby laptop market with a netbook form factor and ThinkPad is its recognizable business brand. Speculation persists that it won't use an Atom Processor, opting for a Core or Celeron (ugh!) mobile CPU instead.

The only truly certain thing is that if Lenovo does follow through on the ThinkPad netbook concept, it will be one heck of a netbook and you should probably expect it to have one heck of a price tag, probably in the Sony VAIO P range.

5. MSI U123

This netbook business is as easy as 1-2-3 for MSI, apparently. Perhaps better known for its motherboards, the company has just announced its second line of netbooks, the U123 series. According to MSI, "[the] U123 Series' styling will be different from the round and cute U100," which established its presence in the netbook market. Sure, you could call the U123 color assortment "cute," but MSI has struck at the heart of the netbook genre.

For one thing, while a 10-inch screen and a webcam might be old school, MSI's embedded webcam offers facial recognition so you can store your mug under your User ID and log on securely. As many as ten facial images can be associated with one User ID, so sharing the machine with friends and family is a snap(shot).

Got the urge to watch Dirty Jobs or Bridezillas? It's not a problem. MSI has stuffed a TV tuner into the U123T. And two-channel stereo speakers are also part of the package. The U123H delivers a 3.5G mobile network card so you're connected wherever your carrier might hear you now.

We'll pass on agreeing with MSI that a 160GB hard drive is "massive," but it does beat the previous limits by quite a bit. Best of all, at least for those of us with human-sized hands, MSI pushed the keys apart 17.5mm (or 0.69 inches, in case you have an old ruler). Obviously you can't get a 14-inch keyboard in 10-inch space but this way you won't have to tape your fingers together to type.

If you must know about the standard stuff, the U123 series is powered by an Intel Atom 1.66GHz N280 with 945GSE chipset. There's only 1GB of memory installed -- which isn't very much at all -- and there is a 6-cell battery option should you need to slave away at your U123 for an extended period of time.

Pricing hasn't bee released yet for this 2.2lb handful, but it will probably be a lot less expensive than MSI's X-Slim.

6. Samsung NC20

Put a 12.1-inch screen on a portable computer and right away Samsung thinks it has a puffed up netbook on the shelf. How presumptuous! To say that, it would have to have supplied the NC20 with at least a 120GB hard drive All right, Samsung will tuck in a 160GB drive if you want one, so it has that covered. The NC20 might be something after all.

As you should expect when getting more, the 11.5" x 8.5" x 1.2" NC20 carries a $550 price tag -- which is a bit more than the usual Netbook starter range. At a little over three pounds it's easy on the arms and having a 18.5mm key pitch (the distance, center-to-center, between the keys) should make it easy on the hands as well. Worried about things that can live in the cracks between the keys? Samsung has coated the keyboard with silver ion powder so germs don't have a chance.

Stuffed into the NC20 is a VIA Nano processor and VX800 chipset. By all of the ad hoc testing done in the world of netbooks thus far, it appears that the Nano just might be mightier than the Atom at some things and quite up to par on others. English translation: Most agree that it's just about the same.

We really can't forgive Samsung for only supplying 1GB of memory, especially with the NC20's VIA Chrome9 HC3 DX9 3d Engine graphics processor, which shares system memory. You can get by thanks to the NC20 using Windows XP Home as its operating system. Thankfully, the memory is welded to the motherboard -- there's a SODIMM socket and while you will have to toss the 1GB that's in there now, you can bump it up to a more comfortable 2GB for about $25.

Right now we've only seen the black version but rumor has it that a rainbow of colors are on the way. We'd also prefer an 802.11n wireless LAN setup, but Samsung has saddled the NC20 with slower 802.11b/g. That's not a deal breaker, though.

7. Sony Vaio P
We're making a leap of faith here because Sony doesn't want you to call its Vaio P a "netbook." Sure, it fits the bill: 1.4 lbs. (with the standard battery); 9.65"(W) x 0.78"(H) x 4.72"(D) and an 8-inch LED back-lighted 1600x768 display.Pricing starts at a near stifling $900, so it might be best not to think of it as a netbook technically, but as the specifications indicate, it does pass every other smell test.

The VAIO P will run Windows Vista Home Premium in its 2GB of memory, but Sony has graced the machine with a mere 1.33GHz Intel CPU so it's still not the all-around powerhouse that you would expect a laptop to be. Given its price point already, we'd forge ahead and load it up with the optional 128GB SSD (a 60GB mechanical drive is standard) and the large capacity (8-hours versus 4-hours) battery pack.

It might be difficult to wrap your mind around a netbook priced similarly to your current notebook or even more than that desktop PC you picked up at Costco. Still, you need to maintain perspective. There are folk who are more than willing to shell out $5,000+ on a gaming PC and that makes $900 for a netbook pretty much negligible. If nothing else will ease your mind, just keep repeating, "Sony doesn't want to call the Vaio P a netbook."


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