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Should You Get a Netbook Computer?

On Monday, Intel officially announced the next generation Atom processors (aka Pineview) that are part of the new Pine Trail platform. According to AnandTech, these new Atoms offer about 5-10% better performance along with 15-20% better battery life. If you have an Atom N270 or N280 based netbook, you will probably not notice the performance improvement, although the extra battery life is useful.

Previous Atom processors such as the N270 and N280 have been very popular in netbooks since they were introduced in 2008. I own a Toshiba NB205, which sports the slightly faster Atom N280. This system (like most netbooks) came with 1GB of RAM and a 5400rpm 160GB SATA drive, and Windows XP Home Edition. I promptly upgraded it to 2GB of RAM (the max supported), and a 200GB 7200rpm SATA drive that I happened to have lying around. I also installed the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate (since the Atom N280 is x86 only). With those upgrades, it runs Windows 7 Aero, SQL Server 2008, and Office 2007 fairly well. The biggest issue is the 1024x600 screen resolution, which is hard to live with for any kind of serious work. Battery life is six to eight hours (with the six-cell battery), depending on what I am doing.

I was pretty happy with the Toshiba NB205 netbook as a backup, travel machine, until I got my free Acer Aspire 1420P at PDC2009. The Acer has a dual-core, 45nm Celeron SU2300, along with 1366x768 screen resolution, Wireless-N, and a built-in 3G radio. The Celeron SU2300 has a lot more horsepower than the new Atom D450, much less the older Atom N270 or N280. It supports x64, so I can use the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate. It is less than 1/2” wider than the Toshiba, and weighs only a few ounces more.

There are quite a few, new “thin and light” laptops from multiple manufacturers that are in the 11-13” size range, weighing about 4-5 pounds that are a much better choice for daily use than a netbook.  They have ultra low voltage versions of the Celeron or Core2 Mobile CPU that are far more powerful than any Atom CPU. They all have higher resolution screens compared to a 10” netbook. Having 1366x768 resolution instead of 1024x600 resolution, along with Wireless-N instead of Wireless-G makes a big difference in everyday use. Having an x64, dual-core processor instead of an x86 hyper-threaded, single-core processor also is very noticeable. Finally, being able to support up to 8GB of RAM instead of being limited to 2GB of RAM is a very big deal. These newer, “thin and light” notebooks have up to 8 hours of battery life.

You will pay a slight price premium for a “thin and light” over a netbook (probably in the $100-200 range, depending on the specifications), but you will get a much more capable machine that is not a toy. As my girlfriend says the Toshiba netbook “is so cute”. Do you really want a cute toy, or a much better machine that you can get much more use out of?  Having owned both, I think a modern “thin and light” notebook is a far superior alternative to a netbook.

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Posted by Anonymous on 24 December 2009

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