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Netbooks: Handy computers, but be sure you know what you're buying

They're cheap, portable and, heading into back-to-school season, netbooks are also big sellers at computer stores. But people who fail to do their homework risk ending up with a mini-notebook that's not right for their needs.
Donovan Olsen, right, a sixth-grader at a school in Austin, Texas, works on a Dell netbook in May 2009. Dell is attempting to extend its lead in the business with its Latitude 2100 designed for young students. (Harry Cabluck/Associated Press)

They're cheap, portable and, heading into back-to-school season, netbooks are also big sellers at computer stores. But people who fail to do their homework risk ending up with a mini-notebook that's not right for their needs.

Also known as ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), mini-notebooks are designed to be small, lightweight machines for basic computer work, such as taking notes, writing reports and email, and surfing websites.

Here are some of the latest netbooks that are making a splash:

Asus Eee PC 1005HA

Price: more than $400

       
  • 10.1-inch screen.
  •    
  • 1 GB RAM (random access memory).
  •    
  • 1.66 GHz Intel Atom N280 processor.
  •    
  • 160 GB hard drive.
  •    
  • 1.27 kilograms.

Toshiba Mini NB205

Price: more than $400

       
  • 10.1-inch screen.
  •    
  • 1 GB RAM.
  •    
  • 1.66 GHz Intel Atom Processor N280.
  •    
  • 160 GB hard drive.
  •    
  • 1.32 kilos.

Dell Latitude 2100

Price: more than $600

       
  • 10.1-inch screen.
  •    
  • 1 GB RAM.
  •    
  • 1.6 GHz Intel Atmon N270 processor.
  •    
  • 250 GB hard drive.
  •    
  • 1.32 kilos.

Sony VAIO W series

Price: $599.99

       
  • 10.1-inch screen
  •    
  • 1 GB RAM
  •    
  • 1.66 GHz Intel processor
  •    
  • 160 GB hard drive
  •    
  • 1.18 kilos

Canadians bought slightly more than 9,500 mini-notebooks in the first quarter of 2008, according to technology market research firm IDC Canada. In the opening quarter of this year, the number soared to more than 90,000.

IDC forecasts that 400,000 netbooks will be sold in Canada in 2009.

A key factor behind the skyrocketing sales of netbooks is that they're "very attractive for the economic times because of the low cost," said Tim Brunt, an analyst at IDC.

However, the limitations of these ultra-portable computers mean they're not for everyone.

The NDP Group — a U.S. consumer and retail market research information company — released a report in June that revealed 60 per cent of consumers who bought a netbook assumed it had the same capabilities as a full-sized notebook. Only 58 per cent of those people were satisfied with their purchase.

This result "clearly says a lot of people who want to use it [a mini-notebook] as a PC don't recognize it has an older operating system, a slower processor," said Stephen Baker, an analyst for the NPD Group. "It's just not going to perform to the level as most of the PCs you are able to buy."

One issue is that the processors in netbooks are generally slower than those in regular notebooks and PCs, and they aren't as good at multitasking (running several programs at the same time). They also lack the power of full-sized notebooks when it comes to graphics, so their ability to run games and display video can be disappointing.

Another big issue is size. Mini-notebooks, as the name suggests, generally have small screens —  eight to 10 inches compared with 15 or 17 inches on most full-sized notebooks. That can add up to a lot of scrolling through documents and web pages. Their keyboards and trackpad controllers also tend to be smaller than those of standard notebooks, which is difficult for some to get used to - particularly people with larger hands.

"In my opinion, I think netbooks are more suited for people who are more petite, regardless if they're studying or working," says Zoe Chow, a computer engineering graduate student at the University of Toronto.

That's why it's a good idea to try typing and surfing the web on a netbook before you buy.

John Shim, a Vancouver high school science teacher, said he wanted a netbook that was easier to carry around than his larger and heavier 14-inch notebook. He shopped around and did a lot of research before settling on his Asus Eee PC.

"I looked at about four different models," he said. "The key is battery life and whether the keyboard actually feels flaky. Some of those cheaper ones —  you press down on it and half the keyboard just kind of disappears from you."

He also went for a model with enough battery power to run for a full working day. He said he generally uses his netbook for about four hours a day to do things such as listen to music, surf the web and make VoIP 9 (Voice over Internet Protocol) phonecalls with people using Skype (his mini notebook has a built-in webcam).

"I was surprised about its processor abilities," he said. "It's affordable and it will do everything else most people want. It's faster than my old laptop —  I mean my laptop is only two years old —  so I think it's worth it."

Ideal machinery for the younger population?

Manufacturers are trying to make the differences between netbooks and full-sized notebooks clearer to prospective buyers.

For example, Sony markets its new line of netbooks as a secondary PC, representative Candice Hayman said, while recommending full-sized notebooks and desktop units as the primary computer.

The message seems to be getting through. A May 2009 survey by IDC of 1,000 Canadians aged 15 and older revealed the No. 1 reason netbooks were being purchased was for use as a secondary PC, Brunt said.

Still, for some people a super-portable machine is all they need. In the same IDC survey, people aged 15 to 29 listed their top five usages of mini notebooks as email, social networking, online browsing, online banking and downloading music.

So are these small computers a good fit for students? Yes and no, U of T student Chow said.

"The real reasons why I got a netbook are that it is lightweight and it suits my lifestyle," she said in an email interview.

Cans and can'ts

Don't pretend your netbook is something it's not. Here's a list of things you can and can't do with it.

You can:

       
  • Browse the internet.
  •    
  • Use word-processing software.
  •    
  • Connect CD drives using USB ports.
  •    
  • Play casual games such as solitaire.

You can't:

       
  • Use sophisticated software such as Adobe Photoshop.
  •    
  • Play high-resolution video games.
  •    
  • Edit video.

Chow said she enjoys her netbook because she understands what it's made for and only uses it for those purposes. The netbook's simple functions are exactly what she wants for trips out to the coffee shop, for example, where she's on the go and doesn't want to be weighed down with a full-sized notebook.

"What I really need is a small, compact computer designed to work well with the internet, which is what a netbook is designed for," she said.

However, she added, she doesn't think mini-notebooks are a good idea for incoming university students — particularly as a primary computer.

"I would not recommend it to first-year students," Chow said. "Students tend to spend a lot of time in front of their computers, and netbooks may not be the most ergonomic choice," she explained.

NPD's Baker agreed that netbooks might not be the best option as a primary machine for new university students.

"There's good and bad, I think, for students here. Certainly the good part here is that it's very mobile and relatively lightweight," Baker said. "The problem is that it's really not designed to be your main PC. Students don't just go to school to take notes at a lecture or in a classroom, and they don't just do a little bit of word processing or email."

If cost is the primary factor in choosing a computer, Chow said, students should shop around because full-sized entry-level notebooks can be found for little more than the cost of a netbook.

What's in store?

Netbooks are available in more varieties than ever. Newer versions with increased random access memory, bigger hard drives, longer battery life and larger screens and keyboards are being created as their popularity grows.

New operating systems, such as Google Chrome and a version of Windows 7, are also being designed make the most of low-powered netbooks.

With each improvement, mini-notebooks are closing the performance gap with full-sized notebooks, Brunt said. However, he added, they still have their differences, and the key is to make sure the hardware will fit your needs.

Considerations when purchasing a mini-notebook

Pros:

       
  • Netbooks usually weigh a bit more than a kilogram and are designed to fit easily into a carry bag, making them easy to haul on a trip, and to class or work from home.
  •    
  • Most netbooks with a 10.1-inch screen tend to have full keyboards so hands won't be cramped on a small set of keys
  •    
  • The cost is relatively low, which is great for those on a budget who need a simple word processor and internet browsing capabilities.

Cons:

       
  • Netbooks can be slow when running demanding operating systems such as Windows Vista.
  •    
  • Smaller screens mean smaller keyboards that might cramp your fingers.
  •    
  • Touchpads can be very small, making scrolling difficult
  •    
  • Some low-cost models have small batteries that offer less than two hours of run-time between charges
  •    
  • Netbooks tend not to have built-in graphics memory, so they use the computer's random access memory to run the graphics system — which means there is less memory available to run programs).
  •    
  • It's not likely you'll be able to use fancy software such as Photoshop or play sophisticated video games 
  •    
  • Video playback tends to be choppy due to the limited power of the processor and graphics system. 
  •    
  • The hardware is not easily upgradeable.

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