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Portable Netbooks : Which One to Choose ?

Many would agree that notebooks or laptops were considered tools for the elite businessmen under a decade ago. That is no longer the case. Today, students carry them to school and colleges. Some even use it as their only computer because they make for a simpler purchase than a desktop PC, and a convenient one.

Price played a part in this shift of perception. Notebooks were expensive once, well beyond the reach of all but the elite businessmen that carried them; they have dropped in prices over the years. Today, you can easily purchase an entry-level laptop for less than Rs. 25,000. Still, there are a few problems with notebooks even though they are this cheap. Although they have become smaller and more powerful, power consumption also has gone up and down went their battery life. Thus most laptops that you can buy for around Rs. 25,000 will have a battery life of about two hours. The other problem with laptops this cheap is they are heavy and painful to lug around; not exactly portable at that. While there is a solution — to opt for ultra-portable notebooks, these typically start at around Rs. 75,000 and they are often out of the reach of most of us looking for portability.

The year 2008 changed the status quo though. It saw a wave of notebooks hit our shores with the launch of the highly anticipated, low-power processors from Intel called the Atom. The Atom processor was (relatively) cheap, small and power efficient. With the first Atom processors sprouted brands that used these in their low-power notebooks. These were quickly called netbooks and they were targeted at users who wanted affordable laptops. Netbooks are so-called as they happen to be best suited for tasks of surfing the internet, along with mild office usage.

The first question to ask here is why anyone would want to buy a netbook. To start with, it’s probably not the best thing to own as your primary computer: if you have no other PC or laptop, a netbook won’t serve you best. At least not today, who knows what future processors bring to this segment... With that caveat, there are many scenarios that fit netbooks perfectly. They have long battery lives so you can get the same battery performance you would get on an expensive, power-efficient laptop. Netbook make great second computers to own. You can carry them wherever you want. You can use them to browse the internet while sitting in the living room on the couch, watching a game of cricket on TV. Unlike most “laptops” these will actually fit in your laps and not run as hot as to burn you. For those who would like to buy a cheap PC, a netbook could be an option to consider — just remember that you will have to do without an optical drive, as well as with a very cramped keyboard.

Today, almost every brand has a netbook to offer. This is then the right time for us to do a small comparison of the netbooks available in the market. We received seven netbooks from six brands. One of the newest netbooks to come to India was the BenQ Joybook Lite U101.

Acer Aspire One

The Acer Aspire One was one of the first netbooks to arrive in India, along with the ASUS Eee PC and the MSI Wind. This is a smaller laptop in comparison to the others. The Aspire One comes with a 9-inch screen much like the ASUS 904HA. The big difference is that the size of the Aspire is a lot smaller than the ASUS Eee PC 904HA.

When it was released, many considered the Aspire One to the best looking netbooks and its blue-coloured avatar was proudly exhibited in almost every mall across the country. It was this netbook that we received. This One has a glossy finish on the top and on the insides surrounding the screen. The hinge of the Aspire One houses its status LEDs and the ends of the hinge have an orange tip compliments the look and finish of the netbook.

Build quality of the Acer One is average; the outer shell feels right but the keyboards have a light feel. Pressing them doesn’t require a lot of effort and the keys feel slightly wobbly.

Speaking of the keyboard, we come to perhaps the biggest negative of netbooks —being such small laptops, they keyboards a c c o r d i n g l y shrink in size. For the Aspire One, the keys are smaller all throughout the keyboard. The touchpad too is small with the mouse buttons positioned vertically instead of horizontally. Although getting used to the limited surface area of the touchpad is a problem for everyone, the buttons were easier to get used to over time. The touchpad is so small that you have to swipe your finger many times vertically to move the pointer from the top to the bottom of the screen. Even changing the mouse sensitivity didn’t help a lot.

The audio quality is fine and fairly detailed; just not loud enough. If you think you might watch movies or TV shows on this netbook, you might need either laptop speakers or a good set of headphones. The screen isn’t so great for movie watching either: viewing angles aren’t forgiving and the backlight bleeding is clearly visible.

If anyone gets the impression that this isn’t a good netbook, then they are mistaken. Netbooks were expected to be under Rs 20,000 before they were to be released. Manufacturing costs drove the prices over that mark but today. Acer has informed us that the price for the Aspire One is Rs 20,000 and it differs from model to model. The pricing for it on online shopping sites when we last checked for the Aspire One with Linux was around some Rs. 14,500 and the one with Windows XP is Rs. 17,500. The Acer Aspire One in that case is good value for money.

ASUS Eee PC 904HA and 1000H

The ASUS EeePC 10000H and the 904HA are almost identical to each other in shape and design. With their lids shut, the only real way to tell them apart is to look for the 1000H’s protruding battery. The 904HA we received came with a 6600mAh battery.

The 904HA, as its name suggests, has a 9-inch screen and the 1000H, a 10-inch one. The 904HA has two thick panels on the either side of its screen which look like speakers at first but the speakers are in fact at the bottom, for both these netbooks.

One of the complaints laid out at the Eee PC’s feet has to be about its small and narrow vents that run down the side of the netbook. This makes the Eee PC heat up a little more than the others as there isn’t a lot of air ventilation within the chassis. The Eee PC netbooks also look plain and don’t stand out much. The keys feel a little flimsy and the mouse buttons for the touchpad are a bit tacky as well. One of the unique features of the Eee PC is its multi-touch track pad which allows you to use gestures by sliding multiple fingers simultaneously, like you would do on the new Apple devices.

The keypad is one of the most usable, of all the netbooks we tested. There are dedicated buttons for changing screen resolution, Skype, performance modes and also to turn off the screen. There is no button or shortcut to disable the touchpad though. There are some small differences between these siblings though – the webcam is a 1.3-MP on the 1000H and a 0.3-MP on the 904HA, the latter also misses out on Bluetooth.

The biggest differences between the two are their screen size and battery. We recommend the Rs. 23,990 1000H as are you aren’t saving any baggage space by picking the 9-inch 904HA. On the other hand, if you value battery life above all, then the 904HA is the one to buy. That’s available for Rs. 20,490.

BenQ Joybook Lite U101

BenQ is best known for the LCD screens and optical drives but not so much for laptops in India. At first glimpse, things look very good for their new netbook. The first thing you notice about the BenQ Joybook U101 is its beautiful surface; complete with accented patterns under its blue glossy finish. It gives the netbook a unique look and makes it feel more personal.

With the lid opened, the inside of the laptop resembles the LG XNote and the Lenovo IdeaPad S10. It doesn’t look a lot different from the LG and the Lenovo here. A metallic power button, two sets of LEDs, rounded edges and a rounded combined mouse button are some of things that stand out when you look at it.

The screen of the Joybook is 16:9 and runs at a resolution of 1024 x 576. This is a little less vertical workspace than the other 1024 x 600 displays. This might be great for movie buffs but not so great when you need the most workspace available for other applications. While rest of the hardware remains the same as the other netbooks, the Joybook Lite U101 is one of the only ones to give you more than a gigabyte of memory to start with. The U101 comes with 1.5 GB of RAM which can be upgraded to 2 GB. This doesn’t show any drastic improvements over other notebooks in performance.

Although the performance in all tests match the other netbooks, the battery life test shows that the 3-cell Joybook Lite lasts for just over two hours. That’s a bit better than 10-inch Lenovo S10 and a lot more than the LG X110.

The BenQ has nothing more to offer in terms of performance or features. A set of necessary feature and looks is what it has going for it mostly. Being a very new product, BenQ hasn’t provided us a price for the Joybook Lite U101. Still, the BenQ Joybook Lite in our opinion is a good option should the price be around the Rs. 20,000 mark.

LG X110

LG isn’t very aggressive in the laptop market but their new netbook is an interesting one. The LG X110 is one of the best looking netbooks around and one which is very comparable to the Lenovo IdeaPad and the BenQ Joybook. One notable aspect of this netbook is a neat array of LEDs lining its bottom, and a glowing blue power button.

The entire look of the LG X110 makes it almost a Mac-like laptop when opened. The white is bound to get dirty over time, though. The touchpad is good and has a single piece button with two mouse buttons. The design and feel of the touchpad is great and is effortless to use. A hotkey can be used to disable the touchpad if you choose to use an external mouse instead; a welcome touch.

Its speakers are one of the weaker points of the LG X110. They are very loud but they have a very shrill treble output and don’t make for good music listening. Another kink in the LG is that the netbook has a front end where you normally rest you palm that sticks up from the surface you place it on. Typing becomes a little uncomfortable this way. Some other manufacturers have chosen to bevel that edge so you can rest your palm.

A feature not seen on competing netbooks is the 3G modem built in as an option. A sim card can be inserted into the netbook which allows you to access the Internet. This could be a very usef u l f e a - ture when 3G services finally arrive in India.

The keyboard feels well built with nice, firm keys. The netbook has plenty of wide open vents at its bottom such that there is almost no heat given out off the top of the netbook. Having said that, the area underneath does get a little hot. All in all, excluding the audio quality and low battery life, the X110 is a pretty decent netbook that rivals the BenQ Joybook for looks.

Lenovo IdeaPad S10

The Lenovo IdeaPad S10 grabs you attention with its deepblue top and chrome-finished Lenovo badge. The beauty runs to the inside as well though, with good attention to detail in places such as the camera, for example, which has a nice chrome ring around it.

Looks aren’t everything and it doesn’t take too long to notice a few functionality issues with the S10. The buttons on the touchpad are hard and the Function key is placed on the extreme left of the keyboard instead of the Control key—if you are used to desktop keyboards, your hand will invariably hit Function when you wanted to reach for the Control button. This is a problem also seen on the MSI Wind.

The F12 key, although not used often, is missing from the keyboard. It is only available as a hotkey. The Tab key is also much smaller. All these reductions seem to have benefited the rest of the keyboard layout — it’s spacious. The keyboard also feels sturdy with little travel to the keys.

Performance figures for this netbook were also identical to most of its competitors. A detail to note here: 3D Mark 2005 refused to run due to the as the netbook lacked the minimum of 128 MB video memory required for the benchmark. We couldn’t set the video memory beyond 64 MB.

There aren’t any hotspots around the notebook. The only bit of heat can be felt on the sides of the unit; nothing around the touchpad, which is a good thing. There is a compact and lightweight battery on the Lenovo S10 which kept the S10 running for 1 hr 48 minutes in our tests; which is a decent time.

There are many netbooks with better battery life and these are available for a lot less than the S10. At Rs. 26,000, it’s definitely expensive and is worth only looks matter the most to you.

MSI Wind U100

The MSI Wind is a 10-inch netbook and was one of the first netbooks available in India. Back when it launched, it was one of the favourites for its design. The Wind has a rounded and bevelled motif which many users seem to prefer to the more compact and bright glossy finishes found in competing netbooks.

The build quality of the Wind is average. One of the problems is that the hinge for the LCD screen is pretty weak and wobbles at the slightest opportunity. The keyboard isn’t so good either. Still, the keyboard feels a little better than the ASUS Eee PC. Much like the Lenovo S10, this netbook has the Function on the left as well, which takes getting used to. The directional keys are smaller and narrower and might not be so good for any simple games that you might want to play on.

The screen is decent but can be a little too bright, to be of comfort. There are LEDs for almost every kind of indication that you may need to see. The audio too doesn’t sound great and it tends to emphasise the highs a bit.

In terms of performance, the only place where the MSI Wind lacked power was in the drive related tests. For example, SiSoft Sandra showed a 39 MB/s drive index score whereas the others were around 50 MB/s.

The MSI Wind although a decent netbook, was expensive and difficult to get in 2008. The price is still a bit on the higher side, for what it offers.

What should you get?

Comparison of Net books ( Click to Enlarge Image )

There was no clear winner, no netbook that stood out. All the netbooks had minor differences in the components used which reflected in the synthetic and real world benchmarks that we ran; but these performance differences were not big enough to come to notice. Battery life was the only important performance figure that emerged from this shootout. Battery life takes on more importance, since one would typically use a netbook away from a power socket; more often than not.

As far as battery performance goes, there is nothing to beat the ASUS Eee PC 904HA. It is undoubtedly the best of the lot. Four and a half hours is a really long time for a notebook to be running on batteries. It also is good value for money and wins the Best Buy Awayd. The MSI Wind U100 with its 6-cell battery is also worth considering if you want a 10-inch laptop. The ASUS Eee PC 1000H should be the next on the list.

If you just want a usable netbook at the cheapest price, then the Acer Aspire One is the king. We have learnt from the that you can buy the Windows XP version for around Rs. 17,500.

Of all the netbooks, the BenQ Joybook Lite U101 looked the best. So if you want something attentiongrabbing, then this BenQ should be it. Its colourful back with its highlighted patterns will serve you nicely. It is also our Best Overall Performer with its great feature set, great speakers and build quality.