Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Xmas: netbook gift

Like the Kindle, netbooks are going to be a popular gift for Xmas. Also like the Kindle, you should understand their limitations - there's a good chance the recipient won't like the limitations.

The primary limitation of a netbook is speed, no CD-ROM, and keyboard/screen size. In exchange, you get increased portability and longer battery life. You can't play games well on it, but you can carry it with you wherever you go and sit for hours in a café typing away.

I love netbooks. I've never owned a normal laptop computer. I've always purchased the smallest laptop that I could comfortably type on. Back then, they were known as "subnotebooks" and cost more than normal. I've written a million lines of code on netbook class machines, written hundreds of blog posts, and many chapters for books.

Oddly, people don't understand the tradeoffs. I hear things like "oooo, that's a cool looking computer, I want one just like it, but with a CD-ROM drive". Well, that's the point, a netbook is about tradeoffs. You can't get a CD-ROM in a computer this small.

The first tradeoff users will notice is the keyboard size. Most netbooks are in the 10-inch form factor, which have keyboards that are roughly 90% of full-sized. I've used that keyboard size for years and can comfortably type on it, but it may be a problem for some people. (The 11.6-inch netbooks have full-sized keyboards).

The second tradeoff they will notice is speed. Netbooks can usually play videos well, but hi-def videos or those with fast action may cause stuttering. You'll notice it occasionally. Likewise, a lot of 3D games won't run on these machines.

UPDATE: Another tradeoff is screen resolutions. A lot of them have 1024x600, which many people think is too small. Some websites don't render well on such a small screen. The larger netbooks are 1368x768, which is closer to normal for laptops.

In exchange, you get ultra-portability. At 3-pounds and 10-inches, they are so small you won't notice them in your bags. With heavier laptops, you find excuses NOT to take them with you. With netbooks, you are likely to take them wherever you go.

Netbooks also last longer on battery. You can take them with you AND not worry about how long they will last on battery. Most netbooks will last 5-hours minimum, whereas normal notebooks usually stop after 3-hours. Some netbooks advertise 11-hours of battery life.

Netbook have traditionally also had low prices. However, recently full notebook computers have dropped in price as well. For around $450, you can get either a high-end netbook or a low-end laptop that can play games better (but be larger and not last long on battery). The key to buying a netbook is to know your audience.

Sadly, I can't seem to find the $200 netbooks anymore. I purchased a bunch of those as disposable computers for pentesting. Now, the cheapest netbooks you can get are $300, with high-end ones going for $450. There are lots of good online retailers (Amazon. TigerDirect, ZipZoomFly), but I'm most familiar with NewEgg, which has a good selection of netbooks. The units are all similar, but I thought I'd highlight some standouts. I don't think you can make a "wrong" choice.

First of all are the Asus machines that focus on battery life, with various units promising 8.5, 10.5, and 11-hours. While it's unlikely that you'll get the advertised battery life in real-world conditions, they do last a LOOOONG time on battery. At $330, the 8.5-hour ASUS Eee PC 1005HA is a good buy (90% full size keyboard, 1024x600). It's what I got my mother last year. (Sadly, she doesn't get the disposable aspect of the netbook - she takes good care of it, whereas I think netbooks should be tossed around and abused because they are so cheap).

At $420, you might consider the Acer Aspire AS1410. It has a normal Core2 processor (1.2-GHz dual-core) running at very low power and runs Windows 7 Home Premium. This processor will be noticeably faster than the Atom processor found in other netbooks, and has a full-sized keyboard and 1368x768 (thus, getting rid of the biggest tradeoffs). If you are worried about the recipient complaining the unit is too slow, then this would be the unit to get. Yet, it's still ultraportable and will last 5-hours on batteries. It comes in a single core (1.3-GHz) and dual-core (2 x 1.2-GHz) version, I'd go dual-core.

I'm writing this on a $2500 Mac Book Air running Windows. It's the same weight (3-pounds) as the other netbooks, but has a 15-inch screen and a huge keyboard and a super-sexy slim form-factor. It also has a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive (SSD). It's the ultimate "netbook", but for a frivolous amount of money. My favorite pentest netbook is the Acer Aspire One AO751h, the older version of the AS1410 above but with an Atom processor.


All of the netbooks have similar limitations of keyboard size and slow speed. If the recipient of the gift doesn't mind sacrificing this in order to get ultra-portability, then pretty much any netbook will satisfy them. The two things that would drive my purchasing decision would be to get one that has an ultra-long battery life, or get something like the AS1410 that has improved speed and larger keyboard.


Richard said...

One other thing to keep in mind as a caveat of a netbook is the often shady screen resolutions of first gen netbooks. 1024x600 simply does not cut it for some browsing scenarios. If there is an option to upgrade to a higher resolution screen (which I've seen from some manufacturers), I highly recommend you do it. Otherwise, you may find yourself surfing the net in fullscreen mode...which makes me sad.

Robert Graham said...

Thanks. I updated the post.

Anonymous said...

The screen resolution does cut it for most sites, since the horizontal resolution is sufficient. It's the vertical resolution that can be problematic. Most recently my wife had issues ordering Christmas photo cards on WalMart.com with her Dell Mini 9. Whilst editing photos, their page prevents vertical scrolling and thus, the 'continue' button from being visible. A quick press of 'F11' helped my wife complete her order.

Otherwise, she LOVES her netbook.

nickhacks said...

This was a very informative post.

Unfortunately, I had spent days searching for a new laptop/netbook to buy and had finally decided on one. Now that I've read this, the search has re-opened.

I'm never going to buy anything at this rate

Anonymous said...

Why did you pull the latest post about the TSA screening document leak?

Robert Graham said...

I wanted to edit it, and accidentally deleted it.

Shawn said...

I've been pretty happy with the Lenovo S10 and S12 (which is 1280x800, btw) as a good balance between netbook form factor and not being a piece of junk that feels like it was made by Fisher Price. They don't really have the Thinkpad keyboard per se (the keys aren't a dual-scissor mechanism), but they are a lot more typing-friendly. Like you I've always preferred the smallest laptop I could feasibly use. The whole point of a notebook is portability. We use S10s for wireless pentesting, and I bought the S12 as my personal machine.

yuan said...

Yes,the shady screen resolutions of the first gen netbooks should be considered.