Finding a netbook that's right for you

Do-it-yourself matchmaking—for free!

By Andy Sweet

Netbooks are one of the biggest computing crazes to come around in a while. These small laptops are affordable, but that's not the only reason they're getting so much attention. Their small size and efficient hardware make netbooks highly portable, so they're perfect when you're away from the home or office. Yet netbooks are still full-fledged PCs, so you can continue to do the things in Windows that you're used to doing.

If you need more computing capabilities or a bigger keyboard than a phone can offer, but you also want something smaller and lighter than a typical laptop, you can keep reading for tips on how to find the netbook meant for you. (And if you're just starting out and want to learn more first, check out Going places with your netbook.

Picture comparing a laptop and a netbook
If you crave a smaller laptop, a netbook might be just the thing.

How do I tell them all apart?

Netbooks might seem a lot alike, and in many ways they are. Netbooks lack an internal DVD drive (to keep the size down), they boast pretty impressive battery life, they have small screens, and most have comparable hardware and random access memory (RAM).

So, what should you look for? Hardware specs will influence your decision, of course, as will price, but there are some more personal preferences regarding netbooks. As you start comparing different netbooks, watch for these things:

  • Keyboard. Make sure it's not too small. My netbook (an average model from 2008) has a keyboard that's 90% of a full-sized keyboard, which for me is a great balance between size and usability. But it's really a personal choice. It helps if you can get your hands on one to try for yourself—ask a friend with one, or visit an electronics or larger office supply store and use a demo model. Can you type on the keyboard without discomfort? How's the action of the keys? Do they feel right when you type? Are they too rigid? Too flimsy? Spend some quality time trying out different models and go with what feels best.

  • Screen size. Sizes typically range from around 9 inches to 11 inches diagonally. Larger screens are more readable but use more power and increase overall size. My 10-inch screen is a good size for me—it's compact but doesn't strain my eyes.

  • Overall size. The screen and keyboard determine overall size. However, as far as thickness (and generally, weight) goes, I like to think of that as dependent on price. The more you spend, the lighter and thinner a netbook you can get. My netbook is about an inch and a half thick—not the thinnest model on the block, but not phone book thick either. I like its sturdy feel, but then again, mine tends to get banged around a bit so I need something durable.

  • Storage. Some netbooks use solid state drives (SSDs) instead of hard disks. They're lighter and somewhat more shock resistant, but are also more expensive than hard disks. As a result, you typically see smaller SSDs in the 16 GB or 32 GB range. If you have lots of files, that might not be enough. My netbook has an 80 GB hard disk that's already filling up—160 GB or larger hard disks are more common now.

  • RAM and CPU. Lots of netbooks come with 1 GB of RAM, enough to run Windows 7 just fine. Some come with 2 GB installed, but you'll probably pay a little more. If you're undecided, check to see whether you can add more RAM later if you decide to—unfortunately, some netbooks can't be upgraded with additional memory.

  • Battery life and size. One of a netbook's main draws is portability, so you'll want to make sure that the battery life meets your expectations. Check the size of the included battery—some models come with large batteries, others offer them as options. A larger battery will make your netbook heavier, of course, and probably a bit larger. I usually carry mine in a backpack or messenger bag, so I'll make the trade for a larger battery. But, if you keep yours in a purse or are concerned about weight, a smaller battery might make sense.

  • Built-in hardware. Check for things like built-in webcams and other hardware-based features that are important to you. Are there are enough USB ports for your needs? Is there a port for a Secure Digital (SD) card? Do you need a dial-up modem built-in? An Ethernet port? Will you need to hook up an external monitor? Except for the modem, most netbooks I've seen offer these features, but make sure before you buy.

  • Bundled software. One way manufacturers distinguish their PCs is with the software they include. You might find a netbook that contains a specific program that you use regularly, and that could sway your opinion. It's something to think about.

Strategies for shopping

Now that you know what to look for, you can start to narrow your search. The Internet is of course a great place to do research. Manufacturer websites are the place to get the official word on specs, and electronics and computer websites offer in-depth reviews of specific models. I'll usually read reviews from several different websites to get the full picture.

You can get less authoritative, but sometimes equally useful, information on websites that offer customer reviews of products. You have to be a smart shopper when reading these reviews since some can be biased or inaccurate. But I find them valuable because every now and again someone will have an observation about something I'd not thought about—things like: Is the surface of the netbook a fingerprint magnet? Does the keyboard bounce when you type? Does the netbook emit a hum or run hot after a while? Does the screen hinge poke out oddly? These are all things you might not notice even if you've tried one in person.

When you're ready to buy

Some final things to consider before you hand over the cash or click "Buy":

  • Warranties. What does the manufacturer's warranty cover? How long does it last? Has anyone had trouble using the warranty service?

  • Where to buy. Buying online is easy, and you frequently get more to choose from. But, you have to wait for delivery (and arrange for pickup if you're not home, which can be a hassle). Local shops can often be more expensive, but you get instant gratification, you can try before you buy, and you can ask the salesperson questions and get their perspective on things. Plus, you have an actual person to talk to if you run into any issues. Which also brings us to....

  • Return policies. Nobody likes to think they're going to get a lemon, but let's face facts, it sometimes happens. Regardless of whether you buy online or in person, ask about the return policy just in case. First make sure there is one. Is it conditional, or is it 100% satisfaction guaranteed (and how exactly is that defined)? How long is the return policy in effect? Is there a restocking fee if you return something? Does the store replace faulty merchandise on the spot, or does it make you wait while the netbook is sent back to the manufacturer for a repair? Don't be shy about asking—you deserve to know before spending your money.

In the end, it's pretty hard to go wrong. Make sure the netbook models that you're seriously considering meet your most important criteria (for me it was keyboard and screen size), compare prices and policies, and try them in person if at all possible. Then when you're ready to buy, you can be confident that you've done your homework and you're getting the right netbook for you. And then comes the best part—taking it out of the box and firing it up!

For more information about netbooks and Windows 7, check out Installing Windows 7 on a netbook and Upgrading Windows 7 on a netbook using Windows Anytime Upgrade.

About the author

Andy Sweet is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Most recently, he developed user interface text for several Windows 7 features. Previously, he helped create instructor-led training for Windows IT professionals and was a science and technology editor for Encarta Encyclopedia.

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