Australian netbook buying guide

We walk you through what to look for when you're buying a netbook and give you an overview of the many mini-notebooks that have passed through our Test Centre

You’ve probably heard about the latest notebook craze: mini-laptops called netbooks. Netbooks are small and not very powerful laptops that can be used for basic tasks such as word processing, watching videos, listening to music, browsing the Internet and downloading photos from your digital camera. They range in size from 7in to 10in and their diminutive body makes them an attractive proposition for travellers who only want something to dump their photos on and perhaps record a journal of their travels. But even some business users find them appealing because they are easy to carry and can be used while on the road and at meetings.

Don’t consider a netbook if you want a laptop for multitasking or for running taxing applications such as Adobe Photoshop or Lotus Notes; netbooks are just not powerful enough for those sorts of applications. With a netbook you can run a basic photo editor to crop and rename your photos (and add a little contrast and brightness), run standard word processing and spreadsheet applications, watch standard-definition movies, listen to MP3s, surf the Web and use Skype. You can't edit videos, encode videos or music (unless you are prepared to wait a long time), and you can't check your e-mail while listening to music while working on a Word document while browsing Flash-heavy Web sites!

Most netbooks share some common specifications: a CPU, which is almost always an Intel Atom N270 or N280, 1GB of RAM, integrated Intel graphics, and a screen size up to 10.2in (although BenQ has an 11.6in model). Netbooks differ in their battery life (some come with a 3-cell battery, others a 6-cell), and the hard drive they use to store files. Netbooks feature either a conventional spinning hard drive or a solid-state drive with no moving parts. The latter sacrifices capacity but can make a netbook slightly lighter and quieter. It also protects your data better: a drop or bump is less likely to damage an SSD compared to a hard drive that has moving parts.

The operating system on a netbook is almost always Windows XP, but some business models also have Windows Vista Business as an option. Most netbooks are also capable of running Windows 7. Linux was the operating system of choice for the first netbook — the ASUS Eee PC 701 4G — but it has only been available on a couple of other models since (netbooks from Acer and Kogan, for example).

We've compiled a guide to help you find the perfect netbook, and provided an overview of the many netbooks that have passed through our Test Centre to help you decide which one is right for you.

Netbook specifications

Audio: All netbooks have a built-in sound chip (usually a Realtek High Definition Audio chip) as well as headphone and microphone ports. They also have built-in microphones and some newer netbooks, such as Fujitsu's M2010, have digital microphones that can filter out background noise. Some netbooks only have one speaker, while other offer stereo sound. The speakers in a netbook are not powerful and should not be relied upon (except maybe to quickly watch a YouTube video). Use headphones or plug in some speakers if you want to listen to music or watch movies.

Battery life: Most netbooks ship with a 3-cell battery that will last an average of 2hr 30min when watching videos, but some models ship with a 6-cell battery that can play videos for up to 5hr 30min. The battery life will vary depending on the tasks you are performing, but if you want a longer battery life then opt for a netbook with a bigger battery.

CPU: The first netbooks, such as the ASUS 701 4G and the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC, used Intel Celeron M and VIA C-7M CPUs. Now almost all netbooks use one of Intel's low-end Atom CPUs, usually the Intel Atom N270, N280, Z520 or Z530. The N270 runs at 1.6GHz while the N280 runs at 1.66GHz; the Z520 runs at 1.3GHz while the Z530 runs at 1.6GHz. All CPUs have a 512KB cache. The N270, Z520 and Z530 have a 533MHz front-side bus connection to the memory, while the N280 has a 667MHz connection. They are all single-core CPUs but have Hyper-Threading. This means they are capable of running two processes simultaneously, which aids multitasking. The Intel Atom CPUs run much cooler than the Celeron and VIA CPUs (the VIA CPU in particular gets very hot inside the small confines of a netbook). AMD has released a low-voltage chip suitable for netbooks — the Athlon 64 L110 — but it isn't widely used yet.

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Elias Plastiras

Elias Plastiras

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