So you want to buy a netbook?

One question I get asked a lot is some variation on “what computer should I buy?” My answer usually involves asking what it is going to be used for, what the budget is, and if the user has any preconceptions regarding the OS of the machine.

Increasingly I get asked about netbooks in particular. I dislike the term netbook, but I’ll use it because people know what I mean. And because I get asked about them, I try and stay up to speed with what is on the market, which in turn makes me carefully sum up the pros and cons of each one. The things I look at tend to be:

  • Physical size – small is good, but I totally see how something as small as my EeePC 701 is not to everyone’s taste. If I was buying one now, I’d want a screen size of at least nine inches, with a resolution of 1024 by 600. The larger EeePCs are good in this regard, but I think the Dell Mini beats them all with a 10″ screen pitching it between the EeePC 701 and my (once again) dead 12″ iBook.
  • Hard drive size – the hard drive can be anything from a 4gb solid state to a 160gb laptop hard drive. I use mine as my 3rd machine, with all my files living on my main laptop and the important ones synched via dropbox. But if you’re going to use it as a main (or even second) machine, then get a big hard drive. With all the major manufacturers you can now choose between a small solid state drive and a larger hard drive, so this shouldn’t influence choice too much.
  • Battery life – 3 hours does me fine, but if you are going to travel with it then this becomes important. I’m sure I’ve seen a couple with with 7 hours of battery life (although I might be thinking of the new Macbook Pro).
  • Price – You can get a first generation Acer Aspire One or EeePC for under £150 now, and even some of the slightly larger netbooks come in at well under £300 (which would be my personal price limit). Some of the mid range EeePCs (the 1000H for example) are quite reasonable, as are the Dell Minis (before you add too much customisation that is).
  • Operating System – Some come with really dire versions of Linux, some come with XP, the Dell Mini and Lenovo Ideapad actually ship with decent Linux distros (Ubuntu and Suse). I’m not too bothered, because I tend to reformat and reinstall everything I buy, but for non technical users this has to be a factor. Now, I love Linux. But I’d think twice before advising anyone to try and use the versions of Linux shipping with the EeePC and the Acer Aspire One. They are a bad advertisement for something that is great, and for that reason I’d say that if you want something with Linux on then choose something with one of the big distros (anything in the distrowatch top 10).

So yes, that’s what I tend to look at. If I was buying one today I’d probably go for a Dell Mini with a large hard drive, Ubuntu preinstalled, and as much Ram as I could fit in it. My second choice would probably be an EeePC 1000H, although I’m loathe to pay for a Windows licence when I have several I don’t use already. If price was more of a factor than it is, then I’d go with an Acer Aspire One (which I’ve just discovered I could get for £160 with a 120gb harddrive and 1gb Ram, which is actually really tempting if the noises my EeePC is making mean what I think they mean).