Netbooks and Mini-Laptops Buyer’s Guide

As some of you may have noticed, I’m slightly obsessed with my Aspire One netbook, and actually, with netbooks in general. They are great little devices, more powerful than you’d give them credit for upon first encounter. And, but that might just be me, netbooks are what laptops should have been from day one: truly portable. El Reg has put together a buyer’s guide for today’s netbooks, and while the guide is generally spot-on with its assessments, it does present some odd choices here and there. Read on for some of my own thoughts grown out of experience.

The article on El Reg begins with what I think is a highly debatable (at best) or dubious (in reality) statement: namely, that you should opt for a netbook with an SSD, or solid state drive, instead of a model with a more traditional hard drive. “We’d argue that the solid-state drive is what the SCC is all about,” El Reg argues, “capacity enough for the OS and a sub-set of your data, with the resilience you want from a throw-around machine.”

What our friends over at The Register overlook is that the SSD comes with a major drawback that is sure to come back and bite many enthusiastic netbook buyers in their bottoms: the SSDs netbook manufacturers stuff in their hardware are slow. And then I mean slow as in, frustrating enough that the upside of the SSD (resilience) will prove to be useful as soon as you throw your netbook out of the window just because your favourite application or operating system (just about all of them these days) perform lots of small writes to the hard drive. And small write operations? SSDs don’t like those, and your machine will come to a grinding, grinding halt every other minute.

And no, it doesn’t matter what operating system you’re on. Ubuntu, Windows XP or Vista, or even Mac OS X (for the adventurous), none of them are optimised for SSDs yet, and even after tweaking the living daylights out of all of them, you will have to learn to live with the fact that that fancy-smanchy modern solid state drive is a total bottleneck for any of these devices.

My clear advice, coming from someone with hands-on experience with netbooks: opt for a netbook with an old-fashioned moving-parts hard drive. It’s less sexy, and it may drain the battery a little more, but trust me, SSD lag (as we are already calling it affectionately) gets real old, real fast.

A second piece of advice is that no matter what, get a netbook based on Intel’s new Atom architecture. It provides you with a modern processor with hyperthreading that draws a lot less power than other platforms. A decent and interesting alternative is China’s entry into the market – the MIPS Loongson processor – but these are most likey best suited for hobbyists and enthusiasts (I’m looking for one) as your choice of software is highly limited due to it not being an x86 platform. It will work fine for web browsing, emailing, and basic word processing, but be aware that many other applications may not be available in MIPS Land. Obviously, Windows is out of the question on the Longsoon.

If you have the chance, opt for a 6-cell battery instead of the 3-cell battery, as this will sometimes double the battery life. If you want to experiment with your little new toy, a wise investment might be to buy en external USB DVD/CD reader/burner, so you don’t have to waste time copying your favourite operating systems to USB sticks.

Speaking of operating system support, if you want to dive into the shady world of installing fringe operating systems like Syllable and Haiku onto your netbook, the Asus Eee line is your best bet, but since most of the modern netbooks are built on the Atom architecture, support for these others might be closer than you think.


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