Ultra mobile, ultra cheap – Netbooks

I’m returning to university and wonder if you could recommend a gadget for note taking? I’d like to use my MacBook – typing would be easier than writing – but I’m not sure it would be practical. Is there a device designed for note taking?

Guardian Gadget Clinic, 23rd August 2008

This question appeared in the Guardian Gadget Clinic recently and the recommendation by Bobbie Johnson was to stick with the MacBook because of it’s larger keyboard and screen or alternatively go for a low cost PDA or a smartphone. An alternative family of devices not mentioned in the article are Netbooks.


These devices are defined by Wikipedia as “small-sized, low-cost, light weight, lean function subnotebooks optimized for Internet access and core computing functions (e.g. word processing)”. The first modern Netbook* hit the UK market in November 2007 was the ASUS eeePC 701. I was fortunate to be one of the first to hand over £230 and get my hands on a 701 and it has been close to my side ever since. So 10 months on if I was looking for a Netbook what would I be looking for?

Operating system – go for Windows

The majority of Netbooks have the option of Linux or Windows operating systems. When I got the 701 the only option was Linux which for me was a great opportunity to learn a new operating system. I’ve found that Linux does need a lot of behind the scenes tweaking to get it to work with some wireless networks and Bluetooth devices.  My advice would be either to buy with Windows or go for the cheaper Linux version and install Windows (if your campus agreement allows it).

Connectivity – wireless + Bluetooth

There are a number of manufacturers making very small Bluetooth adapters

The majority of Netbooks come with your standard wireless 801.1b/g connection. Having a Ethernet connection has come in handy when in the office. Built-in Bluetooth is a bonus but if it doesn’t come as standard you can get a small plug-in dongle for less than £10. For a data connection when your in a wireless blackspot you can use a USB modem dongle. The latest Netbooks are now including built-in sim cards to give you a data connection over 3G networks. Personally, I don’t like the idea of been locked into a contract  and the monthly tariffs still seem very high. My solution is to share the data connection on my mobile phone. Windows Mobile 6 is particularly good at sharing an Internet connection via Bluetooth. Here are other ways to connect to the Internet via a mobile phone (I personally use a PAYG account with the ‘3’ network who have a £5/month fair-use Internet add-on).

Screen resolution – at least 1024×600

As the majority of web pages are designed for a screen width of 1024 pixels I would recommend that this is the minimum resolution you should go for (Note: there is a difference between screen resolution and viewable image size. It’s possible to have a small screen with a high resolution, so check the devices specification). Screen height is often an issue with Netbooks because of the widescreen format. Space can also be quickly eaten up by toolbars and drop down menus. In Firefox this can be overcome with carefully selected themes and add-ons. I recommend Compact Classic theme and Glazoom zoom extension.

Storage – 8Gb SSD

If you are prepared to do some windows maintenance, removing temporary files, 8Gb is enough to install windows and office applications. I would recommend going for a solid state drive (SSD) because it has no moving parts which should make it more reliable.

Size – keep it compact (225x165mm)

If you have nimble typing fingers I find a width of 225mm is the most you need for a decent size keyboard. I recently got a chance to see some of the new Netbooks from HP and Acer and felt that there portability was compromised by a larger keyboard.

Cost – less than £250

I don’t see a Netbook as a replacement for my home PC or laptop, but as a device I’m happy to chuck in my bag for when I’m out and about. Consequently, its a device I don’t want to spend too much money on. My original attraction to the ASUS eeePC 701 was its portability but it was it’s price which made it a justifiable purchase.

Which Netbook would I buy?

So if I was going to buy a Netbook today which one would I buy (new Netbooks are being announced regulatly so the list will quickly become obsolete).

  • ASUS eeePC 701 – Screen too small and not enough disk space.
  • ASUS eeePC 900 – Enough screen resolution, disk space and a similar compact form of the 701. At around £260 I might be tempted but the batery life is supposed to be poor.
  • ASUS eeePC 901 – Again similar compact form of the 701 and 900. More performance from the Intel Atom processor and integrated Bluetooth. This issue for me with the 901 is price.
  • Acer Aspire One – This ticks all the boxes and with a Linux version with 12Gb SSD you can pick one up for £200. I was almost tempted to buy as a replacement to my 701 but when I went to see it in the shop it immedaitely looked too bulky for me.
  • MSI Wind – It has a 10″ screen but the maximum resolution is only 1024×600. The bigger screen just adds bulk and drains the battery quicker.
  • HP Mininote – While having a 8.9″ screen it boasts a screen resolution of 1280 X 768. At 1.3kg its too heavy and bulky for me. Your also paying a premium for the HP branding.
  • Elonex One – Hmm, at £100 the price makes it very appealing but the screen is too small and the spec reflects the price. One of the worst keybaords I’ve ever used. Not for me.
  • Dell Inspiron Mini – Released 2 days ago. Currently Dell are only offering the higher spec Windows XP version with 1Gb RAM at £300. Potentially this device has everting I want but the price isn’t right yet.

In summary my ideal Netbook isn’t available for the right price yet but I’m sure with such a competive market I may be retiring my 701 soon (possibly for the Dell Mini).


Join the conversation

comment 2 comments
  • david nicol

    I think the new netbook the Samsung n10 is beginning to look plausible. It only comes with windows xp so might not be liked by those with technical expertise but it does have a reputed 5-6hour battery life (a weakness in some of the others), has a 10″ screen (really desireable rather than smaller versions on other netbooks) and has a good full sized notebook keyboard (for those with bigger fingers) and is still under £300. It weighs 1.3kg maybe a bit heavy. But how does Toshiba manage to produce so much power in under 800grams in the new R600 portege?

  • Martin Hawksey

    The Samsung NC-10 has also caught my eye. The UK model is reportedly including Bluetooth and a 3G SIM slot making it incredibly connectible. There has been some debate as to whether the Samsung is a Netbook or Notebook. As a Lenovo (formerly IBM) ThinkPad user the Samsung is very close in spec and, for me, pushing it towards notebook territory.
    As I mentioned in the article size and weight is very important. I was close to buying an Acer Aspire One but when I saw it next to an Asus 900 it looked to bulky. It’s all about find the right device to fit into your digital lifestyle.
    It is amazing that Toshiba is almost half the weight of the Samsung. I imagine a lot of the Toshiba’s £1000 price tag is in its magnesium-alloy chassis.

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