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The Big Guide to Little Netbooks

Nokia Booklet 3G

 (Nokia)

When the showing off new netbooks -- those low-cost, undersized laptops -- otherwise exuberant corporate executives start knocking their own products. Netbooks are cramped and underpowered, they argue. Yes, the very netbooks they sell.

Why the lack of love for this wildly popular class of computer? In part, it's about profit -- or lack thereof. Most netbooks cost between $230 and $400, so it's hard for PC makers to make a buck selling them. But in the insanely competitive PC market, no major manufacturer is willing to ignore netbooks. They take a deep breath, grumble, and then offer them anyway.

(Okay, one big name has steered clear of netbooks. That would be Apple, who thinks you should buy an iPad instead, starting later this month.)

PC companies may accentuate the negative when it comes to netbooks, but I'm a fan -- and I have plenty of company. Their affordable portability makes them a pleasure, whether you're kicking back on the sofa or heading out of town on vacation. When I fly, I find 15" laptops virtually unusable in most coach sections; a netbook, however, fits just fine even if the traveler in front of me reclines all the way.

If your main system is a desktop or big-screen laptop, a netbook can be a worthwhile second computer, as long as you understand their pros, their cons, and the differences between similar-looking models. Here are few questions to ask before you buy (or don't buy) one.

What are you going to do with your laptop? Netbooks may be basic, but you hardly need a supercomputer to browse the Web, do e-mail, balance your checkbook, and run an office suite. On the other hand, their processors and graphics capabilities are too wimpy for serious 3D gaming. And their screens are too dinky for some high-end applications. (I installed Adobe Photoshop on an Asus Eee PC and couldn't even see the bottom part of its user interface.)

Bottom line: The more casual and Web-centric your computing activities, the better a netbook will handle them.

Are you just looking to save money? Even if you've got a netbook-sized budget, you don't need to settle for a netbook-sized computer. As I write this, BestBuy.com has six full-sized laptops under $400. They're econoboxes, without the cutting-edge technologies and sophisticated engineering of costlier models. But with their roomy screens (mostly 15.6") and built-in DVD burners, they make much more sense as a primary computer than any netbook does.

How are the screen and keyboard? Some of the first netbooks had displays under 9" in size, which was enough to leave almost anyone squinting. Today, most have 10.1" screens -- small, but not unbearably so. Screen resolution still varies; a netbook with a screen that packs an unusually large number of pixels, such as the 1,366-by-768 model on Sony's VAIO W, can show more of a Web page, word-processing document, or photo with less scrolling.

In a perfect world, netbooks with more spacious screens would be commonplace, but they remain rare beasts. HP's Mini 311 (with an 11.6" display) and Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 (12") are standouts.

Keyboard quality is inextricably related to screen size, since the display's dimensions determine the case width. Even the nicest 10.1" netbooks can't quite accommodate a full-sized keyboard; some do come close, however, such as Toshiba's comfy NB305. The best way to gauge keyboards is to trust your fingers -- if possible, try out a netbook in person before plunking down your money.

What's the difference between a cheap netbook and a not-so-cheap netbook? Lower-cost models are more compromised than their pricier competitors: They tend to have creakier processors and graphics, clunkier keyboards, slower networking, and lower-resolution screens. They also have three-cell batteries vs. the six-cell models with higher-end netbooks, which saves on weight but also slashes the number of hours you can go completely mobile before you have to plug in. 

The slickest netbooks, such as Nokia's aluminum-clad Booklet 3G, sell for $500 and above. But if you can set aside $350 or so, you won't lack for solid choices.

What version of Windows do you get? Many netbooks still come loaded with Windows XP. It's the world's most familiar operating system, but it's also less modern, secure, and pleasant than Windows 7. Others come with Windows 7 Starter Edition, a stripped-down version that won't even let you change the desktop wallpaper. The best, most full-featured option -- usually found on models that cost a little more -- is Windows 7 Home Premium.

Are you willing to do some upgrades? Netbooks usually include 1GB of RAM, which is on the tight side, especially if you want to run a bunch of programs at once without overtaxing the system. So I recommend investing about $40 and a few minutes of your time to buy and install a 2GB memory module. You might also want to invest $80 or so in a portable external DVD burner, a handy add-on for installing software and backing up data.

Maybe you want something a little beefier? When PC manufacturers explain to me that netbooks are too dinky and sluggish, they usually follow up by saying that consumers would be better off buying a "thin and light" notebook with a larger screen and a more potent processor. Which conveniently ignores the fact that most of these machines cost much more than typical netbooks. Still, if your budget permits, I'd recommend looking at these systems too. In fact, I own and like a $675 Asus UL30A-X5, which I bought to replace an Asus Eee PC netbook. (The latter laptop is still in use, too -- my fiancée adopted it.)

As I said about the great "PC or Mac?" question, the best thing about Windows PCs is that they come in an array of shapes, sizes, and price points. Netbooks don't have to be all-purpose powerhouses -- they just need to be the right computers for some of the people some of the time. If you've got one, I'd love to to hear your real-world report.

Harry McCracken blogs at Technologizer, his site about personal technology. He's also the former editor in chief ofPC World. Follow him on Twitter as@harrymccracken.