Mobility

Cheat Sheet: Netbooks

Your pocket-sized pal

Netbooks… fishermen's favourite toy?
Nope. Not even close.

They're the latest piece of kit every self-respecting techie should be packing. The ultimate in portable computing, these dinky devices would be seated between a laptop and a smartphone at the dinner table.

Tell me more...
The term netbook is generally applied to highly portable, low-powered laptops, designed for web surfing, out-of-office productivity and light entertainment tasks.

Portability is the name of the game, so they typically weigh in at less than 1.5kg, with screens generally under the 10-inch mark.

Netbooks aim to keep their owners connected when out and about, so web and email access are key components in these devices.

Low-powered?
Intel's Atom processor is likely to be nestling in most netbooks on the market. It was designed specifically with mobile internet devices in mind, therefore does enough to power surfing, word processing and emailing on the move. It means your new best friend will keep going longer and longer before it needs to recharge its batteries - which is really the whole point of keeping connected out and about.

Cheat Tweet
Netbooks defined Twitter-style - in 140 characters or less
Highly portable, low-powered laptops, designed for web surfing, out-of-office productivity and light entertainment tasks

Who came up with this new craze then?
Well, I'm assuming you've heard of the XO laptop - or '$100 laptop' - from the One Laptop Per Child initiative? This device led the way for low-cost laptops intended for developing nations, but it was Taiwanese PC maker Asus that brought low-cost laptops to the consumer world with its Eee PC release in 2007. The original Eee PC was equipped with a tiny seven-inch screen and ran open source Linux operating system rather than Windows.


OLPC's $100 laptop

Since then, every PC maker and his dog has wanted a piece of the portable pie, with offerings from Acer, Dell and Lenovo soon all appearing. Notably absent from the party is Mac-maker Apple, and rumours surrounding a Mac OS X netbook arriving anytime soon were quashed recently by COO Tim Cook. silicon.com's resident Apple commentator Seb Janacek gives more details on why Cupertino isn't rushing into anything yet.

But do people really want another piece of hardware to lug around?
Well it appears so, yes. Since the Asus Eee PC's humble beginnings, netbooks have taken the PC market by storm - shipping roughly 10 million in a year.

According to research firm DisplaySearch, shipments of these portable pals is on track to grow 65 per cent over the course of this year, compared to 2008's totals. Analysts reckon that by 2010 they'll account for 12 per cent of the laptop market - huge considering their zero penetration start a few years ago.

What operating system do they use?
The operating system under the bonnet of the original Asus Eee PC, and the OLPC's XO laptop, are versions of Linux. Many of the early players in this game based themselves on Linux, which helped keep the price point low. Netbooks then started popping up that offered consumers a choice of OS: with an XP flavour for Microsoft fans, as well as a Linux version - obviously at a cheaper cost.

Why XP and not Vista?
Redmond's latest OS is a tad greedy in the memory stakes for these lower-specced devices. Although, as I'm sure you're aware, Vista hasn't received the warmest of welcomes so I'm not sure it's missed in this market too much…

XP's extended lifetime, as aided by netbooks, may come to an end when Windows 7 launches next year. Microsoft appears to have learnt from its mistakes, and has announced the next Windows iteration will have a version aimed specifically at these mini PCs. Windows 7 Starter Edition will be - according to Microsoft - able to run on netbooks without sucking them dry.

Are there any other open source offerings competing for the netbook's hand?
Well, although no firm announcements have been made, rumours are abound that Google's open OS Android will be showing up on netbooks soon. Originally designed for mobile phones, and currently to be found cuddled up with HTC's G1, it would make sense for this slimmed-down OS to make a home on the portable PCs.

So, it seems consumers are sold - but what about business use?
When the under-sized offerings burst onto the scene back in 2007, the general feeling from businesses was they were purely a consumer tool and not suitable for the corporate world. However, the tide has shifted considerably and the need for businesses to stay connected on the move is a large feather in the netbook's cap.

In February, analyst IDC said netbooks are gaining ground with corporates, thanks in large part to the credit crunch and the need for businesses to watch the pennies.

Some analysts have said that due to the low price point, manufactures may scrimp on security features such as firewalls and antivirus in these devices, making them a prime target for web nasties and therefore not really suited to business use. But silicon.com's exclusive CIO Jury contradicted this, with the majority considering jumping on - or are already aboard - the netbook train. As one of the panel pointed out: "Bearing in mind their purpose is to access information over the internet and not to act as a PC with local storage then all the usual remote access security applies."

Okay, I want one. What are the key features I should look out for?
Well, seeing as productivity out of the office is a primary use, the battery's ability to hold plenty of juice is important. Devices in this category generally have a relatively good battery life compared to other portable PCs thanks to their less power-hungry insides, but obviously some fare better than others. Battery life tends to range from under two hours, to a whopping nine hours - as boasted by the Asus Eee PC 1000HE. To see how battery life measures up, check out how specific devices fared when put through their paces at the hands of silicon.com's sister site CNET.co.uk.

If you're looking to do a lot of office tasks on your portable pal, then it's worth looking at the comfort levels. Keyboard and screen sizes for example will play a part in this.

You'll have a choice of OS, so decide whether you need to stick with Microsoft, or whether an open source offering such as Linux might be the way to go. The latter is likely to be kinder on the wallet.

Don't forget to look out for any extra bang you might get for your buck. Many of these mini devices come with added features such as built-in webcams - useful for videoconferencing.


The Asus Eee PC 701, where it all began

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