Five tips for choosing the right netbook

Selecting a netbook might be trickier than you think. Brien Posey offers a few suggestions based on his buying experience.

I'll never forget the first time I purchased a netbook. When I walked into the electronics store, my plan was to buy the netbook that had the best system specs. Imagine my surprise when every netbook in the store had exactly the same system specs. So how did I make my decision? Here are five things to keep in mind when you go netbook shopping.

1: Consider spending more money for better hardware

When I bought my netbook, the first thing I did when I got home was take it apart and install a much higher capacity hard drive and additional memory. Even though I have performed more computer upgrades than I care to think about, I found the netbook upgrade to be especially difficult. From a technical standpoint, upgrading a netbook is no different from upgrading a laptop. However, netbooks use countless tiny components that are all tightly packed into a small space. I actually broke the keyboard ribbon connector in my netbook, even though I was trying to be careful. (I was able to fix it.)

My point is that it may be worthwhile to go ahead and buy a netbook that has a few upgrades, even if you're used to upgrading computers yourself. Of course, sometimes the price of getting a netbook with an upgrade is absurd. When I sat down to write this article, I checked the netbook prices for one online retailer and found that it cost $100 to move from a 160 GB hard drive to a 250 GB drive.

2: Go with a brand you trust

Since most of the netbooks that are currently on the market are similar, I think it makes a lot of sense to choose a brand you trust -- even if you can save a few bucks by picking a less expensive brand. It may seem counterintuitive to pay more for a system when a less expensive system offers the same specs, but choosing a reputable brand means that you can get technical support if you need it. It also means that you shouldn't have any trouble downloading device drivers from the manufacturer's Web site. Sometimes, the better brands may give you a few extras as well. For instance, you might get some free applications, an integrated Webcam, or a better quality monitor.

3: Pay attention to the operating system

When shopping for a netbook, it is easy to look at the hardware specs and overlook which operating system it comes with. Unless you're planning to blank the hard drive and install your own operating system (like I do), be sure you determine which operating system the netbook comes with. A few manufacturers are still selling netbooks that are loaded with Windows XP, and I've seen at least one or two netbooks that came loaded with a watered down Linux kernel.

4: Plan on spending extra for external hardware

I have known several people who purchased a netbook without realizing that it did not come with an integrated DVD drive. This can be a problem, because you will need to have a way of installing applications onto your netbook. I got around this problem by sharing a DVD drive on one of my network servers. That way, I can install applications from across the network. However, most of my friends simply purchased a USB DVD drive.

A USB DVD drive is nearly essential if you plan to blank a netbook's operating system and install your own. When I installed the operating system on my netbook, I actually removed the hard drive and transplanted it into a laptop. I copied the installation media to the drive and then started the installation. Midway through the process, I shut the laptop down, transplanted the drive back into my netbook, and then continued with the setup. This method worked because the first portion of the installation process is generic, but the latter portion is hardware specific. Even though that process worked well for me, it would have been a lot easier to use a USB DVD drive instead.

5: Read reviews

The last bit of advice I would give you is to go online and read product reviews for the various netbook models you are considering. Not all netbooks are created equally, even though the system specs might lead you to believe that most of the netbooks on the market are the same.

When I was shopping for my netbook, I read reviews for several models. I discovered that a few of the models I was considering were cheaply made and weren't very durable. I also found out that one of the models I was considering had an issue with the keys on the keyboard sticking. I never would have known about these problems had I not taken the time to read the reviews.

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