Netbooks prove worthy of a second look

The Lab tests six new netbooks and finds that they have come a long way, with performance and features that exceed netbooks' early reputation. Although all performed well, there is one clear winner.

Netbooks have had a bad rep since they were first introduced a couple of years ago. At that time, they were considered to be nothing more than a cheap and easy way to connect to a network, with minimal performance capabilities and tiny — sometimes as small as five inches or less — displays. And back then, that perception was based in reality.

Netbooks in this review

The Lab tests six netbook models and finds they have outgrown their low-grade reputation.

Dell Latitude on the go
The Dell Latitude 2100 offers extra portability options at a smart price for students.

Fujitsu designed to shine
Fujitsu M2010's bright screen and impressively loud speakers make it a good choice for multimedia use.

HP Mini but mighty
HP Mini 5101's enhanced communications features make it ideal for wireless or LAN networking.

IdeaPad ideal for budget conscious
Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2's low cost and light weight make it a good value for those watching their wallets.

Sony Vaio netbook a multimedia power
The Sony Vaio W-series is a bit pricey at $500, but it has a lot of extra features and would do well for a user who deals with multimedia on a variety of devices with different types of storage.

Toshiba's Mini is the class of the netbook field
The Toshiba Mini NB205 N210 delivered the best performance at the lowest price, and easily won the Reviewer’s Choice for this roundup.

Netbooks' power capacity has grown during the past year, but the perception has not changed. People still largely view netbooks as they were when they first came out. Many manufacturers don’t even call them netbooks because they want to avoid the possible stigma. Instead, they call the devices mini-notebooks.

Whatever you want to call them, this class of laptop PC is a good, low-cost alternative to larger laptops. This can be especially important for organizations that need a large number of them for simultaneous use, such as in a classroom.

At the Lab, we decided to take a good look at the newest generation of netbooks to see what they can offer. We received netbooks from Dell, Fujistu, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Sony and Toshiba. Each had a 10.1-inch display, weighed about three pounds, and cost $500 or less. They each had an Intel Atom processor, either N270 or N280, with 1G of memory, and they ran current versions of Windows XP.

In addition, they each had a six-cell battery, webcam, SVGA port, headphone/microphone jacks, 10/100 or better local-area network port, Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard (SD/MMC) reader, 802.11g or better wireless adapter and — with one exception — three USB ports. This was definitely the most homogeneous laptop roundup we have had in the Lab in quite a while.

For the performance grade, we put each of them through the paces of the PassMark Performance Test 7 benchmark suite. Because none of the netbooks came equipped with an optical drive, we skipped that portion of the tests.

To test the battery life, we set each notebook to play a video file through Windows Media Player on a constant loop, at 80 percent brightness and speaker volume. We also changed the power settings so that it would not attempt to alter the brightness, hibernate or shut down. We timed how long it took for the battery to completely run out of power in those conditions. Consider that to be a worst-case scenario. You’ll get more battery time with normal use.

We also graded how nice the keyboard and touchpad felt to use and how conveniently the ports were positioned. The portability grade was primarily a reflection of the netbook’s weight and outer dimensions. We gave each netbook a features grade based on the number and variety of ports and extra software that came preinstalled. Finally, we gave each a value grade, which represents its price as compared to how well it fared in the other categories.

Overall, we were pretty impressed by the capabilities of the new representatives of this class of laptop. There should no longer be a stigma attached to netbooks.

PassMark Performance benchmark test

The CPU tests for this review included finding prime numbers and other math tasks, in addition to compression and encryption. The 2-D graphics tests covered lines and shapes and included a fonts and text test. To test the netbooks' memory, we used various read-and-write tasks in different conditions. We also used various types of read-and-write tests for the hard drive.

The 3-D graphics test displayed 3-D movements of different complexities. The PassMark Rating is the weighted average of all the other totals, with CPU having the most weight, followed by memory. The results are relative values, so a computer with a score twice as large in one area is considered to be twice as fast.

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