Are Mini Notebook Computers All The Same?

If you have been looking at the various mini notebook computers available on the market today trying to find the best mini notebook for your purposes then it's not at all surprising that you may have found yourself asking this question.

Despite the ever increasing number of mini notebooks available the differences in most of them seem to be largely cosmetic. The core components of most of the netbooks in production today are essentially the same. Even within individual manufacturers you will find several models with little or no practical difference between them. Lets list the main parts of a netbook and see what you get.

In most netbooks today you will find...

  • Screen - 10 inch with a resolution of 1024x600 pixels
  • Processor - Intel Atom (N270, N280), Single Core
  • Chip set - Intel
  • Ram - 1 gigabyte
  • Harddrive - 160g gigabytes or possibly 250 gigabytes.

These components are the most important in the machine They dictate 90% of how fast it is, how much you can do with it and a large part of how easy it is to work with. Almost without exception no matter what which mini notebook computer you buy it will have the above components with the same specifications.

Next we have components that don't contribute so much to performance but provide important functionality, some of which is essential, some optional and some only useful depending on your specific needs. These include the keyboard, track pad, networking options, device connections and battery.

Finally you have non functional areas of the machine such as it's design and color, it's size and weight. These don't directly contribute to the performance or functionality of the machine but are important to varying degrees depending on the individuals requirement.

Why Are They The Same?

The reasons why most mini notebook computers perform at very similar levels depends on your point of view (and whether you have your aluminum foil hat on).

It's because of...

  1. Abuse by certain companies of their monopoly position in the market.
  2. Price sensitivity of buyers - They won't pay more for more features.
  3. Manufacturers not wanting to cannibalize more expensive notebook sales.

Now I don't actually know the real reason and while b and c may play a part, in a free market you would think that competition would drive a much wider variety in the core specifications of netbooks than that which we see. Which leads us to the conclusion that a is the most likely answer.

The simple fact is that two companies dominate the PC world (all PC's laptops, notebooks and mini notebook computers) and they are Microsoft and Intel. In the past the Wintel alliance as it has been called has been thought by many to collude together to influence prices and specification of computers and it seems possible the same is happening now with netbooks. By offering lower prices for certain versions of Windows, but only if the netbook manufacturer does what they say) they appear to be forcing all manufacturers to stick to the same specifications and preventing them from competing fairly with one another.

A widely reported example is that Microsoft is using pricing of Windows 7 as an enticement to manufacturers to ensure that their netbooks do not come with a screen bigger than 10.2 inches but I suspect that other restrictions are placed on manufacturers and it's not only the big M thats doing it.

This arrogant attitude is all too common today. So many companies attempt to restrict what you can do with their products even though you bought it! It's like buying a new car that is capable of 100 mph and the sales rep telling you you can have it for 10,000 bucks but you can't ever drive faster than 30 mph. Of course if you buy the more expensive car, 15,000 bucks, you can do any speed you like. Of course the two models are really the same.

So Are There Any Differences?

Now we have some understanding of why the core of most mini notebook computers and therefore the performance is very similar we can ask - Are there any differences at all?

Well thankfully the answer is yes. Manufacturers seem to be able to compete on the following areas as well as design, color, overall size and weight.

  • Keyboard - Key type, key positioning, overall size.
  • Track pad - Size, button placement and type, multi touch, gesture support.
  • Networking - Wireless, Wimax, 3G, Bluetooth.
  • Device Connections - USB Ports, Video Connections, Memory card slots.
  • Battery - Physical size, weight and capacity.

As the netbook market matures even these features are becoming standardized. One manufacturer will add a new feature but within months the others will follow and everything is back to the status quo.

An example of this would be keyboard. On early mini notebook computers the keyboards were small and didn't even use all of the width of the machine. This compromised typing and restricted the usefulness of a netbook for many people. HP and Dell started producing keyboards that were the full width of the machine and intelligently resized some keys to give you a keyboard that most can use as well as a full size one. Now we see that most if not all manufacturers have followed suit and it's now rare to see a netbook with a keyboard that you could call poor.

The only areas that manufacturers seem to be competing in at the moment is in networking (some now with wimax/3g and bluetooth), Number of USB ports (some powered when the machine is off - useful for charging phones etc) and lastly, and possibly the most important feature left to compete on, the battery (Now some are approaching up to 10 hours real life runtime).

This still leaves the look, size and weight but within a netbook package there is only so much you can do (pink anyone?) to make it smaller and lighter.

What Does This Mean for You?

It means that when looking for the best mini notebook computer the choice in some ways is easy. Whatever you buy the performance of it will be similar to any other. It shouldn't be the primary thing in your decision making as it won't make that much difference.

The key things to base your decision on are...

  • Does it have the networking options you need?
  • Does it have the device connection options you need?
  • Does the battery life suit your requirements?
  • Does the look float your boat?
  • Is the price right?

Exceptions To The Rule.

As always there are a few exceptions to the rule but they are few and far between. Sony with the VAIO W and VAIO P series and Dell with the Mini 10 have screens with 1366x768 pixel resolution (optional on the Dell).

Whether these will be available with Windows 7 isn't clear at time of writing but it's possible as Dell may have the power to get a better deal from Microsoft and Intel and Sony tends to price higher and may just install alternative versions of Windows 7.

What About the Future?

It's uncertain. Whether the situation will change is anyone's guess. Eventually mini notebook computer performance will improve as Intel upgrades its processes and launches new versions of the Atom CPU range but whether this will be driven by competition or simply at Intel's convenience is not clear (if you are a cynic like me then it's very clear).

NVidea and VIA have chip sets that will improve performance but whether they will be allowed to move into the mini notebook computers market in any significant way is by no means guaranteed. You can be sure Intel will do what ever it can to stop them and retain its monopoly.

All of this article assumes various flavors of Windows running on your mini notebook computer. Alternatives are appearing, Linux, Google Android, Moblin etc.. but none has made any significant dent in windows sales and it's hard to see any reason for that to change. Most people are familiar with windows and want to stick with it. The number of Linux based offerings from suppliers has dwindled and again I can't see why this will change at the moment.

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