Light and incredibly good value for money, netbooks appeal to almost every type of computer user, and with good reason. They're straightforward enough for anyone to get the hang of quickly, light enough to take anywhere and quick booting for simple web browsing, email or word processing on the go.
They can be tough enough for kids to use at school, versatile enough for students doing hard study, and are rapidly becoming an indispensable tool for anyone who loves staying up to date with their favourite blogs or social networking sites wherever they are.
There are subtle differences between these compact computers and a full-size laptop, though, so if you're looking to buy a netbook, here are the main things to look out for.
Netbooks are designed to be thrown into a bag and carried with you wherever you go, so although they're small and light, they're also very tough. It's unlikely that you'll be using a netbook for carrying around your entire music library or editing photos or video, so the capacity and type of storage you’ll need is a key consideration.
Some netbooks use regular hard disks, with 80GB or more of space. These are fine, but they use a lot of battery power and are relatively fragile. Also, a netbook containing a Hard Disk Drive may not withstand the same knocks and bumps as one containing a Solid State Drive. A netbook with a Solid State Storage (SSD) hard drive has no moving parts at all, so is shock proof and will last longer between charges. However, these drives have limited storage compared to Hard Disk Drives, and most are only able to store between 8GB to 20GB at the moment.
If you do need more storage, most netbooks have an SD card reader for adding more flash-based memory. Because a netbook is designed to be connected to the internet, some even come with a free subscription to a secure online storage service, which appears in your file browser just like a regular hard drive for extra space.
It is also worth noting that, because of their compact design, netbooks do not include any optical drives. This means you won’t be able to use CDs or DVDs with your netbook. External drives are available that easily connect to a USB port and offer all the functionality you’d expect to find in a full-size laptop drive, but this is something to keep in mind when deciding what you will be using your netbook for.
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The whole point of the netbook revolution is to have a computer that will connect you any time, any place, any where: you don't want to have to keep running to a mains outlet because you're out of juice. It's worth spending a little extra on a netbook that can go for six to eight hours on a single charge, giving you a whole day's computing before you need to plug it in.
Always check the battery life in reviews. Netbooks with three cell batteries can give up the ghost within 90 minutes to two hours, which you might find frustrating. Of course, how long your battery will last, will depend on how you are using your Netbook; the more activities you ask you Netbook to perform at one time, the more power it will need to use.
Linux and Windows: How to Choose
Netbooks are now available with two operating systems: Windows XP, and Linux.
Windows XP is a system that’s featured on laptops and PCs the world over. The advantage of Windows is that it has all the familiar functionality you’d expect, and you’ll easily be able to use software and hardware from your other Windows machines on an XP netbook. However, XP wasn’t designed with netbooks in mind, it can be more expensive than Linux models, and potentially it offers a lot of features that you don’t actually need on a small, ultra-portable computer.
It can be daunting giving up Windows and using a netbook that runs a customised form of Linux instead, but don't be afraid – Linux isn't just for geeks any more. If you choose one with a well designed operating system, every application you need – whether it's word processing, email, web or browsing – is no more than two clicks away. They may have unfamiliar names - like OpenOffice instead of Word, or Firefox instead of Internet Explorer – but they behave in exactly the same way as the programs you're used to. Even better, Linux-based applications automatically update themselves as newer versions or security patches become available.
Linux is also inherently more secure – because virus writers target more popular operating systems like Windows, there are almost no pieces of malware which are designed to infect Linux machines, and security software tends to be faster and free, unlike bloated Windows apps.
A good netbook might come with far more applications installed than a Windows PC, and because Linux is Open Source and not subject to expensive licensing fees, so Linux-based netbooks are cheaper and have more features than their Windows counterparts.
One thing to watch out for, though, are netbooks with badly designed versions of Linux. Some, for example, make it hard to share files with other Windows PCs on your home network.
As the name implies, netbooks are all about being connected. Even though you may not be downloading large files, they're great for streaming video and music from the internet or other PCs in your home, so look for features like Wireless N networking for the fastest, most futureproof way of connecting to WiFi. Most netbooks are also compatible with Wireless B and G which are in common use at the moment.
One thing that's also worth considering is that mobile data is getting cheaper by the day. Some netbooks have a built in 3G modem for connecting directly to a cellular internet connection, but these will require a new SIM card and contract. Some netbooks that support Bluetooth, however, have built in drivers for connecting to your existing 3G mobile phone, so that they can use that to stay constantly connected wherever you are.
Netbooks are great for keeping in touch whilst on the go, and will help you stay connected with friends via Instant Messaging tools such as MSN or Google Messenger too.