Design and Comfort
All netbooks are similar, but not identical. Differences exist, from keyboard and screen size to how the trackpad feels. Enjoying and appreciating the design of a netbook is very personal. Each of the computers we tested featured unique design choices, from the feel of the keys to the size of the battery. We know many of you want to go straight to the performance statistics, but we urge you to consider our design review as well, since design can make or break the experience of using a computer.
HP Mini 311
HP took a glossy approach with the Mini 311. From the screen to the trackpad, every surface has a glossy finish, except for the back and battery. The trackpad is easy to use for hours at a time and the keys remain comfortable after lots of use, without becoming slippery. It’s also the largest trackpad of the three PCs in this roundup.
This 11.6” netbook has a 1366x768 resolution display, which is perfect for playing 720p video. It has three USB ports and slots for VGA and HDMI. When the laptop is open, the 311's very clean and elegant design becomes apparent. The near-full size keyboard is comfortable to type on, although the keys are slightly mushy.
As the middleweight, the 311 is comfortable to carry by hand or in a bag. At 3.22 lbs., you’ll feel comfortable walking around with it, whether it is open or closed. The power button lights up when on, as does a small LED imbedded beside the caps lock key, which is a little too bright.
Lenovo Ideapad S12 ION
Lenovo’s design is the complete opposite of HP’s. While the screen and top are glossy and sleek, the keyboard has a matte finish that is comfortable to grip. As the only 12.1” laptop we tested, the S12 is also the only one with a full-size keyboard. The trackpad has a similar finish, although we found it isn’t as comfortable to use for extended periods of time because it requires a very dry touch at all times.
The S12 sits at a slight slant due to its protruding six-cell battery. Unlike the HP and Gateway laptops, the S12 has a huge battery, yet it still manages to have the worst battery life, as we see on page four below. The large battery makes the S12 easy to grip from the back and the angle at which it rests is actually pleasing to the wrists when typing. When in a bag, however, the battery is a nuisance. We recommend detaching the battery when storing the computer.
While Lenovo’s keyboards are known to be well-designed (thanks to IBM), the S12’s is good, but not great. The keys aren’t clicky, but they feel good to press. One hang-up is the placement of the function key, which is in the bottom left corner instead of the control key.
Lenovo also implemented a 1280x800 resolution screen, which defies today’s tech love affair with the widescreen format. Unlike most of today’s netbooks and laptops, 720p video won’t take up the full screen on the S12 because of the screen resolution. Users will see black bars above and below all videos, and the screen actually has fewer pixels than similarly sized competing netbooks.
While Gateway parent company Acer manufactures some of today’s most popular netbooks, such as the Aspire One line, Gateway’s budget ultraportable easily distinguishes itself. Lighter and thinner than the 311 and S12, the EC1437 has all the design traits of a smart-looking netbook. With a bold red paint job and simple yet elegant keyboard design, even the educated consumer will believe that it’s a netbook.
Gateway’s keyboard is unique. The large, flat keys are well spaced and low-profile. It takes time to adjust to the keys because they require so little push, but once you do, typing becomes easy. The trackpad is similar to HP’s, although it’s not as comfortable. The mouse buttons are easier to press and the glossy surface makes it easy to distinguish between when your finger is on and off the trackpad.
Like the 311 and S12, the EC1437u has three USB ports and VGA and HDMI inputs. Also like the S12, this ultraportable has a switch to turn on and WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity (however, this model has no Bluetooth). At press time, Gateway has not confirmed if the inclusion of a Bluetooth switch was a manufacturing error or a possible future upgrade option.