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Battle of the Netbooks

Netbook Throwdown

Our Tests

People use netbooks for different tasks when compared to traditional laptops, and we've tried to reflect that in our tests, which are slightly different from those that we use for other notebook computers:

Battery Life & Portability
Their rugged go-anywhere capabilities are one of the main selling points of netbooks, so it's only right that we look at battery life ahead of everything else in these tests.

Processor Power
The usual minimum capabilities of a netbook suggest that it should be able to start quickly, get you online and handle basic office software. Watching streaming video online shouldn't be too much of a problem, but anything else is definitely a bonus and we'll be pointing out if any netbooks are more powerful than this.

Handling & Connectivity
Finally, we'll try to give you an idea of the product's look and feel. This is very important for netbooks, which aren't designed to be hidden on your desk. We look at the quality of the case, the image quality of the screen, how loud and comfortable the keyboard is and which ports are included.

This roundup includes products released within one year preceding the publication date of this article. The product selection consists solely of review units made available to Tom’s Guide by vendors. While the products listed here do not constitute a comprehensive listing of all products in the category, they do represent a broad range of what is available to consumers in this category. We will quickly update this roundup with new products as they become available to Tom’s Guide, and soon add data relating to product specifications and test dates. In other words, these roundups are a work in progress. Please check back frequently to see what’s new.

Whether you think they're a passing trend or a genuine response to the need for increasingly mobile computing, netbook sales have skyrocketed over the last year. Asus, the company many view as the father of consumer netbooks, introduced the world to its Eee PC netbook brand not even two years ago. Within the last 18 months, the netbook sector has exploded, and now represents a healthy chunk of total PC sales around the world.

While some companies are beginning to blur the lines between netbooks and traditional notebooks, there is a difference between the two. Both PC types can rightly claim to be portable computers, but the target audience and general approach of netboks and notebooks is different.

For the vast majority of netbook users, their netbook is a secondary computer. Netbooks are designed to be taken on the road, but not to replace your main machine, which might be a regular laptop, or could just as easily be a desktop computer. The absence of a DVD drive, the small screen and the cramped keyboard all point to the fact that netbooks are just one answer to the classic trade-off between performance and portability, with the latter being the ultimate selling point.

There are three big questions that are likely to weigh heavily in your choice of netbook:

Storage: Flash Memory or Hard Disk Drive?
Flash memory is quiet, offers better shock-resistance and excellent read speeds from the drive.  Hard drives, on the other hand, offer more space (currently up to 160 GB compared to just 16 GB for the largest SSD in a netbook) and better overall performance when read and write speeds are taken together.  This will change in the near future, however, as developments in SSD technology could lead to much more flash memory capacity while maintaining a low price point.

Screen Size: 9 inches, 10 inches, and beyond!
There's a simple relationship between the size of your screen and how portable your netbook is: the bigger the screen, the heavier it will be!  Measured diagonally from corner to corner as with screens on other devices, a 10 inch netbook screen is perfectly comfortable and leaves room for a decent-sized keyboard.  In general though, 10 inch netbooks are usually 4 to 7 ounces heavier than the other common size for netbooks, 9 inches.

Operating System: XP or Linux?
Windows XP and Linux are the two main options to run your netbook (Windows Vista is a less popular third option). Provided you choose a reasonably powerful processor and at least 512 MB of RAM, XP runs perfectly well, and will bring a familiar environment right into your backpack. Installing the software and peripherals that you're used to having around on larger computers shouldn't be a problem either, within the limits of the netbook's less powerful performance.

There's more variation with Linux, with most manufacturers customizing an already-existing distribution with the aim of making it more accessible. Going beyond the basics to customize your computer or install your own software does require a minimum of technical knowledge.