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Can a Netbook Do Business?

Introduction and Conclusion

This story is going to piss just about everyone off, from the not so gentle readers among you to the makers of netbook and notebook PCs. You see, I have this fascination with netbooks as cool, lightweight, inexpensive business PCs. I’ve already written about this idea. So, why write more? Well, in this article I compare a solid netbook with a solid business notebook. The netbook is ASUS’ 1008HA Eee PC, which is also known in some circles as the “Seashell”. I wrote briefly about the Seashell a while back. The notebook is HP’s EliteBook 2530p.

The data table on the next page compares the two mobile PCs on a number of features and measures. Before turning you loose on the table, allow me to make and clarify some points. These points, if nothing else, might keep you from wasting energy getting pissed off about the contents of the table. Also, aside from the table, the rest of this page is all there is. I've rolled the introduction and conclusion into a nice single page ball. So, please seriously consider reading on.

The EliteBook 2530p defines the small business notebook genre. It is extremely well made and rugged for a portable PC. Like an airplane it has an aluminum skin wrapped around a magnesium frame, as opposed to the plastic frames and outer skins found on most netbooks. It’s also filled with strong security features and a much faster Core 2 Duo processor, instead of the old netbook standbys, the Atom N270 or N280 or VIA equivalent. The 2530p’s graphics processor is more powerful than the 1008HA Eee PC. It also has more memory and lots of networking capability, including broadband with support for the new Gobi network-technology agnostic standard. And, the 2530p can be had with a real 3 year business computer warranty, which shows HP's confidence in the components the EliteBook is built from.

The 1008HA has a couple of unique design features or flaws, depending on what you plan to do with it. In order to achieve a sleek, really thin seashell-like design, ASUS chose to pretty much seal the netbook so that end-user access to the computer's innards is pretty near impossible, at least without clear instructions for opening the case or breaking something. Though, it might be comforting to know that inquiring minds are less likely to fiddle with internal components, IT staff aren't going to be happy being unable to easily add another gig of memory or replace broken disk drives. I didn't have the nerve to try to open the case beyond removing the four exposed screws. The case still didn't open at that point and I could see a number of case and motherboard parts that were stymying my efforts to get inside.

Another feature or flaw of the ASUS' case design has to do with the flimsy plastic doors that cover the I/O ports. They are going to break off as many users struggle to open them wide enough to shove USB cables or devices into the slots. I have a rather thick Corsair 32 GB USB flash memory device. It wouldn't fit into the narrow space left after the door was open. I don't expect it would fit in even if I removed the door. I had to use a USB extender cable to connect the Corsair device to the 1008HA.

At the time of this writing, our test EliteBook's price was about 3.7 times as much as the ASUS 1008HA. So, can business computing shops save some bucks and still provide their users with a decent mobile computer that lets them get their work done? The answer is yes, with a number of strong caveats. The HP performed 2.3 times faster in PassMark’s summary rating.  Its battery also lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the 1008HA’s 225 minutes under Battery Eater Pro 2005. More on testing below. Speed has its costs, still with its larger keyboard and larger higher resolution display, I would have no problem handing the EliteBook to any business user for any reasonable end user application.

The 1008HA should be fine for users who can live with slower performance and a smaller, lower resolution display. I have successfully used OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird and Google Docs on a number of netbooks. For me, Microsoft Office is too slow on an Atom-based PC. In the final analysis, this iteration of the Eee PC and most other current netbooks should be happiest running Google’s newly announced Chrome web-based operating system or Phoenix Technologies’ similar HyperSpace OS for laptops and notebooks. The 1008HA is somewhat underpowered for net-based applications such as Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite, where Microsoft urges the use of local copies of some Office applications. However, I expect that Microsoft’s even more newly announced web-based Office suite will be right at home on netbooks.

Finally, a note about testing: Rather than running tons of “real world” tests, I decided to focus on PassMark’s Performance Test 7.0 benchmarking software and, for battery life, on Battery Eater 2005 Pro 2.70. Performance test runs a set of CPU, graphics, disk drive and memory tests, producing a result for each test, along with a summary performance measure. I present only the summary Performance Test measure here. Battery Eater Pro 2.70 doesn’t play gently with mobile computers. Rather it pushes them hard to assure that their batteries are exhausted as quickly as possible. A full-screen graphic image of a rotating battery is displayed throughout the test, and the disk drive and CPU are also exercised extensively.

So, the battery life you see with Battery Eater Pro is not what you can expect in the “real world”. While you might not see the manufacturer’s claimed life when doing tasks on these two mobile PCs, you’ll get a lot closer to that measure than you will to the Battery Eater Pro results. The program puts the same stress on all batteries. So, you can look at Battery Eater Pro numbers as indicative of the relative life you can expect from any set of tested batteries.

During Performance Test 7.0 benchmarking each notebook was AC powered, with SpeedStep enabled for the CPU. For the Battery Eater Pro tests, the following settings were in effect:

  • Power Settings: Standby off, Display set to not turn off, turn off hard disk drive after 10 minutes
  • No screen saver
  • No USB devices connected
  • Display brightness set to mid-point
  • WiFi On
  • Bluetooth Off
  • Battery Eater Settings: 1024x768 32-bits, Full Screen

Another feature or flaw of the ASUS' case design has to do with the flimsy plastic doors that cover the I/O ports. They are going to break off as many users struggle to open them wide enough to shove USB cables or devices into the slots. I have a rather thick Corsair 32 GB USB flash memory device. It wouldn't fit into the narrow space left after the door was open. I don't expect it would fit in even if I removed the door. I had to use a USB extender cable to connect the Corsair device to the 1008HA.

Here's the special $1,599 pricing for the HP EliteBook 2530p configured exactly as the one reviewed here. Other configurations are listed below.