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Cheap Netbooks Buying Guide

An instant hit when Asus debuted its first Eee PC system several years ago, netbooks are slick, functional, and getting cheaper and better with each new product release. Meanwhile, they've become pretty homogenized in terms of hardware features.

Most cheap netbooks have 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, a 10.1-inch screen, a handful of ports, Windows 7 Starter, and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi support. If you're just going by specs, there's usually not much that differentiates one cheap netbook from another. That being the case, netbooks sporting an unusual feature or two really stand out. For example, most netbooks use an Intel Atom N455 CPU, a respectable processor for a netbook. But some cheap netbooks have a CPU that gives their systems a little more pop, such as a dual-core Intel Atom 570 CPU or an AMD Fusion C-50.

Netbook Reviews
Netbook Operating System, Memory, and Graphics
Windows Netbooks

One common complaint about netbooks, cheap or otherwise, is that their small size necessitates a small keyboard. When test-driving a netbook, be sure to look for one with a keyboard that's still comfortable and easy to use -- it should provide good tactile feedback and have a solid feel. The touchpad is another important consideration -- it should be responsive and accurate, and the buttons shouldn't be too stiff.

A netbook's performance isn't going to blow anyone away, even if it includes better-than-average hardware. These little systems aren't designed to be powerhouses. You won't be playing 3-D games on them (at least not well), and they're not ideal for video editing or other PC tasks that require a fair amount of power. What you should expect from a cheap netbook, though, is a system that easily handles everyday computer tasks.

As netbooks get more expensive, their features, quite obviously, get better. Pricier netbooks often have larger hard drives and larger, higher resolution screens that support true HD video playback. Higher-end netbooks also tend to have more memory than cheap netbooks and may also have faster processors.

We set our threshold at a mere $320 and found a few solid systems. The hardware similarities among cheap netbooks are extensive, so the trick to shopping for one is to pay attention to the details. For example, Acer's Aspire One AO722-BZ454 (starting at $299) has a larger screen and faster CPU than most other cheap netbooks. According to reviewers, Toshiba's Mini NB505 (starting at $250) is another budget bargain, with long battery life and an easy-to-use keyboard. The HP Mini 1103 (starting at $317) gets a bit of a boost from its faster-than-average hard drive and the Gateway LT2805U (starting at $230) is another good cheap netbook despite its limited battery life. Asus is one of the most prolific netbook makers out there and its line of Eee PC netbooks are usually favorites among consumers, but the Asus Eee PC 1015B (starting at $299) garners mediocre reviews for performance. The HP Mini 210 (starting at $279) likewise delivers less-than-average performance, according to reviewers.

Netbook Reviews

Netbooks are similar in design and function to laptops, and that likeness extends to the components. Netbooks, like laptops, have CPUs, hard drives, memory, batteries, and so on. But most parts used in netbooks are lighter, smaller, more energy-efficient versions of what sits inside a laptop.

The netbook reviews that we read indicate that most netbook users are well pleased with their systems, and expert reviewers often have good things to say, as well. Consumers understand that the systems aren't designed to be laptop or desktop replacements; netbooks simply aren't that powerful, at least not yet. But by and large, netbook reviews express satisfaction with the way netbooks handle the basics, such as web surfing, email, word processing, and the like. Some, however, gripe about keyboard size, button positions, and battery life.

Even reviewers who note such issues still treasure these little computers because of their excellent portability and overall usability. Our read of netbook reviews revealed clear favorites based on performance: the Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454 (starting at $299) and Toshiba Mini NB505 (starting at $250) hold the lead, with the HP Mini 1103 (starting at $317) and Gateway LT2805U (starting at $230) following behind. Netbook reviews consider the performance underwhelming in the Asus Eee PC 1015B (starting at $299) and HP Mini 210 (starting at $279).

Netbook Processors.

Netbook processors are not as powerful as the CPUs found in most laptops or desktop PCs. This isn't a huge issue because most users don't run power-hungry, resource-intensive programs on their netbooks. The processors are, however, energy efficient, which helps conserve battery life.

Intel's Atom processor is the most popular CPU these days. Some version of the Atom is found in the majority of netbooks, the most common being the Intel Atom N455. The Toshiba Mini NB505, one of our favorites, is built around an Intel Atom N455 CPU and stands out for its speed and above-average overall performance when measured against industry benchmarking standards. A netbook review in PC World, however, stresses the need to first unload much of the preinstalled software from the startup routine because all those programs running in the background slow down the system; once you clean it up, the expert review continues, the Toshiba Mini NB505's performance is very good.

The runners-up for best budget laptop, the HP Mini 1103 and Gateway LT2805U, are mid-pack performers, according to netbook reviews. The single core Intel Atom N455 in the HP Mini 1103 helps to keep the model's price tag in the budget range, says Laptop Mag, and professional test results show its performance to be slightly above average. Its sibling HP Mini 210 likewise uses the Intel Atom N455 CPU, which can be upgraded to a dual-core Atom 570 CPU for about $35, but in its original form, expert reviews say the Mini 210 is comparatively slow to boot up and convert files.

Increasingly, netbook manufacturers are turning to the somewhat faster, dual-core Atom N570. The fact that the Gateway model has a dual-core Intel Atom N570 CPU doesn't significantly improve its performance over other models, however. An About.com netbook review notes the Atom N570 is an older technology whose second core provides just a blip more power.

Review continues below

AMD also offers a few processors for netbooks. The Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454, which sits at the top of our list, uses AMD's Fusion C-50 dual-core CPU, one of the faster CPUs available for netbooks. Despite a relatively slow boot-up time, Laptop Mag's review lauds the performance of the Aspire One AO722-BZ454, saying it's got more zip than most other budget models because it's one of the few to use the Fusion C-50. The Asus Eee PC 1015B features a slower AMD CPU, the Fusion C-30, which doesn't have quite as much oomph as an Intel Atom CPU. A netbook review in PC Mag describes the 1015B's performance as sluggish, while Notebook Review notes that even basic applications strain this netbook.

Netbook Hard Drives.

All the netbooks we researched feature a 250GB hard drive, which is typical even for pricier models. That amount of storage should be more than sufficient for most users, say netbook reviews, because it's unlikely you'll store a huge amount of data on your netbook. The hard drive on the HP Mini 1103 spins at 7,200 rpm, a speed that surpasses the 5,400 rpm of most budget netbook hard drives and a definite plus in the Mini 1103 column, says a netbook review in PC Mag.

One of the interesting things about the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook (starting at $430) is its SSD (solid-state drive) hard drive, as opposed to the traditional spinning hard drive found in laptops and desktop PCs. SSDs have advantages and disadvantages compared to spinning hard drives. On the plus side, they're very sturdy, which means you're less likely to lose data or damage the drive if you happen to drop your netbook (the netbook itself, however, is another matter). SSDs are also more energy-efficient and they process data very quickly. The Samsung Chromebook, for instance, can boot up from a cold start in just eight seconds, as opposed to the 60 or so seconds that a normal hard drive takes. On the other hand, SSDs have much less storage space and are more expensive than traditional hard drives.

Netbook Operating System, Memory, and Graphics

Netbooks Operating System.

The cheapest netbooks run Windows 7 Starter as the operating system, a lighter version of Windows 7 that's designed to work well with netbooks. Windows 7 Starter has most of the basic functionality you'd want from Windows 7 Home Premium, such as network support and the ability to play audio and video files. But Windows 7 Starter doesn't include the popular Windows Aero feature, so the user interface isn't as powerful or efficient, and you won't be able to change your desktop background. Also, Windows 7 Starter only supports up to 2GB of RAM.

A handful of mini netbooks use Windows 7 Home Premium, but most cost more than our $320 ceiling. One exception is our top pick, the Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454; a netbooks review says the beefier operating system on the Aspire One partially accounts for its laudable performance. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook takes an entirely different approach, using Google's Chrome OS as its operating system. The Chrome OS is basically an enhanced Google Chrome Web browser, and mini netbooks that run on Chrome are heavily web-oriented. Chrome netbooks don't run standard Windows programs; instead, they run web-based apps.

Netbooks Memory.

Laptop buyers typically look for 2GB to 4GB of memory (or RAM) in their systems, but nearly all the cheapest netbooks ship with just 1GB of RAM. Expert reviewers say this is sufficient for most netbook tasks, but if you watch online videos or run several applications simultaneously, performance may be adversely affected. Among the cheapest netbooks, the Acer Aspire One AO722 BZ454 is unusual for its 2GB of RAM, a feature that provides more leeway for more intensive use, such as browsing with multiple tabs open or running several programs at once. A good many consumers posting netbooks reviews on Amazon say upgrading this system to 4GB kicks it up several notches. The cost of an upgrade is usually $25-$40; the only model on our list that can be upgraded to 2GB of RAM when ordered is the HP Mini 210.

Netbooks Screen and Graphics.

Screens on the cheapest netbooks are wide and have a bit of an odd resolution, typically 1024 x 600, rather than the more familiar 1366 x 768 resolution found on laptops; the standard display 10.1 inches. The Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454, however, stands apart from the cheapest netbooks crowd with its 1366 x 768 resolution and 11.6-inch display. Small screens no doubt make for excellent portability, but the price of that convenience is a cramped, occasionally fuzzy view: Web browsing, video streaming, and low-level gaming just aren't as clear as on regular laptops.

The cheapest netbooks have only basic graphics capabilities, usually in the form of a modest Intel or Radeon video chip. This means they're not the best platform for graphics, gaming, or videos, which are pretty demanding of a system's graphics hardware, although they do an adequate job with YouTube videos and the like. The standard 1024 x 600 resolution isn't high enough to play true HD 720p video; the higher resolution of the Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454, however, is up to the task, according to a netbooks review on About.com. Some hardware manufacturers, such as Nvidia, are creating netbook components that will boost the graphics power of netbooks, but that's not a primary concern for users of the cheapest netbooks.

Windows Netbooks

Netbooks Battery Life.

Netbooks are designed to be used on the go, so battery life is essential to functionality. Windows netbooks typically include a power cord, so if you're using one at home, you can stay plugged in. But consumers don't usually want to be tethered when using a netbook, and given that netbook features are so similar, Hot Hardware says battery life is the most important thing to consider when shopping for a Windows netbook.

In the past, Windows netbooks typically came with a small, three-cell battery, but today, even the cheapest netbooks usually have a six-cell battery. Except for the Gateway LT2805U, that is, whose three-cell battery lasts only about three hours between charges, according to some users. Not surprisingly, the more cells a battery has, the longer it lasts between charges, and the upgrade to six cells has led to a significant increase in netbook battery life. Based on the reviews we've seen of Windows netbooks, all the six-cell models on our list can run for about seven hours. PC Mag's test of the HP Mini 210 finally came to an end after nearly 10 hours of run time.

Keep in mind that the way you use your netbook affects its battery life. If you run several applications at once, you'll drain your battery more quickly than if you run a simple word-processing application.

Netbooks Ports/Connectivity.

For the most part, cheap Windows netbooks are designed to be self-contained units, although it's still nice to be able to connect up with other devices. Today's Windows netbooks generally feature nearly identical port and connectivity options. For example, all of the Windows netbooks we researched have three USB 2.0 ports and support 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connections. Some netbooks, such as the Asus Eee PC 1015B, Asus Eee PC 1018P (starting at $350), Toshiba Mini NB505, and Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454, also include a card reader than can read a variety of flash memory cards, such as SD, SDHC, or MMC. The Acer Aspire One also has an HDMI output, something the other cheap Windows netbooks on our list lack.

Netbooks are too small to incorporate a CD or DVD drive, but you should be able to get by without one. If you feel you must have a CD or DVD drive for your Windows netbook, you can buy an external drive for $30 to $60 that connects to a USB port. Still, it's probably more convenient to use the netbook's flash card reader so you can easily shuffle files between, for example, your digital camera and Windows netbook.

Netbooks Keyboard and Touchpad.

The big appeal of Windows netbooks is their portability. But the cost of that pick-up-and-go quality is usability challenges. Reviewers often worry that netbook keyboards are too small and that interacting with the touchpad is too awkward, issues that surfaced with some of the cheapest netbooks we researched.

Because the cheapest netbooks are so small, you have to get used to using a downsized keyboard. Even so, you should beware of keyboards with super-small control and shift keys, and keyboards without function keys. Look for a keyboard that's easy to use despite its compact size; it shouldn't flex while you're typing -- at least not very much -- and the keyboard buttons should provide tactile feedback. In addition, the touchpad should be responsive and easy to manipulate. A netbooks buying guide on CNET recommends finding a netbook with separate touchpad buttons rather than a single button.

According to expert reviews, the HP Mini 1103 and Toshiba Mini NB505 keyboards are standouts in the cheap Windows netbooks category. In the case of the HP Mini 1103, PC Mag says the small keyboard actually feels more spacious because the surface of the keys is slightly raised; the touchpad offers multitouch options like pinching to zoom or two-finger scrolling although it seems a bit small. Laptop Mag says the terraced keys on the Toshiba Mini NB505's small keyboard let you know where you are when typing, the touchpad is large enough for easy navigation, and pressing either of the two mouse buttons requires no extraordinary pressure.

Assessments of the input devices on the other Windows netbooks we researched are mostly mixed. For all the appeal of the Acer Aspire One AO722-BZ454, one expert grumbles about typing errors that are pinned on the lack of feedback from the keys and some flexing in the keyboard; the reviewer notes, however, that the single-button mouse bar is sufficiently responsive. The keyboard on the HP Mini 210 earns a thumbs up from experts for its roomy feel; Engadget reviewers aren't fond of the small touchpad because the buttons are integrated into the touchpad itself, making them tricky to use. The keyboard in the Asus Eee PC 1015B fails to impress. Both PC Mag and Laptop Mag consider it too small, although they commend the responsiveness of the touchpad (as a side note, Engadget says the touchpad on the sibling Eee PC 1018P is too stiff). Inadequate spacing between the keys leads to typos with the Gateway LT2805U, according to user reviews at Office Depot. But the bigger gripe about this Windows model seems to be keys that stick or come loose within weeks of purchase.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Netbooks
  2. Discount Netbooks Features Comparison Table
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