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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.

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.

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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.

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