But how do today's feather-light notebooks measure up in features and performance?
With all the fuss being made about netbooks, you’d think they were God’s gift to computing convenience. Sure, there’s something to be said for those low-cost, low-power machines, but what if you actually need to get some real work done? There’s nothing convenient about being hobbled by an anemic processor, a relatively low-res screen, a shrunken keyboard, and the various other compromises that contribute to a netbook’s cost savings.
For extreme portability in a machine that packs a punch, you’ll need to set your sights higher, to an ultraportable notebook. Ultraportable notebooks are every bit as light, or lighter than, a netbook, with the added benefit of superior features and a more powerful processor. As a general rule, you’ll find your hardiest ultraportables among the business-class models, which are made for both regular travel and all-around productivity. Of course, convenience of this caliber comes at a premium price—usually four to five times the cost of the average netbook.
Thus, choosing an ultraportable is not a decision to be taken lightly. To help you out, we gathered up four elite representatives of the class and put them through rigorous testing. Obviously, we can’t expect any ultraportable machine to have the muscle required for chores like video editing, batch transcoding, or serious gaming. But we do expect these notebooks to accomplish the gamut of typical day-to-day tasks, including photo editing, slide-show creation, and multitasking. And we expect them to offer all the comfort and features necessary for full-fledged computing on the go.
Despite the merits of an ultraportable notebook as a serious productivity tool, there will no doubt be folks still intent on getting a netbook for their all-purpose computing needs—the prospect of a four-fold cost savings can lead to all manner of crazy thinking.
To make the comparison a little more vivid, we looked at how our current favorite netbook—the $400 Asus Eee 1000HE (reviewed in June)—holds up to the ultraportables in this roundup. The benchmarks alone are pretty damning. While the best ultraportables took a little more than 30 minutes to create a slide show using ProShow, the 1000HE took nearly two and a half hours! Similarly, the 1000HE was two to three times slower than the ultraportables at running our Photoshop script. And while we’re impressed that the netbook could achieve 58fps in Quake 3, that’s not even close to the performance of its ultraportable brethren.
What this all means in real-world terms is that you’ll be doing a lot more waiting and a lot less working if you follow the dough. And that’s not even taking into account usability issues such as the keyboard, touch pad, and screen real-estate—which are all noticeably smaller on the 1000HE and sure to hold you back to some degree. Shoot, the 1000HE might offer superior battery life, but you’ll need every minute of that gain just to bridge the productivity gap, essentially cancelling out the benefit.
There are just no two ways around it: While a netbook might be fine for futzing around on the net and sending emails, it’s not the right tool for regular and varied computing.