A few years ago, SUVs were riding high, with throngs of the massive gas-guzzlers clogging the highways. Compact cars were considered wimpy and passé. Fast-forward to the present day and suddenly small is back in style. It’s not the size that matters, as the saying goes, it’s what you do with it. Since the advent of Asus’s Eee PC, manufacturers have been racing to bring tiny, low-powered laptops, also known as netbooks, to the market. You probably won’t use a netbook as your primary computer: limited storage space, integrated graphics, and the lack of an optical drive make them unsuitable for any really intensive tasks. But as small, eminently portable word-processing and Internet-browsing devices, netbooks hit the price/performance sweet spot for many people. By the end of 2008, more than 8 million netbooks will have been shipped.
In just the past several months, the netbook market has gone from nonexistent to immense, with dozens of models out already, most of them built around Intel’s low-voltage Atom processor, but some on VIA’s C7-M.
For this roundup, we chose three Atom-based netbooks running XP from three different vendors at three different price points to determine what this new category of portable PCs is capable of and how much price figures into performance. Ultimately, we aim to answer whether this new breed of portable PC is something we should even care about.
Simply put, our standard benchmark suite won’t run on these netbooks—installing Photoshop alone took more than an hour, and the results were noteworthy only for their excruciating slowness. So we asked ourselves, “What would we use a netbook for?” Web browsing—clearly they’ll all do that. Word processing? More than capable. Playing movies? Granted, there’s no optical drive but that can be worked around. Gaming? We’d never expect one of these machines to run a graphics powerhouse like Crysis, but we’d like to believe there’s some level of gaming to be played.
Here’s how we went about testing the wee machines.
We kept our standard benchmark suite’s Photoshop script as an easy point of comparison between the netbooks we’re testing here and the beefier processing power of our more usual fare.
As we do with all notebooks, we tested the battery life of these netbooks by playing a video continuously until each machine ran out of juice. Since each netbook shipped with a different DVD media player (and no optical drive), we leveled the playing field by installing a player that none of them shipped with: CyberLink Power DVD 8. Normally, we’d use a 7.17GB DVD rip of Magnolia for this purpose. Trouble was, the Asus Eee 901’s 12GB of storage, which is divided between a 4GB and 8GB drive, didn’t supply sufficient space for the file. So we grabbed an episode of The Rockford Files (a 1GB, 46-minute-long variable-rate VOB file) and played it on repeat on each machine, at 50 percent screen brightness and 50 percent volume, until the batteries gave out. And now we hate that episode.
Note: We reviewed all netbooks as shipped. This means the MSI Wind and Acer Aspire One shipped with three-cell batteries, as is standard, while the Eee shipped with a six-cell battery.
So as not to set the gaming bar too high, we turned to Quake Live, a still-in-beta, free web-based version of Quake III, which came out nine years ago.
H.264 is a popular video codec, but it requires a decent bit of power to render. We used a 1.92GB MPEG-4 of Return of the King, played from the desktop, and looked for any sort of stuttering, skipping, or hesitations.
All the netbooks we tested run Windows XP, but they all have siblings that run Linux. The first netbooks shipped with Linux only, but as the category grew in popularity, so too did demand for a more familiar operating system. Vista is too resource-intensive (although some netbooks, like the MSI Wind, offer it as an option), but XP is stable and was built to run on this caliber of hardware.
But is XP the best operating system for a netbook? Most common netbook tasks—browsing, document editing, playing media, even using VoIP—aren’t Windows-exclusive. There are Linux apps that do all of these things, and netbook manufacturers include them with the customized Linux distros loaded onto their machines. We rely on Windows to run certain applications that don’t necessarily have Linux equivalents: games, media-creation software like Adobe Creative Suite 3, and so forth. But will you really be using these types of apps on a netbook?
Netbook manufacturers have taken pains to make using Linux more intuitive—Acer and Asus have custom Linux front-ends with easy access to OpenOffice, Firefox, the Evolution mail client, Pidgin, and telephony and media-player applications.
We can’t think of anything we use a netbook for that we couldn’t do with Linux. And if it shaves 50 or 100 bucks off the price of the machine, why not go with the open-source OS? It might just be your first step into the larger world of Linux.
In the end, we were impressed by all three contestants in this roundup; all felt zippier and more capable than we initially expected, though our expectations were pretty low. We didn’t expect these machines to be able to run Photoshop at any speed, for example, and several editors were surprised to see them play H.264 video seamlessly. We were a little disheartened that none of the netbooks would play Quake Live, but there is still gaming to be had—you can load up old 800x600-resolution 2D games like Starcraft and Fallout 2 to take on the road, given an external optical drive for the initial installation.
The title bout in this roundup is between the Acer Aspire One and the MSI Wind U100. Sorry, Eee, we loved your battery life, but between your miniscule storage, cramped keyboard, absurdly slow Photoshop score, and the fact that you’re $600, you’re not winning this match. So that choice is relatively easy.
What’s harder, though, is choosing between two very good netbooks for the top prize. Both machines have near-identical specs and benchmark scores, which is nice but makes the choice between the two more difficult.
We really liked the MSI Wind—it was the most comfortable machine to use, and we appreciated its slightly larger screen size and its matte LCD finish. We preferred its touchpad to the Acer Aspire One’s, which has its buttons on either side, not at the bottom like God intended. But the fact remains that its hard drive is only 80GB, compared to the Aspire’s 120GB, and the Aspire slightly outperforms the MSI in every benchmark. Oh, and the Aspire’s $150 cheaper. We’re just not sure that that slight additional level of comfort is worth the extra cash. Even if it is, USB mice are cheap; you can bypass the Aspire’s touchpad entirely and still have enough money to augment the machine with a six-cell battery or two.
So we’re torn. You’re probably not going to use a netbook as your primary heavy-lifting machine—the sparse screen real estate, integrated graphics, lack of an optical drive, and limited processor and RAM speeds ensure that. But if you need a small, easy-to-use, and decently fast machine to take on the road, a netbook is a good bet—a mainstream notebook at the same cost will get you better performance, but at the price of portability.
Regardless of which you prefer—the Aspire One or the MSI Wind—you’ll want to throw down for a six-cell battery. Otherwise, with just two hours of battery life, what’s the point?