Netbook indecision crisis!
July 10, 2011 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Buying a netbook, but can't decide which one. Do you have one you love? One you hate? What's the best way to decide when all of the specs are same-same-but-different?

I'm planning to replace my recently-deceased ThinkPad with a netbook, but have become completely paralyzed with indecision. I have literally spent hours standing in shops, eyeing up my options. Please, please help.

I'll be installing Ubuntu Linux, and I can tweak it a bit, but I don't want to have to work TOO hard to get everything working. It will mainly be used for web browsing, word processing, watching videos, organising a vast collection of mp3s, and some photo editing with the GIMP. I don't play any video-intensive games, and don't edit or encode media.

I'm planning to use this netbook as my sole computer for about 6-8 months, or possibly longer, until I make an international move, get settled, and assemble a desktop. I'm pretty sure I want to go netbook, not notebook--I want the lower price, extra portability, and longer battery life, and don't think I need the extra speed of a full notebook.

I must be able to get this netbook in Australia, preferably from a brick-and-mortar store, because it's sale season. Online ordering is OK too if it's a good deal, but I don't want to wait for months. I would prefer to have an international warranty. My budget is $400 maximum.

tl;dr, but what I need help with is:
- Is there a brand I should trust? A brand I should NOT trust?
- Will I notice the difference doing basic stuff on a dual core processor? And is AMD a good option, or should I stick to Intel?
- Or should I just buy the prettiest one with the nicest keyboard and be done with it?
- Am I making a mistake, here? Should I really be buying a laptop after all?
posted by equivocator to Technology (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the step down from Laptop to Netbook is much, much steeper than Desktop to Laptop. I had a Lenovo S12 ION for about 18 months, and it was serviceable, but I could really feel it slow down with every new tab I opened in a browser. Literally every new tab - not just when I hit 8 or 10. "HD capable" netbooks often aren't really, as well, even those with a discrete GPU or ION setup can really chug along, stutter horribly, or give pitiful framerates while technically "playing" the HD content.

All this is to say that you probably want to spend more hours standing in shops and stressing potential candidates to the extent that you'll actually use them day-to-day before you make a decision. A $400 used/outlet laptop may be a better investment, but if you really are a light user, a netbook may work.
posted by Rallon at 9:14 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am typing this on Samsung N120. It's fine, but they don't make them anymore except in cheesy pastel colors.

And Rallon is right, even for "just web browsing" it's barely capable. HD videos on Vimeo are just not happening- I have to turn the HD off to watch them at all.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:22 PM on July 10, 2011

Response by poster: I wouldn't really call myself a light user (8 tabs is a quiet moment for me), but I don't give a fig for HD. Are netbooks really going to feel slow with multiple browser tabs? I haven't had much luck testing this as none of the ones I've been staring at in shops have an internet connection.
posted by equivocator at 9:28 PM on July 10, 2011

I have an Asus 1002HA eee PC (bought 3 years ago) and it's my primary computer. I really love it. True, I also have to turn the HD off on Vimeo videos, but for everyday tasks (internet, Office, iTunes, Picasa, Hulu, etc) it's really great. I am a big guy with big hands and the keyboard has been no problem.

Now, I was stepping down from a 4-year old iBook, so it seemed like a step UP in speed. But really, this thing is a joy to use and when it dies, I will replace it with another netbook.

Plus, it was like $350, which is great.
posted by rossination at 9:28 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

To answer your question, this feels fine with multiple tabs. I have 10 open right now and it's not flinching.
posted by rossination at 9:30 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: Huh, I have 20 tabs open on my 2+ year old HP Mini and it's totally happy. Word is also open in the background. It's my only computer, and has been through some pretty full on work-type-stuff. I have and run Photoshop and Image Ready on this thing, and although they take a while to start and mean I can't really put any other massive software programs on the Mini, it's fine. I do also have the full Windows Office suite and assorted other regular programs. Honestly, I don't notice a difference when if I use my wife's full-size Sony laptop. I love this thing and it feels solid and well built with a nice keyboard. It came from Best Buy (booo, but they were cheapest) and I have no clue what models are currently out there.
posted by crabintheocean at 9:52 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a Dell Inspiron Mini and I really like it. I haven't noticed any slowing with multiple tabs open. I just bought it a few months ago and it seems to run well, is lightweight, and is my primary computer. The keyboard and mousepad are comfortable; however the one beef I have is that the mousepad is extremely sensitive; good for somethings, but when typing if I hit the mousepad the curser jumps forward in the text and this gets annoying. However i recommend the computer overall.
posted by bearette at 10:04 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've also owned a Samsung N120, and would generally recommend it (and its descendants) over its prettier brethren.

Make sure to check Ubuntu's netbook compatibility page once you start narrowing down your options, too.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:18 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a Samsung NC10 and I love it. The 10" matte screen and full-sized keyboard where the biggest draws for me, as well as the really long battery life (7hrs on lowest brightness). Kinda miss having a NUM pad though.

The netbook came with 1 gig of RAM, but for like $25 you can get a 2 gig stick and just swap it out pretty easily (hardest part was trying to find a small enough screwdriver to open the back to put the memory in). So I've had no problems watching Netflix or Hulu videos on it.

Basically everything you listed you wanted to to, you can totally do on the netbook, except I would be wary doing photo editing on it - mainly color correction. I tried doing a bit of graphics on my netbook and I noticed that the display colors tend to be washed out a little.
posted by littlesq at 10:20 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use an MSI Wind U123 running Ubuntu 10.04 as my sole computer. (It was well-reported in the netbook compatibility list linked upthread.) I do all the things in your list except GIMP and do not have performance complaints (except for vimeo, which this thread has taught me the reason for). So in answer to your last question, I do not think you are making a mistake.
posted by stebulus at 12:00 AM on July 11, 2011

I love my Asus eee, same model as rossination I think. It's definitely in the 1000 series.

The one upgrade I did was to take out the RAM and put in the maximum memory of 2GB... the 1GB it came with wasn't quite enough. This necessitates a minor BIOS tweak to get it to recognize the additional GB but it was very simple - point, click, and reboot.

I've been using my eee as my primary computer since my laptop died about 2 months ago. Once you get used to the smaller keyboard, and maximizing your browser screen on certain sites, it's fine.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:14 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Asus eee. I got the 10-inch about three years ago, right after it came out; maxed the memory; have used it a whole lot since then... to include hauling it to and around Kuwait, which is an extremely hot, dusty environment. The damn dust gets every freakin' where, but it didn't faze the computer.

I can stream stuff with a slew of tabs open, have Word and a photo-editing program running and there are no problems.
posted by ambient2 at 12:52 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a Samsung NC10, which is a couple years old now but still going strong. From what I've heard from various other people I know who got netbooks around the same time, the Samsungs have lasted longer and been more reliable than the Eee ones. But that is for netbooks bought 2-3 years ago, and I can't really speak for any of the current brands/models.

However, I really would not use it as a main computer. I am mostly a desktop user, so I only use the netbook when I'm travelling or need to do any work away from my PC, and there is definitely a big difference. Obviously that is to be expected with a good PC vs. a relatively old netbook, but I find it incredibly frustrating. It does me fine for the light, occasional use, which is what I bought it for, but I really doubt I could cope if it was my only computer. I am now in a position where I am going to have to use it more often (away from the PC more) and I am planning to replace it with a laptop (albeit one of the smaller, lighter ones).
posted by maybeandroid at 1:07 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just bought my second netbook, a Samsung NC210, because my first, a three year old MSI Wind U 100, was beginning to show its age.

Meanwhile, the MSI is still in use, I hooked a large monitor on it, I just won't travel with it anymore.

Because its light travelling weight, ánd still having more computer power than a smartphone, plus a keyboard, is the main reason I am so happy with this type of computers.

Mind you, Windows 7 starter edition, which is the OS those netbooks come with nowadays, doesn't allow you to use both screens at the same time once you hook up an external monitor. Other OSes don't have this problem.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:06 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've had an Eee 1000 for about a year now, and I've often used it for extended periods of time as my main machine. Multiple browser tabs don't phase it and I've done things in GIMP when necessary. In fact, I've done most of the things you mention as use cases. FWIW, most of the time I was also running Ubuntu Linux.

Will I notice the difference doing basic stuff on a dual core processor?

If you don't demand quite as much of a netbook as you would a notebook or desktop (cut down on your multitasking a bit) then you'll be fine. One thing in particular I notice is that lots of Flash-based web pages contribute more to slowdown than they would on a notebook. That's more the fault of Flash. You can always tweak your browser to stop Flash loading automatically if you ever find that to be a problem.

Is there a brand I should trust? A brand I should NOT trust?

Personal experience tells me to trust Asus and not trust Acer. YMMV.

Essentially, the two biggest issues for you are likely to be the screen size and the keyboard. Try and get the largest possible without compromising on portability, but also check out the display quality. My eee's screen is nowhere near as good as my notebook's. If you're going to be using this as your main machine and you don't plan to use and external monitor, really, really prioritise the screen in your decision-making.

With the keyboard, look especially for any unusual locations for certain keys. On my eee, the arrow keys are in a stupid location, and it drives me nuts sometimes.

If you feel like maxing out the performance of your eventual purchase, consider installing the lighter (and now official) Ubuntu variant Lubuntu. It'll work with your hardware just the same as vanilla Ubuntu, but without quite the ridiculous resource overhead that all the prettiness requires these days. You can use the performance saving on lengthening battery life or running more applications, and you really don't need to do any tweaking.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 4:01 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a 2-year-old HP Mini. Would not recommend. I know it's about as cheap a computer as you can get, but things like the hinge breaking after only a few months of use, or keyboard keys breaking off, are not OK. The wifi card did not work out of the box with Ubuntu -- needed to download an extra driver. But that was 2 years ago, so it's worth checking a more recent compatibility list.

One recommendation: have you considered more netbook-friendly variants of Ubuntu? I was having trouble with mine (it would stutter when running YouTube videos, for example -- not occasionally but every 3-4 seconds) until I installed Peppermint.

I would definitely buy a netbook again. I'm just not going to carry around something that weighs 6 or 7 pounds, and surprisingly I always found that I had enough memory for browsing with multiple tabs, etc. (At least until the most recent Ubuntu releases, which seem a lot harder on low-memory computers).
posted by Jeanne at 4:01 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the Asus eee H...something. Anyway, i use it as my primary computer, pretty much. I use it to watch shows on Netflix and Hulu, browse the internet, and use Word and Excel. I'm very happy with it.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:12 AM on July 11, 2011

I have an Asus 1002HA eee PC (bought 3 years ago)
Nthing the Asus eee.

Our eee died the moment the warrantee ran out. And if you need to use the warrantee, they make you pay for shipping one way.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:53 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Asus 1002HA. Sorry yours didn't work out Obscure Reference.

I recommended one to my ex, she loved it last time we talked. Asus has always been good to me, both on the motherboard front and the netbook front. MSI, not so much.
posted by teabag at 5:15 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You want a netbook that is using the latest AMD netbook chipset (branded as AMD Fusion.) They're currently the top netbook performers, and are purportedly vast improvements over the Intel Atom line.

Engadget gave their seal of approval to HP's dm1z, which is on special from HP directly.

I'm seriously debating replacing my aging Asus 1000HE with the dm1z, if that helps.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:25 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing Samsung NC10, if you can get it. In the past 2 years I had one major freakout when the motherboard died (in the last week of warranty!). Otherwise, all issues seem to be due to Windows. At the moment, it is my only computer, and I plan on upgrading soon, but as a half-year stop-gap it is an eminently sensible choice.
posted by dumdidumdum at 6:46 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the keyboard being an issue for some people let me make the case for caring about the position of the mouse buttons. Mrs. mmascolino has a tiny Thinkpad that I occasionally use and the fact that the mouse buttons are on the bottom edge of the case drives me up the wall. If I am reclining on the couch and have the computer perched on my lap I will randomly depress the mouse buttons with my stomach as I move around. That's irritating.
posted by mmascolino at 11:09 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am writing this on a recent HP Mini. I am very happy with its performance and Linux compatibility. I put 2GB of RAM in it and it is zippy. Currently running Linux Mint, which is a somewhat tweaked Ubuntu Natty that's using the old style Gnome, not Ubuntu's Unity interface.

What does bug me about this Mini is the sockets for peripherals -- the Ethernet socket is scarily difficult to get the jack out of, the USB sockets offer a LOT of resistance to the jack, both feel as if they're not robustly supported within the case.

Different people have different and strong opinions about keyboards. It is really worth experimenting in a showroom.

I am really enjoying using Xmonad as a window manager. (To be clear that's not Linux Mint's default window manager, I've installed it since). Tiling window managers are awesome on netbooks and you should check them out.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:32 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tiling window managers are awesome on netbooks

I'll second this -- I use wmii on the Ubuntu netbook I mentioned above, and it's grrrreat.
posted by stebulus at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So, it sounds like Asus and Samsung are the most popular picks, and with least complaints. I'm really interested that nobody has mentioned Toshiba--some of their netbooks have great reviews and I was considering one of their models.

I'm definitely going to be picky about the keyboard and touchpad, and I'll add the screen to that list, too.

Thanks also for the recommendations of lighter Ubuntu flavours/alternate window managers. My laptop was still running Feisty Fawn, so I'm not up on Unity etc... I'll check out Lubuntu and Peppermind, because all of the snazzy Compiz antics sound like something I won't like.

In general, feeling very reassured about the choice--great to know there are many satisfied netbook users out there. Thanks for the answers, all!
posted by equivocator at 6:50 PM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, and by the way, namewithoutwords, I did look at an HP dm1z (I think that was the model--looks the same on the HP site) in a shop the other day, and it was HOT (as in hot to the touch). I'd watch out for that before purchasing one. It was just sitting there running a shop screensaver and it was veeery toasty.
posted by equivocator at 6:53 PM on July 11, 2011

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