Netbooks for the helpless
December 7, 2012 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Help an easily confused person with netbook needs (or do I want a starter ThinkPad?) - some snowflake details inside. Particularly interested in 11" netbooks, but at a huge, giant loss about how to proceed - like, ridiculously helpless here.

So I have hitherto always used a 13" Mac laptop, but it's on its last legs. I'd like to nurse it along as a spare for home use but have a netbook for daily use. Daily use would be mostly reading the internet, downloading music and writing via something like Google Docs, and uploading pictures from my camera when I sell stuff on eBay. I would like to be able to make PDFs. (You can tell how device-savvy I am, right?)

I'm also really excited about having something smaller to carry around - my laptop is heavy! I do not think I want a tablet, because I want a device with an integral keyboard.

I have about $400 to spend for the laptop itself and could kick in some extra for more memory. I would like an 11" netbook since I have fairly large hands and find the smaller keyboards difficult. What do you recommend?

Next question: how do I add the memory?

I have read review sites but find them overwhelming and contradictory.

You're talking to someone who has an old boring non-touch-screen-y phone, no iPad, no tablet, nothing like that. I do not play games and generally watch movies on the teevee screen like an old fogey. So gear all your advice accordingly.
posted by Frowner to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I just got a chromebook but have been so busy that I haven't played with it much. I'll be interested to see what others recommend.

What would you need extra memory for?
posted by mareli at 7:52 AM on December 7, 2012

Next question: how do I add the memory?

When you decide on a laptop/netbook, Google for that model's service guide. The service guide should show you exactly how to replace the RAM and what tools you need to have. For almost every laptop or netbook, the procedure is exactly the same, just the positioning of the chip is different: take out the battery, pop off the back, and maybe pop off another piece of plastic, remove the RAM chip(s) and replace with the identical-looking one you bought.

(If by "memory" you meant hard drive space, then it's basically the same, but there may be some wires involved. Between the service manual, YouTube and AskMe, it shouldn't be any more of an issue than the RAM.)

Most likely you'll need some small Phillips screwdrivers and possibly a small Torx screwdriver. If you know of anyone hardware-inclined, they should have these things so you don't have to buy them. Otherwise iFixit (and many other companies) sell small toolkits. You can find them for cheaper than iFixit, most likely, but you can also google around for a coupon code for the iFixit one.
posted by griphus at 7:54 AM on December 7, 2012

Netbooks were sort of a bust. It's a marketing designation with no specs, and it generally means "a small Windows laptop where the manufacturers cheaped-out on everything."

That said, there are applications where it would fit and your requirements are not heavy.

Netbooks didn't do well because the top end of the market was covered by slightly-less-cheap laptops (including the new designation "ultra book") and the even more cheap tablets.

I know you said you weren't interested in a tablet, but I personally haven't seen much difference between a case-with-keyboard/tablet and a laptop, for typing purposes. You might want to check out a tablet with a keyboard.
posted by Mad_Carew at 7:56 AM on December 7, 2012

On the vast majority of laptops, adding more RAM is extremely easy. Youtube is full of videos on how to do it, and the process usually doesn't change from one model to the next unless you've got something with a particularly unusual design.

As someone who has owned a Netbook, I'd use that $400 to get an entry-level laptop instead. I quickly outgrew my netbook's capabilities and started pining for a full-sized machine. That's just me, though; if size is your primary concern, then a netbook might be the way to go for that kind of budget. (Netbooks today are also significantly more powerful than they were when I got mine, so you might not run into any problems.)

It's been a while since I kept track of the diminutive laptop scene, but a site like Lilliputing might come in handy. They seem to have a fairly comprehensive reviews section. Hopefully you'll see something there that catches your eye!
posted by anaximander at 8:02 AM on December 7, 2012

I have a netbook -an MSI Wind running XP that I bought it to write my Masters thesis. I'm rather fond of the stupid thing but I use my desktop for daily use. When I've lent it out, people complain about the small keyboard and screen - those are likely to be the biggest pain points, so do what you can to make sure you'll be alright with that (given that you're likely to get used to it either way). I found its small size to be an asset - I was able to type on the bus without interfering too much with my seatmates.
posted by blue t-shirt at 8:17 AM on December 7, 2012

The ThinkPad X series are some of the best ultracompact notebooks around, IMO. But they are not that much smaller than your 13" Macbook, really. (They're 12" display machines.) I don't know if you'd call them "netbooks" but I'm not really sure what that really means. "Netbook" originally meant ultra-low-power machines run on non-x86 architectures like the Asus Eee PC line, but they are basically a dead end and were rejected by the market after some initial enthusiasm. I think what you want is just a small-form-factor notebook.

Anyway: You do not want a "starter" ThinkPad, in the sense of any of their entry-level models. They're shit. E.g. any of the grey Lenovo (non-ThinkPad) ones, the X1 ... basically anything other than their main-line business machines. Buying anything else is like going into a steakhouse and ordering the fish. Nobody likes or liked them, you're going to have problems getting replacement parts, they're poorly built ... just ugh.

If I were in your position I'd get a used X220: built like a Soviet tank, 8+ hrs on a fresh battery, less than 4 lbs weight, and enough memory expansion room so it won't be a dog. It'd be a bit beyond your stated budget (best price I can find quickly is $750) but it would be a nice machine that would probably last you for a while. As a reference point, I have Thinkpads that do light internet duty that are pushing 8+ years old now. They just. don't. die.

For something a bit cheaper, you could go back a bit further and pick up a X200 (good cond. on Amazon run about $450), but they don't have a trackpad, only a TrackPoint, so make sure you're OK with that. I love the TrackPoint personally, but quite a few people hate it.

Or if you want something really cheap you can get an X100e for under $300. My understanding is that these machines were a bit of a dog though, with a single-core processor, but it'd probably be fine for the stuff you're thinking of doing with it. It doesn't have the solid metal roll cage of some of the other X-series models, so you won't be able to use it as a shovel or melee weapon like a true ThinkPad. But that also makes it pretty light. These machines were pretty popular as required-buy items for college/uni students a few years back so there's a fairly big supply of them around.

The only alternative to a ThinkPad that I'd personally recommend are the very small Dell Latitude line. I'm not familiar with their recent-model machines but (particularly if you're willing to blow away Windows and install Linux or ChromeOS or something lower-footprint) the D430 might be worth considering. Just be sure to immediately max out the RAM, since a lot of those machines came with XP and were under-spec'd originally in that department.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:18 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nthing the advice to avoid anything marketed as a "netbook." No matter how minor your computer needs, you will be frustrated by how slow, grindy, and cheap it is.

Look at a Chromebook or an affordable laptop/notebook instead.
posted by General Tonic at 8:22 AM on December 7, 2012

Don't get an x100e. Painfully slow (worse than Atom-based netbooks) and only about two hours of battery life.

If you want to go that way, spring for an x131e instead. Newegg has them starting at around $470. They do have good keyboards.

I have an x220, which is excellent, but if you get up into that price range, you might be happier with a refurb MacBook Air.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:29 AM on December 7, 2012

To correct Kadin2048, eeePCs do use x86 architecture processors - my 900A has an Intel Atom and I was able to install and run Win XP from a standard CD.

Some people complain about how slow netbooks are (mine has an SSD and its speed is perfectly adequate), but they can still do a hell of a lot more than any tablet - they are a real computer.

Also, I paid $160 for mine on special, then spent another $100 on the 16 GB SSD and upgrading the RAM to 2 GB.
posted by rfs at 8:34 AM on December 7, 2012

Similar question posted last month. Here's my slightly edited answer to that question.

I'm using an Acer netbook that I bought a couple of years ago for just $200—spent another ~$30 to switch RAM from 1GB to 2GB. (Upgrading is very easy and even cheaper now.) It's about 8" x 10", with an almost full-size keyboard, and very long battery life.

I usually carry a mini-keyboard that is about the size of the netbook, but a fraction of the weight (full-size layout, but minus the number pad and extraneous keys). I don't like laptop keyboards in general and the built-in keyboard/screen distance doesn't work well for me.

Disclosure re my biases/prejudices: the utility of a tablet it lost on me, I prefer not to carry a full-size laptop, and I'm not willing to pay the Apple premium.
posted by she's not there at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2012

I don't think I want a tablet, because I tend to lie in bed and contort myself oddly and type, and that looks like it won't work with tablets.

Okay, what about (and this is going against your advice, Kadin2048 - but I'm also looking into your suggestions) this HP Pavilion? It has a CD-burner, which I'd also like to have, and it seems to get good reviews. Is it likely to break? How slow is slow?

If I got a refurbished machine, how would I know I was getting a good one? I've often hesitated about that, since it seems like the machine casing itself is older and doesn't that make a difference? Also, does anyone have a reliable refurbished vendor they'd like to recommend? (I mean, a vendor of refurbished laptops, rather than a vendor which had itself been refurbished.)

See, I live in a world where we're all limping around on cheap or very old technology (my laptop dates to 2006) and generally don't do cutting edge things with it. We're all usually happy if we can send email and read things. So I heard about these "netbook" things back in 2009 or 2010 and in my brain that means that "netbook" is still the correct category and term.
posted by Frowner at 8:38 AM on December 7, 2012

I'd stay away from HP (and Dell,) personally. Their computers come pre-loaded with all sorts of crapware and bizarre issues stemming from custom hardware, and the physical quality of the laptops themselves leaves a lot to be desired.

Also, does anyone have a reliable refurbished vendor they'd like to recommend?

If you don't know much about this stuff, stick to only getting refurbs from the original company. So if you want a Lenovo refurb, get it from directly from Lenovo.

It has a CD-burner, which I'd also like to have...

A USB DVD burner will run you about $20-30; don't make any decisions based on it, especially as an optical drive adds to cost (the external will be cheaper because it doesn't have to fit the small form-factor of the laptop) and weight.
posted by griphus at 8:47 AM on December 7, 2012

We're pleased with this Samsung we got about a year ago. Our top considerations for a netbook were battery life (long), weight (light), and non-reflective screen for using outside. I find the keyboard pretty comfortable and definitely less difficult/awkward than I expected, but this is probably a ymmv thing.

We wanted it for light use, mostly for my husband to take on work trips, and for us to take out (outdoor cafe, etc.) when one of us still needed to be connected for work reasons, but we end up using it all around the house most days. It's my machine in the kitchen, the one my husband uses in bed, the one we take outside to sit in the sun, the one he brings with him to his workroom, the one that's actually used as a laptop on lap while lounging on the couch, since both of our oldish laptops stay pretty stationary and don't have the battery oomph to hang out. We have a tablet, too, but if we are going to be writing more than a squib, it's this little netbook we grab.
posted by taz at 9:18 AM on December 7, 2012

Well, this is all very helpful.

One of my housemates has an older Samsung netbook that he is very happy with for daily but lightweight use, so I might look into the one you recommend, taz. But I also like the idea of getting a reconditioned laptop from the original vendor (maybe the tiny model Macbook Air or one of the ThinkPads) and a plug in CD-burner.

I do have the option of putting more money into this and the reconditioned ones look promising.

Thanks everyone!

I would certainly look at more suggestions if people have them, though.
posted by Frowner at 9:55 AM on December 7, 2012

I'm a Mac/iPad/iPhone fanperson so my suggestion that you check out a Chromebook comes from superficial knowledge only. I'm hoping someone with experience can give more info.
posted by firstdrop at 10:38 AM on December 7, 2012

My very favorite small laptop is the ThinkPad 12" (I carried around for 2.5 years, about 3 pounds) and the 13" Macbook Air (also 3 pounds). But those are both well out of your price range, and probably way more powerful than you need.

reading the internet, writing via something like Google Docs, and uploading pictures from my camera when I sell stuff on eBay - A Chromebook can definitely do this. All these are things that don't require software. (I'm assuming you're not editing your photos beyond maybe basic cropping and color correction.)

downloading music - From what? If you're using bittrorrent (for anything), Chrome does not have very good support (as of a year ago). Android does, but you don't have a smartphone. If you're downloading from iTunes/Amazon, then you'll need to have either Windows or Mac. If you're downloading from websites (regular links), then a chrombook would work just fine.

I would like to be able to make PDFs - Again, this depends on how you're doing it. If you want to just make PDFs of things that would otherwise print, then Chromebook supports it (and all computers do). If you want to create it with LaTeX, there are some funky internet solutions, but I would recommend using a real OS (Windows/Mac/Linux). If you want to create it using the Adobe software, then you definitely need a Windows/Mac.

You mention you have large hands. I would not recommend an 11" computer. I had the 12" ThinkPad which has a GREAT keyboard layout, but it was still too cramped for some of my classmates. At work, they only offer 13" macbook air, not the 11", because most people cannot use it comfortably. I would urge you to buy something more in the 13" range, which is still easily portable (even for a girl of my size--5'2"), only about 1/3 to 1/2 pound heavier, but much more room both on the keyboard and the screen.

I'd also ask you WHY you want a CD burner. I have not used an optical drive since 2008 (and again, I work in the tech field, so my uses are probably very different). I don't miss it. (In fact, I accidentally got a coin wedged in one for about 2 years, and only realized something was in it because it was jingling.) I would urge you to get cloud-based data backup solution. Use Google Drive (aka Docs), Dropbox, a memory stick, or some other cloud solution to share your small-medium sized documents. The only reasons I see for burning CDs are if you want to make CDs for your car.

As for memory, you haven't clarified whether you mean RAM (what IT people mean when they say memory) or disk storage space. RAM can be easy or difficult to upgrade depending on the laptop/netbook you buy. I think you'd be better off buying 2G or 8G or however much you think you want.

If you want disk space, figure out how much you need. I would then add about 30% for growth, and because harddrives/laptops usually don't operate so well when they're very full (it has to do with splitting up a file into multiple tiny chunks, and it's like if you had to go to 7 different rooms every morning to gather ingredients for your breakfast--it'd slow you down).

In fact, if you have some extra room in the budget, I'd highly recommend you get an SSD harddrive. It'll be smaller (128G is the upper end of reasonably affordable) but they're much more impervious to you shaking and accidentally dropping the laptop. It'll be faster for both bootup, loading your files, and in general (especially if you don't have quite enough RAM). Of course, you should also back up your files, but this way, you're less likely to lose it in the first place. (Mostly, the shaking happens when people close their laptop but it doesn't sleep/hibernate/turnoff for some reason, and is actually on and trying to read from harddrive while the person is in transit. This is very bad for the harddrive.)

Hope that helps, and feel free to post here or memail me if you have more questions. I have used all of these laptops (and several others) that I mentioned.
posted by ethidda at 11:32 AM on December 7, 2012

If you want to go that way, spring for an x131e instead. Newegg has them starting at around $470. They do have good keyboards.

This was the best laptop I could find at this price. I picked one of these up a month ago for light internet, listening to music, and writing - specifically for travel. It works well for it.

It is very small, which makes using it when lounging a little awkward because it's hard to get the screen in view when it's so low. It chokes up if there's too much going on (my workhorse computers can handle so much more that I am used to multiple programs + browser tabs open). However, it's light, sturdy, with a great keyboard, and the battery really does last 8 hours. The ThinkPad brand - X and T-series - are absolutely excellent machines.

I would not really recommend something this small as a regular use computer, but rather an on-the-go option (it fits in my purse!). At home I still use my full-size computers 90% of the time.

I avoided a chromebook because there's lots of small programs I use and rely on that were built for Windows and there's no replacement for them on Chrome. You may or may not see this is a problem, but should probably take a good look at what kinds of things you like to install.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:43 PM on December 7, 2012

I just purchased this (Asus 10.1") for $185 including tax (the PINK used model was $169.95 + tax). It does everything my regular laptop does, but with no CD/DVD drive.

Can't go wrong with that even if you must factor in some extra for shipping.
posted by skbw at 4:05 PM on December 7, 2012

Now it's coming up "no longer available," but keep checking...more will come in. I use it not only for WP, spreadsheets, and the like, but also for this 3d graphics program I have, and it's great.
posted by skbw at 4:07 PM on December 7, 2012

I'm going to go against the grain here - I bought my netbook (an HP dm1z, which looks very similar to the one you posted) in April, and I absolutely adore it. (I got a big discount which can make all the difference, but if you're looking to save money, you can check out voucher code sites to find deals.) I had a ton of problems with the high-end Lenovo laptop I owned before, but as soon as I got my netbook, it became my primary machine.

I'm similar to you in that I'm not too worried about having the most up-to-date technology, but I also really like the dm1z because it doesn't have typical netbook specs - the one I got has 4GB RAM and is marketed as an ultrabook (though I wouldn't count it as one). It's also got a full-size keyboard, which is awesome. I take it almost everywhere (something I couldn't do with my previous laptop due to size/battery life) & it works perfectly for everything I need.

You know your own tendencies better than anyone else, so if your priorities are portability, battery life, & basic internet use - I would say a netbook could work really well for you. I get that tablets can be super irritating to type on, and I wouldn't want one either. Netbooks cop a lot of stick, and some of that is warranted, but the usefulness of any technology really depends on the lifestyle of the user. Good luck!
posted by littlegreen at 10:55 AM on December 8, 2012

Thanks everyone!

This all clarified for me that I really do want a Very Small Computer rather than a full-sized laptop or a tablet, but that I should probably get one with more capacity than I'd initially been planning.

(To answer a question: I like CD burners because I make CDs for my friends, I am just that out of date. But the idea of a plug in CD-burner is a good one.)

I think I'm going to throw a little more money at this and get a reconditioned 11" Macbook Air. I went and checked out the keyboard size, and while I would not want to do my daily work at an 11" keyboard, it felt comfortable enough that I was sure I'd be happy with it for internet commenting and casual writing. It will take an extra month before I can buy one, but that's okay.

Thanks again for all your advice!
posted by Frowner at 7:01 AM on December 10, 2012

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